A First Course in Wine: From Grape to Glass. Copyright 2013; Race Point Publishers, NY. 224 pages. Forward by Mario Batali.

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New Zealand’s Zealous Gents

New Zealand is one of the smaller players in the international wine market, but pound for pound, wines from these petite islands can really deliver on price and quality.  Despite being located at the extreme southern latitude for vine growth (around 45 degrees), the intense contrast between maritime and continental temperatures provides the conditions necessary for proper grape development.

New Zealand's primary grape growing areas

The country is also one of the newer land masses in the world.  This means young and rigid mountain ranges (think Lord of the Rings scenery), lush valley floors, and mineral-rich soils.  Farming has been a constant in New Zealand ever since Polynesians first settled in New Zealand hundreds of years ago, but large-scale grapegrowing is relatively a new concept, usually spanning no more than two or three generations.  According to Steve Smith MW, director of wine and viticulture at Craggy Range, “the large population of soldiers stationed throughout the country following WWII helped create a yawning demand for alcoholic beverages.  Without barley to brew beer, and little production for spirits, a grape growing and wine producing culture flourished”.

Determining which grapes to grow and produce into wine is still a changing landscape.  For the beginning wine drinker, Sauvignon Blanc from the Marlborough growing area is probably the most approachable style to try and most widely available.  The wines are rich with kiwi fruit aromas, strong lemongrass flavors, and tingling acidity.  They’re also moderately priced for the most part.

Other appellations provide excellent value and quality as well, such as Auckland and Central Otago.  At a recent tasting in New York, winemaker/proprietor Michael Brajkovich MW, discussed his practices for his family estate in Auckland, Kumeu River.  Specializing in Chardonnay, Mr. Brajkovich has a very modest outlook towards his craft.  He incorporates oak fermentation and oak aging for his wines, but aims to keep the fruit character of Chardonnay front and center.  He states, “First thing we want to do when we make a white wine is make it refreshing.  There should be a balance between fruit and acid, and it must clean the palate for the next sip of wine, or the next bite of food”.

New Zealand Winemakers Michael Brajkovich and Blair Walter

Central Otago is one of the southern-most growing areas in the world.  While the temperatures are cooler compared to other growing countries, the intensity of solar UV rays is beneficial for vine growth, yet long durations of exposure can be harmful to fruit.  As a result, vineyard managers use the vines leaves as a protective canopy for the burgeoning grape bunches positioned on the vine just below.  Blair Walter, winemaker at Felton Road, is a leading artisinal producer of Pinot Noir.  His “less is more” approach provides “a more authentic, more transparent way of telling the story more accurately” about Pinot Noir and Central Otago terroir.

Both estates produce a wide range of wines that summarily help showcase the versatility of New Zealand’s wine producers and are excellent introductions into the world of New Zealand wine.

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