Kia Ora: The Wines of New Zealand, The Land of the Long White Cloud

Our Featured Wine Sale of the Week brings us to The Land of the Long White Cloud. New Zealand is a land of immense beauty, and of course, Sauvignon Blanc. But truthfully, there's a lot more going on than just one international varietal. We thought we should focus our sights on some producers doing truly extraordinary things with varietals not called Sauvignon Blanc. Find out about one of the newest wine regions in the world. This sale runs through 5/6/18.

Home to the most southern-grown wines in the world, New Zealand has become synonymous with one varietal- Sauvignon Blanc.  While there is always a place in the wine world for the refreshing, grapefruit laden style of New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, we wanted to show that there's more to be tried out there. This is New Zealand, after all.

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Home to a cornucopia of natural environments and soil types, New Zealand's natural beauty and diversity was certainly a primary factor in being the shooting location for the J.R.R. Tolkien epic Lord of the Rings trilogy.  Let's take a closer look.  

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We have a record going back at least 700 years for New Zealand, thanks to the impact of the Maori people, who arrived from Polynesia long before the first European explorer set eyes on it.  Sighted in 1642 by Dutch explorer Abel Tasman, colonization only really began in the early 1800s with the establishment of Kerikeri in the very northern tip of the North Island in 1812 and Bluff at the very southern tip of the South Island in 1813.  With the introduction of European settlers came the introduction of the musket to the Maori people, whose only long weaponry consisted of a spear. The musket proved to be a huge advantage for tribes seeking to expand their territory and so began the series of conflicts known as the Musket Wars, which led to an overall reduction in Maori peoples from ~85,000 in 1796 to about 40,000 in 1896.  

With the first settlers to the Island came viticulture, and Samuel Marsden is credited with the first successful plantings of wine grapes in 1819.  In the first 150 years of producing wine, the regions that are most prominent today for wine production were nearly unheard of. Instead, Aukland and Hawkes Bay were the leading vineyards for New Zealand wine production.

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The province of Central Otago took off when gold was discovered in 1861, causing the population of New Zealand to more than double from 71,000 in 1859 to 164,000 in 1863.  Otago, located below the 45th Parallel, became home to the most southern planted vineyards in the world, and its relatively cool climate allowed for growth of cool climate European grape varietals.

Still, what we've come to associate with New Zealand wine is a relatively modern experiment. In the mid sixties, New Zealand wasn't focused on producing wines to the quality of its European counterparts--instead focusing on more stable fortified spirits like Armagnac. Looking at the below grape survey from 1965, our featured wine varietals don't even make the list: 

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Ok, well some of them feature in the Grapes under 10 acres category, but that's tiny, especially considering the amount of wine being produced out of the Marlborough today. 

Just What Is The Deal with New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc?

It's easy enough to chalk it up to "terroir", and the ancient, glacial free-draining soil certainly helps, but the Marlborough also receives an average 2,409 hours of sunlight and  655 mm of annual rainfall. There's also the matter of UV (ultraviolet light), and New Zealand receives 30 to 40 percent more than any other wine-producing region. With already less ozone in the southern hemisphere, and less air pollution in New Zealand, the direct sunlight makes a considerable impact on the ripe concentrated fruit. 

But Sauvignon Blanc didn't truly get its start in New Zealand until 1973, when Brancott Estate, then known as Montana, planted over 2,000 acres of vines in the Marlborough region, including Sauvignon Blanc. When a wine glut in the 1980s propelled the New Zealand government to pay producers to rip up their rootstock, many chose to unload the older varietals that were not popular to the international market and bring in more Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay. Then Cloudy Bay was established in 1985, and the rest was history.

Our Featured Pair:

In the old wine region of Hawkes Bay, we find Craggy Range. Started as a desire to create a family legacy in 1993, Craggy Range established their winery in the  Gimblett Gravels Winegrowing district, an ancient river bed of the Ngaruroro River in Hawkes Bay in  1997.  

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With vineyards in a trio of regions - Hawkes Bay, Martinborough, and Marlborough, Craggy Range is able to pick and choose which varietals it grows where. The Kidnappers Vineyard- so named for its proximity to Cape Kidnappers on the lower tip of Hawkes Bay, is home to one of their beautiful Chardonnay vineyards. Grown right along the coastline, the cool sea breeze helps temper the overall warm year round temperatures, and the result is a fresh Chardonnay in the style of Chablis. 

 Craggy Range Kidnappers Vineyard

Craggy Range Kidnappers Vineyard

Head a little further inland, and you'll reach the main estate vineyard for Craggy Range, Gimblett Gravels, where the winery began and where some of their finest wines are grown. Here is where we find Te Kahu, their Bordeaux style red blend.  Named after the local Maori dialect for "the cloak", Te Kahu refers to the mist that rolls across the vineyard. Despite the mist, Gimblett Gravels is the warmest vineyard in all of New Zealand, and though 2015 started with a cool spring, the summer helped produce a fine vintage. Made up of 76% Merlot, 14% Cabernet Sauvignon, 8% Cabernet Franc, and 2% Malbec, this blend is fermented in stainless steel before being aged in oak barrique for 17 months.

 Craggy Range

Craggy Range

I tend to see New Zealand as one big island, even though it is distinctly separated between the North Island and the South.  We find our other producer, Mt. Difficulty on the southerly isle, some 1,165 kilometers south of Craggy Range.  Located in Central Otago, land of the New Zealand gold rush, Mt. Difficulty takes their namesake from the mountain that overshadows their vineyards in Bannockburn.  Comprised of six vineyard sites and 40 hectares of total plantings. Thanks to being somewhat protected by the Mountain, Mt. Difficulty wines are grown in an environment with low humidity and rainfall, and coupled with the clay and gravel soils with high ph levels and a strong diurnal climate, Mt. Difficulty is a great place to grow wine.

Started in the 1990s by a "gang of four", a handshake arrangement of four vineyard owners, Mt. Difficulty produced its first vintage in 1998, and our first wine from them, the Mt. Difficulty Bannockburn Pinot Gris, was added as a varietal in 1999. 

Pinot Gris and Pinot Grigio are the same grape, but the name- more than just a difference between French and Italian, also refers to the style of the wine itself.  Those called Pinot Gris tend to be fleshier, more complex iterations of the varietal, while Pinot Grigio tends to be more fresh, cleaner and easy drinking.  In New Zealand though, the climate is ideal for Pinot Gris. We are lucky to have the 2014 vintage, a cooler vintage for the area which helps elevate the aromatic intensity of the grape. Hand-harvested and cool fermented, this Pinot Gris saw five months on the lees with weekly battonage.

The Roaring Meg Pinot Noir got its name from a local turbulent stream outside the local town of Cromwell, and was added to the Mt. Difficulty line in 2004. Otago is internationally renown for its Pinot Noir, and the quality of this bottle is no surprise.  Sauvignon Blanc may have been the wine that broke New Zealand into the international wine world, but their Otago Pinot Noirs may well be the varietal that keeps them there.  

 Mt Difficulty

Mt Difficulty