Greetings from New Zealand! I’m presently en route from Marlborough to Gisborne and will be bopping around the North Island for the next ten days, hitting most of the major wine regions. This is my first time visiting the country, so I’m approaching kiwi wine with a wide-open mind, and an excited palate. So far, I’ve been fascinated by the diversity of wines I’ve experienced at the conferences I attended in Central Otago and Marlborough—far beyond what I regularly encounter of NZ wine in California. Expect some more formal New Zealand content in the coming months, but in the mean time, a few stray thoughts on these first two regions below, and I’ll continue to update every few days. And please send questions my way in the comments! I’ll pin down a winemaker and get you answers from here on the ground.
Far more diversity than California? I need some perspective here, because I think California, beyond the sterotypes, offers some of the most diverse wines in the world.
Sorry - poor wording. What I mean is far more diversity than what I encounter of NZ wine in California.
I'd love to learn more about the common strains of selected yeast that are used in New Zealand. Honest, open opinions about how much these strains have influenced the style and what we have come to understand as the 'terroir' of New Zealand would be interesting.
Hi Elizabeth! Great question and serendipitous timing - we just had a lecture on yeasts and reduction this morning in Gisborne, particularly as it pertains to Chardonnay. I caught up afterward with Dr. Rebecca Deed, lecturer in wine science at the University of Auckland. She said there are a handful of common yeast strains Marlborough/NZ producers will inoculate with for Sauvignon Blanc, namely those that release the three "positive" thiols (3MH, 3MHA, and 4MMP) that are considered varietal in NZ Sauv Blanc. Commonly used high thiol producing yeast strains include VIN 7, VIN 13, VR3, VR5, and X5. Producers trying to make more "reserve" or higher-end Sauvignon Blancs will likely rely on indigenous yeasts, and as a result, they'll have less of that "positive thiol," passionfruit-y character. (But, this is coupled with alternative vinification and viticultural practices that will also change the wine's profile--hand harvesting, lower-yielding viticulture, barrel fermentation, etc.). Interestingly, many of these selected yeasts will also be used for other grapes, like Chardonnay, and impart some of those same characters we associate with New Zealand Sauv Blanc. So in short--yes, a portion of what we consider New Zealand typicity derives from or is enhanced by the yeasts.
Some thoughts from Gisborne and Hawke’s Bay!
-I spent a couple nights in Gisborne, a wine region I was almost entirely unacquainted with, for the New Zealand Chardonnay and Sparkling Wine Symposium. The area has one of the largest Māori populations, and it was absolutely wonderful getting to engage with that culture. We spent a lovely evening on a marae—a Māori meeting ground—and were taught a haka, ate kumara, and all around had a great time.
-While so little Gisborne wine is available in the United States, their top winery, Millton, is. This biodynamic estate is fantastic, particularly their Chenin Blanc.
-The most widely planted clone of Chardonnay in New Zealand is Mendoza, which first arrived in 1971 and is believed to potentially be a form of Wente. It’s prone to leafroll 1, rather than 3, has plenty of shot berries, isn’t overly productive, and seems to make solid wines, grounded in a juicy orchard fruit profile. Clone 95, which gives off a bit more savory, earthy character, is also popular, as is UC Davis 15, which had examples I like for their tartness and precision. In 2006, Geoff Thorpe brought in a bunch of new Chardonnay cuttings, increasing New Zealand’s clonal diversity. From this batch, I quite liked the wines with some 548 clone, which offered a nice Muscat-like florality.
-Hawke’s Bay, and its main city Napier, is altogether a thoroughly lovely place to visit. More affluent than several of the other New Zealand wine region cities, as well as the on of the largest ports, Napier gives off serious wealthy beach town vibes. Napier was almost completely destroyed in a 1931 earthquake and fire, and as such much of the architecture is in the art deco style. It’s rather reminiscent of Miami that way, augmented by all the sun-kissed pastels. There are several wonderful places to eat, and I could not recommend the Craggy Range restaurant more (get the five spice mushrooms!).
-Merlot is Hawke’s Bay most planted grape, and many of its wines, as well as Cabernets and other Bordeaux-style blends, show strongly. While there’s a wide range of styles, they never seem too heavy-handed, and often come in around 13-13.5% abv. Not surprisingly, they have difficulty selling their Merlots on the US market, and still attribute this to Sideways-era backlash. As such, many of the Merlot blends receive a fantasy name.
-While only 350ha are in production, Syrah is the most impressive thing, in my opinion, to come out of Hawke’s Bay. Uniformly all of the wines I tried ranged from decent to excellent, with weight on the latter end of that spectrum. The relationship to Aussie Shiraz is interesting. They seem eager to market themselves as far away from that category as possible, and some of the vintners attribute Hawke’s Bay as an influence for Australia’s pendulum swing to a more restrained style (as well as a rebrand from Shiraz to Syrah).
-Gimblett Gravels continues to carry serious marketing power for Hawke’s Bay wines, and many of the examples I tried were very solid. When looking at the soil, it’s easy to understand how exceptional the drainage is, and just how far down the roots have to go to access water. In some areas the gravel stretches down 60 feet. Nonetheless, winemakers in Hawke’s Bay urge consideration of the other sub-areas of Hawke’s Bay, with particular enthusiasm for the Bridge Pa Triangle, Gimblett Gravels’ neighbor. Indeed some of the best, and often more nuanced, wines I tried came from Bridge Pa, whose soils are the oldest in Hawke’s Bay.
Thanks for this recap, Bryce! I'm now eager to try Hawke's Bay Syrah. Any producers that you know are exporting to the US and worth seeking out?
Trinity Hill, for sure! Their Homage bottling is crazy good and is on the west coast (not sure nationally, but I suspect it can be found....also, somehow cheaper in America than NZ). I've seen their regular Hawke's Bay syrah in Portland, so suspect that isn't too hard to find, either.
And indeed, great recap. Good info for all of us to bridge the gap between the study guides and Jamie Goode's ultra-detailed blog posts.
Yes! Agreed - Trinity Hill Homage is delicious. Te Mata was also consistently one of my favorite producers across their range, and should be available. Craggy Range can be rather widely found, and their Gimblett Gravels Syrah is also very solid. One that doesn't leave New Zealand that I quite liked was Ash Ridge, and is worth seeking out for anybody traveling here.
And for those Bay Area natives - The Jug Shop on Polk Street in SF has a remarkable range of New Zealand (and Australian wines), including many producers that are trickier to find elsewhere.
Yes - I spend a lot of time showing we are more than Sauvignon Blanc!
I select the wines for NZ Wine Navigator - a direct to consumer NZ wine in the USA group. Some great local Syrah here! nzwinenav.com/.../
Hi Everyone! Back in California after a wonderful trip to New Zealand. Looking forward to sharing my thoughts through some more formal content in the coming months. In the mean time, a few notes on the final legs in Wairarapa and Auckland.
Thanks for reading along, and if you have any New Zealand questions, simply reply!