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Hello Everyone,

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.

  • Central Otago 4.0—We’re presently in what they’re calling the “4.0” phase of Central Otago. The 1.0 era featured the pioneers—Rippon, Gibbston Valley, etc.—who planted Pinot in the various corners of Central Otago. The 2.0 age lasted roughly from 1990 to 1998. Back then, Pinot Noir represented only one-third of the region’s plantings, but the wineries at this time helped build the hype of the grape’s potential here, predating the big swell of plantings to come. 2.0 brought vines to Bannockburn in the Cromwell Basin. The 3.0 phase represented the exponential growth of plantings, skyrocketing from 210 to 1,500 hectares between 1998 to 2008, with Pinot Noir leading the charge. It also saw the first grapes in Queensberry and Bendigo. The era was capped by the global financial crisis in 2008, with only one hectare planted the following year. And that leads us at 4.0, everything that has happened since then. What’s exciting is to see the vineyards from the 3.0 era begin to mature, since they encompass the vast majority of plantings.
  • “Explosion”—As MW Jasper Morris pointed out to us, Central Otago’s “explosion” of plantings isn’t really quite like other regions. Driving through, the vineyards don’t form one contiguous viticultural landscape—they just pop up here and there. He compared it to the Napa Valley, where it’s borderline impossible to plant a new vineyard. Marlborough, by contrast, is one massive blanket of SB (see the aerial view from just now on the plane, below). In short, Central Otago still has plenty of room for expansion.
  • Evolving Style—Like much of the wine world, Central Otago has witnessed a change in style, palpable when tasting the older wines, in recent years. They’re holding back on the new oak and picking earlier, not unlike what we’re witnessing with top California Pinot producers.
  • Central Otago Vintages—While obviously a big generalization, winemakers largely characterize the recent odd-numbered vintages as cold, and the even-numbered vintages as hot. Take it with a grain of salt, but it’s easy to remember and holds up well when tasting a bunch. Notably, 2019 seems to be off to a cold start for them (no veraison yet).
  • Central Otago Sub-Appellations—this seems to be a point of debate in the region. Some producers would like to get going on legally establishing these, while others feel it is jumping the gun.
  • Burgundy Exchange—Central Otago has just completed a 12-year intern exchange program with Burgundy. Each vintage, a quorum of New Zealand interns head north to the motherland, and six months later French interns cross the equator. It seems like, as in Oregon, the cross-national ties are strengthening. Check out Prophet’s Rock Cuvée aux Antipodes, made by de Vogüe’s François Millet.
  • Premium Sauvignon Blanc—There’s been a lot of conversation on how to bring New Zealand, particularly Marlborough, Sauvignon Blanc into the luxury tier. Most of the wineries make some sort of “reserve” or higher-priced Sauv Blanc, but exactly what the means varies widely. I assumed that these wines largely meant barrel aged or fermented—like Cloudy Bay Te Koko. In truth, there seem to be myriad ways wineries interpret making a reserve Sauvignon Blanc. Some are making single vineyard or single parcel wines (others believe staunchly in blending). Some are making reserve wine via native ferments, or through more stringent, lower yielding viticultural practices. Some allow for longer skin contact. What you don’t see much of is Sauvignon Blanc-Sémillon blends à la white Bordeaux, but Pegasus Bay makes a delicious one.
  • Aged Sauvignon Blanc—I’ve had the pleasure of tasting several dozen aged New Zealand Sauvignon Blancs this week. While I was always under the impression that these should be drunk up soon after release, some of them age extraordinarily well at 5, 10, even 15+ years. Many of the examples developed a pressed mint, and almost Riesling-like petrol character. Others didn’t fare so well. What I can’t tell you is why certain ones survive the long haul, while others don’t—I have yet to find a common thread by sub-region, vinification practice, etc.
  • Low Alcohol—There also is a small, but fascinating category of low alcohol (around 9%) wines. While designed for easy drinking, they’ve largely been delicious and taste complete for what they are. Check out The Doctors Sauv Blanc for a solid example.
  • Awatere vs Wairau—Again, a huge generalization, but winemakers largely characterize Sauvignon Blanc from the Wairau Valley as fleshier, rounder, and fruitier, while the Awatere Valley SB’s as more herbaceous and savory. They’re often blended together for that reason, but when tasting examples from each sub-appellation, you can understand why they explain it as such.
  • The “Aromatics”—Seemingly regardless the region, Alsatian grapes thrive as the unsung heroes of New Zealand, imho. They grow all three of the major ones. Pinot Gris appears to be the most omnipresent, and they are largely lovely—unctuous, spicy, and bottled with a fair amount of RS (commonly 12-15 g/l) giving the wine some warmth and roundness. Gewürztraminer I’ve encountered the least, but the ones I’ve found are varietally on point and made in a similar vein to the Pinot Gris. The Rieslings come across the sugar spectrum and show loads of potential. The aged examples I’ve been given hold up extraordinarily well. I’m hoping that more of these wines cross the Pacific soon.
  • Kiwi Birds—To my deep regret, apparently I’m not going to encounter these. I assumed they were like pigeons in the US, but I’ve been told they’re more like bald eagles—if you want to seem them you have to go to special remote places. They’re skittish, nocturnal, and don’t run around vineyards.