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Visiting New Zealand's wine regions 
Part 1: introduction to New Zealand

If you really want to understand a wine, there's nothing quite like visiting the vineyards it comes from. This isn't terribly logical, I know. You should be able to glean all the information you need by way of contextual background from reference books and magazine articles and from looking at photographs. But invariably, I find that when I actually visit a winegrowing region, I understand the wines better.

So on this trip I was excited to be seeing some of the key New Zealand wine growing regions for the first time. After spending a few days at a conference down in Dunedin, which is close to the end of the earth, I flew up to Blenheim, getting my first view of Marlborough, New Zealand's pre-eminent wine region as we landed on the small airstrip literally in the middle of the vines. After reading so much about Marlborough, and after drinking so many Marlborough wines, here I was. This is where they come from. This is the source of those remarkable, lively, piercing Sauvignons that have so emphatically changed the face of white wine the world over in the last couple of decades.

I'd taken a rather different approach with my itinerary on this trip. It would have been easy to hit the wine regions, one-by-one, seeing as many people as possible. I had other ideas, though. I reckoned I could taste most of the wines in London: New Zealand is strongly export-focused, and there are regular press and trade tastings showing loads of different Kiwi wines. So my priority was to spend more time with fewer producers, and to try to dig a bit deeper.


Timing was tight, though. I allotted two days to Marlborough, which wasn't long, with just two visits. Then I was off to Napier, where my plan was to hire a car and drive up to Gisborne. It's not that Gisborne is all that an important a wine region; it's just that I wanted to visit James Millton, one of the leading proponents of biodynamics in the new world, and I reckoned that this segment – even though it called for two 3.5 hour drives along winding roads – was worth the excursion. Then I was to return to Napier to spend some time at Craggy Range, as well as meeting up with some of the top Hawkes Bay producers. After this, I planned to spend a day in the Waipara region, close to Cantebury, which was my point of departure from New Zealand. Obvious omissions from this trip were Central Otago and Martinborough, which will have to wait for next time.


So some background about wine in New Zealand. In my oldest copy of The World Atlas of Wine, dated 1971, there are no maps of New Zealand. It’s not even in the index. How can it be that a wine industry with such global visibility and importance has come from virtually nowhere to its current position in a short space of time?  And much of this growth is quite recent. In 1995 there were 204 wineries; in 2006 there were 530. In 1995 there were 6110 hectares of vines; in 2006 there were 22 616. And perhaps most significantly, in 1995 7.8 million litres of wine were exported, while in 2006 57.8 million litres left New Zealand, netting a healthy half a billion dollars in revenue (FOB). 


These days New Zealand’s most famous region is Marlborough, and Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc is its most famous and instantly recognizable export. The first vines were planted in this remarkable region in 1973. Marlborough excels with Sauvignon Blanc, but also produces attractive Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris. Chardonnay and Riesling also do well here. The next most celebrated NZ region is Hawkes Bay, which is able to make a wide range of wine styles, including some fabulous Syrah and respectable Bordeaux blends. Chardonnay can be very good here. Perhaps next highest in profile is the relatively new (even by NZ standards) Central Otago region, famous for Pinot Noir. Another Pinot Noir-dominated region is Wairarapa, which includes the Martinborough district. Don’t confuse Wairarapa, at the base of North Island, with emerging Waipara, west of Christchurch on South Island, which could yet prove to be the source of New Zealand’s best Pinot Noir. Other significant regions are Gisborne, Nelson and Auckland.

With consistently high quality, and prices to match, New Zealand is the envy of the wine world. There’s something about the precision of flavours that New Zealand manages to capture in its wines that resonates with modern wine drinkers. Trump cards appear to be (1) arguably the new world’s best Pinot Noir; (2) remarkably piercing, aromatic Sauvignons (although it may be that other countries can emulate this style successfully, for less money); and (3) increasingly convincing aromatics such as Pinot Gris and Gewürztraminer.

Over the next few weeks I’ll be bringing you in depth, anoraky reports from my trip.

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