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Wine Tasting in New Zealand

On a wine-soaked road-trip through the North Island, Jeninne Lee-St. John uncorks a deluge of new world vintages, panoramic Pacific vistas—and a latent love of Chardonnay. Photographed by Richard McLeish.

Published on Apr 23, 2015

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How do you feel about wine for breakfast? After three straight days of non-stop sampling North Island wines in multi-stop tours and multi-course meals, after waking up this morning in this high-ceilinged modern farm house still tasting last night's peachy, desserty Mission Reserve Noble Harvest 2012 that went down so smoothly with the local-cheese-and-Damson-plum platter, well, wine for breakfast doesn't seem such a bad idea. You know what they say about a little hair of the dog, after all. But first, a little egg of the chicken.

We 'laid' on breakfast for you.—From the Black Barn chooks, Pen, Jen and Gwen

Black Barn vineyards
Black Barn Vineyards.

What a glorious morning. It had rained every day since we got to New Zealand, but today the sun has broken free, basking the rows of grapevines surrounding this cottage in an ethereal light. Spring out of bed and pad into the kitted-out kitchen, where fresh rashers of bacon await in the fridge, fresh ground coffee waits to be French pressed, and flower pots overflowing with potatoes, mushrooms, fruit and brown eggs wait with a tongue-in-chook note from their layers. Nearly a week of three gourmet meals per day has us giddy at the task of a self-made breakfast fry-up in an old-school cast iron pan. Thank you, Pen, Jen, Gwen and the rest of the Black Barn Retreats team for knowing exactly what greasy cushion of deliciousness we'll need in our stomachs before we start filling them with wine.

Did I mention what a glorious morning it is? Jenny Ryan from Takaro Trails fetches us from the cottage and in 20 minutes we're cycling along a flat, dedicated bike path bisecting fields and farms and vineyards in the heart of big-sky Hawke's Bay, itself the heart of the North Island wine industry. First stop: the beyond picturesque—seriously, a lab bounds out to greet us—white barn with red trim and green doors of Ngatarawa and Farmgate Wines. They've got eight vintages lined up on the counter, from an award-winning, small-batch 2008 Chenin Blanc adorably adorned with the photo of a local bread maker to an award-winning reserve 2009 Shiraz. Glasses at the ready. It's barely 11 a.m. But it's five o'clock somewhere.

A morning tasting at Ngatarawa and Farmgate Wines
A morning tasting at Ngatarawa and Farmgate Wines.

That's pretty much the No. 1 tenet to live by if you're on a weeklong North Island wine and food drive. Marlborough, in the South Island, put New Zealand on the global wine map, but its compatriots north of Cook Strait—the melting-pot-of-minerals Wairarapa, the Mediterranean-like Hawke's Bay, and even dry-farming Gisborne—have equally fertile terroirs that mature all range of grape varietals, many of which go into producing stellar vintages you can't get outside of the country. This passionate wine culture is matched by a culinary one that's Made-in-New-Zealand-proud, heavy on game and seafood and handcrafted cheeses. And these locavore leanings extend to the very best hotels scattered along the New Zealand Wine Trail that, whether full-service, helicopter-accessible resorts or intimate B&Bs, seem totally devoted to your comfort, of course, but also your indoctrination into Kiwi viticulture. All of which makes it incredibly difficult to not just jump in and drink all day.

It also makes the occasional lack of pampering feel like a real treat. That morning at Black Barn, it was a surprising relief to walk in the kitchen and find nobody there but us chickens.

On the go with Takaro Trails
On the go with Takaro Trails.
Compare tasting notes in Wharekauhau’s great room.




That's the No. 2 tenet of drinking your way through the North Island. Steve Nathan said this to us on that glorious morning as we sat in the backyard of his Salvare Estate cellar door, his yellow lab rolling at our feet and his Sauvignon Blanc-free range of wines teasing our lips. But nearly everyone we met voiced some version of this disdain for the new world wine king. It's not that North Islanders don't appreciate the renown Marlborough's star has brought to their country. It's that they want the world to know that they're capable of so much more complexity.

I've been to Marlborough, where I learned how well this country does Pinot Noir. Throughout the North Island, we tasted heaps of them, as well as everything from Cabernet Sauvignons to Gewürztraminers. But I'm a devoted Sauvignon Blanc girl. Bangkok, where I live, is hot and tropical, and I want something cold and passion fruity that's going to be a reliable pour. And here I am in New Zealand with people constantly trying to pour Chardonnay down my gullet. Chardonnay! Doesn't everyone feel about Chardonnay the way Paul Giamatti's character in Sideways feels about Merlot? And how North Islanders feel about Sauvignon Blanc?

Well, here's the thing: Chardonnay grapes thrive in places with ample spring showers, long and dry summers, and heavy clay soil. That's the maritime North Island, which seems on a mission to prove that Chardonnays don't have to be overly oaky and taste like buttered wood. In fact, they don't have to be oaky at all. Some of the best examples we had in on this trip were unoaked. I guess if anyone can win my heart, it's these determined North Island oenophiles. Let the wooing begin.

Palliser Bay has a parabolic black-sand beach.
Palliser Bay has a parabolic black-sand beach.

It's a verdant, alternately calm-and nerve-inducing drive from Wellington through the winding mountainous roads of Kaitoke Regional Park and Pakuratahi Forest to the Wairarapa region. We emerge at Greytown, finding the incredibly comfortable but completely unobtrusive hospitality that we quickly learned was signature Kiwi at Briarwood—part B&B and part Airbnb, with kitchens in each of its suites pre-prepped for fresh-fruitand-muesli breakfast. The Studio Suite, in a carriage house separated from the main building by a sweetly symmetrical French garden, feels like a tech-savvy metrosexual's loft, with leather furnishings, an entertainment system pre-loaded with music and movies, and, in the bathroom, a heated towel rack—which I am overjoyed to discover is a standard feature in the chilly-at-night-North-Island hotels.

Driving into neighboring Martinborough and its clapboard-encircled grassy square is like entering a quaint New England town. The bucolic nature spills over to the characteristics of the wineries, all of which seem to have taken an oath of humility and down-hominess: it's as if each is purposefully trumping the last in shedding any pretense whatsoever, so that we finally found ourselves in an endearingly crabby old gentleman's garage tasting wine sporting labels that looked like they'd been clickwhirred out by a dot-matrix printer.

The No. 3 tenet of understanding Kiwi wine (and, in fact, Kiwi history, topography and architecture, among other things) is you better care about tectonic plates. The country sits at the uneasy juncture of the Pacific and Indo-Australian plates, making earthquakes a way of life. One collision of the two plates millions of years ago gave literal rise to the hills of volcanic and limestone soil that surround Martinborough, and in which the vines of Murdoch James Estate are planted. Here, the geological contrast is obvious: the grapes grow on a relatively arid rise, looming over a dry riverbed valley in which cows graze beneath incongruous weeping willows.

Pinot grapes
Pinot grapes at Brodie Estate.

The loose soil of this terrace limits how much water reaches the plantings, creating stressed vines—actually a good thing. The vines are forced to focus their energy away from foliage toward smaller, more concentrated berries, making for better wines, particularly Pinot Noirs. It wasn't until the 1970's that meteorologists discerned that Martinborough's climate was similar to Burgundy's—and we all know how good they are at making wine.

A geology lesson, a tasting and a tour of the family-run but, for the Wairarapa, relatively industrial Murdoch James vineyard and winery was followed by lunch in their cozy Bloom restaurant, a splurge on their Blue Rock Pinot Noir 2011, and then a drive—courtesy of our amiable guide Simon of Martinborough Wine Tours—back and forth across the town square to several more vintners.

At Brodie Estate, proprietor James Brodie, a rugged silver fox in his knit cap and holey sweater, looked like he should've been a mid-century French yacht captain. They were pressing Pinot grapes with a hand plunger. We sampled the skin-filled juice, pungent and sweet. We walked away with bottles of Angel's Sigh rosé and 2010 Pinot Noir. Later, in a triumph of taste over packaging, from our last stop, Cabbage Tree, we left with a bottle of 2011 Chardonnay. By day two, I was already beginning to get it.

Brodie Estate
Fresh-pressed Pinot nectar at Brodie Estate in Martinborough.

After that day's education in terroir, Wharekauhau (place of knowledge) Lodge beckoned for the night. Wharekauhau is pronounced "Forry-ko-ho" and it is a fairytale of a functioning ranch, seaside cottages and a noble manor into which we rolled just in time for complimentary bubbly, whiskey and canapés. In the billiard room, airy country kitchen or great room warmed by a roaring fire (there's one in your cottage, too, along with local-wool carpeting, a bay-view tub and deck, and homemade cookies) compare notes with the other guests about their wine drives, then adjourn for private, candlelit dinners. The onproperty-sourced elements—Palliser Bay alphonsino fish, Angus beef, garden veggies—pair precisely with Martinborough vino. The dry Riesling by Te Kairanga smelled oh-so slightly of beeswax; the Alexander Vineyard Merlot was plummy and earthy.

As helicopter-over-from-Wellington-for-lunch-luxe this hotel is, the property also manages to be true salt of the earth, a working sheep station that stretches 2,000 hectares from the black-sand beach on Cook Strait up through forests filled with eel ponds and pastures grazed by thousands of head of cattle. Polkadotted among them in the paddocks are belly-painted stud rams who leave their telltale color markings on amorous ewes so the ranchers can estimate the arrival dates of spring lambs. Much like the cuttings-tobottling wander through a winery we took, immersion in Wharekauhau really is a farm-to-table experience.

Wharekauhau's great room


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Vineyards in New Zealand
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