Tasting New Zealand

Say “New Zealand” to most wine lovers and almost invariably, the association will be sauvignon blanc. There is good reason for this – Marlborough produces 70% of New Zealand’s wine, and 80% of the region’s vines are sauvignon blanc. But there is much more to New Zealand wine than the wave of citrus and herb-tinged white wine so popular in markets around the world.

A few weeks ago, the trade group Wines of New Zealand offered a master class to showcase the depth and breadth of the New Zealand wine experience led by David Strada and Will Costello MS, head sommelier at the Ritz-Carlton Las Vegas (who had just returned from a week in New Zealand). This entailed tasting groups of four wines, with each group highlighting a different variety and region. Here are my notes, including an asterisk (*) noting those wines I think are particularly exciting, wines that meet my "special criteria" - would I pay my own money to purchase them.


Group I: Sauvignon Blanc

Mills Reef 2013 (Hawke's Bay)

Clean white gold, very pale. Pungent, grapefruit rind, a little sweaty, very classic New Zealand sauvignon blanc aromas. The wine has medium body, with flavors of green fruit and yellow stone fruit. It has very clean acidity but lacks a bit of length on the palate.

One of two sauvignons produced by Craggy Range

One of two sauvignons produced by Craggy Range


Craggy Range 2012 Te Muna Road Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc (Martinborough) *

Pale gold with green highlights. A bit of star fruit juiciness with yellow stone fruit overtones, contributing to a nice, grapey nose.  In the mouth, the wine is lusciously round, silky, and rich without being figgy and overripe as many California sauvignons seem to be these days. There is a hint of oxidation but it gives the wine dimension – this is very nice and offers the best of New Zealand with some European minerality and acidity. Quite long on the finish and very well balanced. This wine treads its own path and definitely does not follow the New Zealand pack; it's one of the best sauvignon blancs I've tasted from NZ. As an aside, Craggy Range makes a more "typical" NZ sauvignon blanc from Marlborough and their Avery Vineyard. For an in-depth look at Craggy Range and one wine in particular, see the blog post "The Alchemy of Time and Place" on Engaging the Senses


Matua 2012 Paretai (Marlborough)

Matua was the first New Zealand winery to plant sauvignon blanc and the heritage shows. The wine is pale lemon yellow and gold in color. It’s a bit meaty on the nose, with some vegetal notes but is altogether deeper than the others in this flight. Grilled yellow peppers with a squirt of lemon, it has crisp acidity that is nicely masked at first then blooms on the palate. It ends just a bit bitter on the finish


Greywacke 2012 "Wild Sauvignon" (Marlborough) *

Greywacke makes two sauvignon blancs - this one is barrel-fermented and produced with natural (wild) yeast, hence the "Wild Sauvignon" name. It is a decidedly atypical style with a meatiness some will like (I love it) and others may abhor. It has plenty of minerality but moderates the overt citrus peel character many seek in a New Zealand sauvignon. There is some minty quality, crisp fruit and lots of stoniness - to me, it's reminiscent of a Daganeau Pouilly Fumé from the Loire (at a third the price). I love it but expect few would peg this as a New Zealand wine in a blind tasting.

NOTE: Kevin Judd was the original winemaker at Cloudy Bay and worked there for 25 years before opening Greywacke. Greywacke takes its name from an indigineous type of rock, indicative of New Zealand's status as the geologically youngest wine producing country. By the way, Kevin Judd is a wonderful photographer, and his website portfolio is worth a visit - in fact, it's very nice viewing while sipping a Wild Sauvignon. Just sayin'...

Flight II: Pinot Gris and Chardonnay

Roaring Meg, produced by Mt. Difficulty winery

Roaring Meg, produced by Mt. Difficulty winery

Mt. Difficulty Roaring Meg 2012 Pinot Gris (Central Otago) *

Racy! From the cool climate of Central Otago (the most southerly wine growing area in the world) comes this stunning pinot gris, with a lovely white gold color, a hint of spritz, crisp acidity and ripe yellow fruit flavors (13.5%). The Roaring Meg label is Mt. Difficulty's big commercial push and I expect it will find a lot of success – this may be the best non-European pinot gris I've tasted.

Astrolabe 2013 Pinot Gris (Marlborough)

Floral nose, with an annoying bit of sorbitol that gives it a flavor reminiscent of Juicy Fruit chewing gum. It lacks a mid-palate then comes back on the finish, but not an impressive effort.

Marlborough makes more than Sauvignon Blanc

Marlborough makes more than Sauvignon Blanc

Dog Point 2011 Chardonnay (Marlborough) *

This wine is pale gold in color and shows a clean reductive style with a lot of gun smoke on the nose. This will be extreme for some palates - it reminds me of some over-the-top examples of Chablis. That said, it really grows on you with a seductive flavor of citrus and hazelnuts under that smoky haze. I'm astonished - a chardonnay with character!

Pyramid Valley 2011 Field of Fire Chardonnay

Nice pale gold color, very bright to the eye. The wine has light citrus aromas – subtly expressive. On the palate the first impression is that it is very tart, very lean, but with time and a bit of warming, it shows itself to be surprisingly subtle, with muted tropical fruit on a light but very long finish. With this bracing acidity the wine is racy and refreshing.

Flight III: “The Aromatics”

Pegasus Bay 2010 Riesling (Waipara Valley)

Gold color, with stone fruit and a touch of green grape aroma. Very spritzy on the palate, quite dry and just a bit short on the finish.

Villa Maria Cellar Selection

Villa Maria Cellar Selection

Villa Maria 2010 Cellar Selection Riesling (Marlborough) *

A lovely, dry and flinty on the nose and palate. This is really great - lots of classic petrol on nose and palate, very long and crisp on the finish. This is a steal at less than $20 US retail.

Lawson's Dry Hills 2011 Gewurztraminer (Marlborough)

Very soft gold, soft rose petal, quite exaggerated in its rose and lychee character, and just a bit shy on the acidity that would give it greater balance

Seifried 2012 Gewurztraminer (Nelson)  

Gold color and a very concentrated bouquet of rose, subtle lychee and spun sugar. Not as sweet on the palate as the nose implies, with ripe white peach, apricot and rose water. A long, succulent finish for a wine that is aromatically rich but surprisingly dry on the palate.

Flight IV: Pinot Noir

Palliser Estate Pinot Noir

Palliser Estate Pinot Noir

Palliser Estate 2008 (Wairarapa) *

Pale garnet ruby, with a brick edge. Beautiful aromas of dried orange peel and dried rose petals and red berry. Very crisp acidity, underscores a lovely palate including some coffee and cocoa. The wine is quite complex with just a bit of mint at the end of a long finish. Gorgeous


Mountford 2008  (Waipara Valley)

Garnet with orange/brick rim, some oxidation, perhaps a touched cooked. This is one of the few wines in this tasting under cork, and it shows in a less than positive way. New Zealand now bottles 95% of its wine under various screw cap closures. This one suffers from not being one of the majority.


Cloudy Bay 2012 (Marlborough)

The bright ruby/rose petal color is gorgeous, giving an early indication of the bright aromas that jump from the glass. Cherry, a bit of clove and then a soupçon of black pepper coupled with a sweet spicy note. Very fruity – a real crowd pleaser

Burn Cottage Pinot Noir

Burn Cottage Pinot Noir

Burn Cottage 2012  (Central Otago) *

Ted Lemon from Sonoma's Littorai is the vintner for this winery that just started exporting to the US in 2014. The 2012 is the winery’s fourth vintage, and it is lovely. The color is bright crimson with very good transparency. Lean on the palate, the wine has hints of cedar, red cherry and spice. It is such a pure expression of pinot noir character, very clean and absolutely entrancing.


Flight V: Cabernet Sauvignon & Syrah 

Villa Maria 2009 Cellar Select Cabernet/Merlot (Hawke's Bay) *

Lovely bright crimson color. This wine is beautiful - a creamy texture supports bright red and black fruit with a lovely forest floor note that persists on the long finish.


Man O' War Ironclad

Man O' War Ironclad

Man O' War 2009 Ironclad Red Blend (Waiheke Island) *

This Bordeaux blend includes 34% cabernet franc  and around 50% merlot along with small portions of malbec, cabernet sauvignon and petite verdot

Bright crimson in color, this wine is wonderfully fresh on the nose, with a face slapping whiff of smoky depth from the cab franc.  This wine shows just how well New Zealand’s cool climate synchronizes with merlot and cab franc to stunning effect.


Fromm 2010 La Strada Syrah (Marlborough)  *

The color is deep crimson and purple, and there is a lovely sweetness on the nose with plenty of black fruit. On the palate, the lush fruit gets crisp definition from a bracing hint of  black pepper – this is a terrific wine with great elegance and none of the ponderous quality that creeps in with over-ripened syrah from other regions. At 14%, the alcohol is moderate for a New World Syrah, and it feels even less on the palate. The 2011 La Strada was named best syrah in New Zealand and it’s easy to see the lineage in this bottle from a year earlier.

NOTE: Until a few years ago there was only a single unidentified clone of syrah in New Zealand, but thanks to Fromm and several other producers, clones from the Rhône Valley are being planted with stunning success.
Elephant Hill Syrah

Elephant Hill Syrah

Elephant Hill 2010 Syrah (Hawke's Bay) *

With its deep, brooding purple color, the wine has the luminosity of a stained glass window at dusk. There is lovely pepper on the nose, spice without being stemmy or overly herbaceous. The pepper carries over to the palate augmented by bright, crunchy blackberry flavors. Ripe tannins give it a lush, velvety spread on the palate with great fruit and acid balance. Fifteen months in oak barrels (30% of them new) gives this wine an elegant and polished finish. In a word, lovely.

The Takeaway

New Zealand continues to produce white wines of extremely high quality, while the big surprise for many is just how good the reds can be. We are coming to know the great pinot noir produced in NZ, but I think we are in for a shock as Bordeaux blends and syrah continue to show dazzling depth and finesse. For a wine lover, things in New Zealand are ka pai - just terrific.