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Monday, 04 March 2013 10:20

A Taste of New Zealand Wine Country

Written by  Risa Wyatt
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In the past, New Zealanders typically ordered a pint of beer to go with their roast lamb. Nowadays, you may be just as likely to overhear dinner patrons ask for a Cab/Merlot blend with soft tannins, aged in French oak. For the New World wines being produced in New Zealand, it truly is a whole new world. Land so rocky that previously farmers couldn’t even raise sheep, now fetch upwards of $20,000 per acre for vineyard plantings. Over the past decade, wine production has more than tripled from 16 million to 54 million gallons, and the country holds 600+ wineries. Critics praise New Zealand wines lavishly. “I would now without hesitation serve a Pinot Noir from New Zealand alongside, or even ahead of, a Pinot Noir from Burgundy,” remarked British wine writer Oz Clarke.
Production however, still remains comparatively small. Gallo, the large American producer, crushes more grapes in a day than New Zealand does in an entire year. Likewise, travel in New Zealand wine country remains very personalized. At “cellar doors” (tasting rooms), winemakers will often climb out of fermentation vats to greet visitors. Here’s a taste of New Zealand’s foremost appellations:


SOUTH ISLAND

Marlborough, set on the northeastern corner of the South Island, ranks as the country’s largest grape-growing region. The vibrant Sauvignon blancs produced here helped establish New Zealand as a major wine star. 
Since the 1990s, Cloudy Bay (www.cloudybay.co.nz) has set the standard for Sauvignon blanc. The tasting room offers small-production labels not exported to the U.S., such as their sparkling wine and Gewurztraminer. One of Marlborough’s original wineries (founded in 1990), Allan Scott (www.allanscott.com) remains family owned and operated. Strikingly modern, Wither Hills (www.witherhills.co.nz) features stone walls and native plant landscaping that blend with landscapes of the Wairau Valley. For unique accommodations, visitors can get themselves to Old St. Mary’s Convent, a onetime residence for the Sisters of Mercy and now a plush hotel on 60 acres of estate gardens (www.convent.co.nz). 
Even jaded jetsetters feel a thrill upon viewing the brooding, snow-capped peaks that loom in Central Otago, setting for the Lord of the Rings films. The southernmost wine-growing region in the world, it ranks as the preeminent new region for Pinot noir. Most wineries lie within a 15- to 60-minute drive from Queenstown, which serves as action central for madcap Kiwi pastimes ranging from bungee jumping to jet-boat rides.
“What’s distinctive about ‘Central’ is the vivid, bright fruit,” observes actor/vintner Sam Neill (Jurassic Park, The Dish), who owns Two Paddocks Winery. Contemporary New Zealand art accents the tasting room, which is open by appointment (www.twopaddocks.com). Overlooking Lake Hayes, Amisfield (www.amisfield.co.nz) is known for intense Pinot noir as well as aromatic Riesling and Pinot gris. Their chic Bistro showcases organic and locally sourced produce. One of the region’s original vineyards, Rippon (www.rippon.co.nz) crowns a stunning hillside above Lake Wanaka. 
Queenstown offers a wide choice of accommodations. However, travelers looking for something different might want to stay 15 minutes away in Arrowtown, a 19th-century gold rush center. A boutique B&B, Arrowtown House (www.arrowtownhouse.com) offers five luxuriously appointed suites.NORTH ISLAND
Like Vouvray or St. Emilion in France, Martinborough features vineyards within walking distance of town. This former sheep-farming center nearly became a ghost town before a consultant suggested, “The soil and climate here resemble Burgundy; why not try wine?”
Located about an hour’s drive from Wellington, the region earns renown for Pinot noir and Sauvignon blanc. In addition to its cellar door, Alana Estate (www.alana.co.nz) has an excellent restaurant that specializes in food and wine pairings. Several pioneering wineries remain among the best, including Ata Rangi, Dry River, and Martinborough Vineyard. 
Built around a central square, the town has roads that radiate in the pattern of the Union Jack—a design created by founder John Martin, an Irish immigrant. Set on the plaza, Peppers Martinborough Hotel (established 1882) offers accommodations in either the original hotel or around the contemporary garden courtyard (www.peppers.co.nz).
In Hawkes Bay, 90 miles southeast of Taupo, winemakers often joke, “We’re essentially growing our grapes hydroponically.” They’re referring to the Gimblett Gravels—stony soils along an ancient riverbed. Today the region contains a majority of New Zealand’s plantings of Merlot and Cabernet sauvignon and has become a major star for Syrah. 
“If I were a grape I’d want to live here,” one woman sighed when visiting Craggy Range, a grand Tuscan-style winery built of local sandstone. Set in a stone turret, its Terroir Restaurant serves delicacies such as venison carpaccio and South Island salmon accompanied by homegrown, organic vegetables and herbs. Wine lovers will want to taste at Trinity Hill, Te Awa, and Mission Estate. Established in 1851, it is New Zealand’s oldest winery. 
Sightseeing opportunities abound. Rebuilt following a 1931 earthquake, the coastal city of Napier has one of the world’s largest concentrations of Art Deco buildings. Charming accommodations include Mon Logis, located in an oceanfront 1860s house that survived the tremor (www.babs.co.nz/monlogis).
Martha’s Vineyard meets wine country on Waiheke Island, located 35 minutes by ferry from Auckland across the Hauraki Gulf. Although Cabernet sauvignon and Merlot dominate, Syrah is the new “It” grape. Visitors can intersperse wine tastings with visits to art galleries and beaches. 
“Go find some dirt to plant,” Moira Forsyth told her husband, Tony, a psychologist contemplating buying vineyard property. And so the Forsyths purchased land on a precipitous headland and started Te Whau—Tony planting the vines himself (www.tewhau.co.nz). The winery earns top ratings for its Cab/Merlot blends. Stonyridge (www.stonyridge.co.nz) produces the premium, Bordeaux-style Larose and the restaurant serves a lovely brunch overlooking vineyards. Mudbrick Restaurant and Vineyard offers views of Auckland rising beyond the Hauraki Gulf (www.mudbrick.co.nz). 
Accommodations capture the mood of seaside escape. Guests feel like they’ve been invited to a house party chez the Great Gatsby at The Boatshed. Five luxe suites are decorated with ship models and beach bags stocked with towels and suntan oil (www.boatshed.co.nz). 
After traveling and tasting through New Zealand wine country, most visitors would agree with winemaker Jeff Sinnott of Ostler Vineyards; “New Zealand wines are so good the critics can’t ignore us. We’re a young country with young vines—we’ve come tremendously far in a short period of time.”

TRAVEL TIPS 
When to Go: Since seasons are reversed in the Southern Hemisphere, spring budbreak takes place in September and harvest occurs around Easter. 
Getting Around: Touring by rental car is easy once travelers adjust to driving on the left (and shifting gears with their left hands on cars with manual transmissions). Major rental companies include Avis, Budget, Europcar, Hertz, and Thrifty.
Wine Tours: Qantas Vacations features an eight-day “New Zealand Wine Escape”: (800) 641-8772 or visitwww.qantasvacations.com. Discover Downunder offers varied wine tour packages and can also customize travel for FITs and groups: (888) 8-DOWNUNDER; (303) 300-0148; www.discoverdownunder.com
Self-Guided Trips: A 240-mile self-drive tour, “The Classic New Zealand Wine Trail” offers suggested routes through three major wine regions: Hawkes Bay, Wairarapa/Martinborough, and Marlborough (www.classicwinetrail.co.nz).
For more information contact Tourism New Zealand at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. ; 310-395-7480. Also visit the Travel Trade websitewww.traveltrade.newzealand.com

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