Highfield Estate winery sits atop a small hill overlooking the Wairau Valley about a kilometer outside the western Marlborough town of Renwick. The Marlborough region has become widely recognized in the U.S. as a source of high-quality, affordable Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir. The deeper truth is that Marlborough is in fact a huge growing region composed of multiple valleys with diverse terroir. Highfield’s estate terroir in the Omaka Valley area is ideal for Pinot Noir, with a cooler and drier climate and clay soils. Their fruit grown lower in the Wairau Valley, like Sauvignon Blanc and Merlot, is suited for the warmer days and stony soils found there.
The property that Highfield Estate occupies was originally a farm owned by Irish immigrants who named it after an area near Galway. Their son, Bill Walsh, eventually took over operation of the farm and shifted to wine production soon after the introduction of wine grapes to Marlborough in the mid 1970s. Upon that first planting of German varietal Muller Thurgau, the Walsh family grew the operation for nearly 20 years until bringing in partners Shin Yokoi and Tom Tenuwera. Following Bill’s retirement, Tom helped lead Highfield into the 21st century until his untimely passing in 2012. The loss was as difficult as it was unexpected. He was called the lifeblood of the winery - the tasting room is still adorned with his photos and the staff rattle off fond stories about Tom.
In August 2015, Highfield started the next chapter of their history by merging with TerraVin under the ownership of the two respective winemakers, Alistair Soper and Gordon Ritchie, along with general manager Pete Coldwell. They maintain the two separate brands, but operate as one entity and make all the wines at Highfield Estate’s on-site production facility. Both Soper and Ritchie pride themselves in their natural winemaking techniques. This shared minimal intervention philosophy includes using free run juice, hand-plunged maceration, and bottling wines unfined and unfiltered. Authenticity to traditional methods results in consistently terrific vintages distinct from the mass-produced Marlborough wines most Americans know.
As soon as you drive up to Highfield’s property, the architecture and landscape invokes an Italian summer. Modeled after a Tuscan villa complete with terra cotta roof and repeating arches, the key feature of the property is a three-story Medievalesque tower. A quick climb up the stairs offers sumptuous panoramic views of thriving vineyards and grand mountains, accurately self-proclaimed as the “best view in Marlborough”.
After reveling in the vista, a trip back downstairs to the tasting room brings you to the real reason you visited - for the wine. We wove our way through a full guided tasting of Highfield and TerraVin’s lineups. Highfield’s heavyweights are the crisp, award-winning Elstree Cuvee Brut, semi-sweet Riesling, and classic Pinot Noir. The Riesling was a delight, with the perfect balance of dryness and sweetness, a crisp acidity, and peach flavors with a long finish. The multiple Rieslings we purchased on site paired wonderfully with our charcuterie lunch and a spicy Thai dinner a few nights later, as well as a few to send home.
The zenith of the tasting was TerraVin’s 2011 “J”. A Bordeaux blend, primarily of Merlot rounded-out with Malbec and Cabernet, this wine is perfectly balanced, rich in dark berry flavor, and silky smooth on the finish. Awarded 92 points by Wine Advocate in 2010, the “J” sets the benchmark for a claret, especially as a very unexpected Bordeaux style from Marlborough.
The wine experience of Highfield is accentuated by the offerings of their on-site café, the Highfield TerraVin Vineyard Restaurant. On a perfect warm and breezy Marlborough day, we sipped on Riesling while sauntering through a diverse spread of charcuterie on the sun-soaked patio. Blue-lipped mussels, pork rillette, white bean and chorizo cassoulet, fois gros mousse, and more delightfully gourmet tapas spilled over our table. Scarcely crumbs remained in the aftermath. Small and large plates comprise the menu crafted by chef Stephanie Armstrong - perfect options no matter your level of hunger.
A visit to Marlborough is a search for the lifeblood of New Zealand. Highfield Estate and TerraVin Winery exemplify the possibilities of Marlborough wine made in an Old World method. The authenticity of their style is without question. The beauty of their locale is breathtaking. The experience is one you shouldn’t pass up.
My parents met us in Auckland on October 1 to spend a whirlwind three weeks together traversing New Zealand's north and south islands. If there were to be an official theme for this leg of the trip, it would undoubtedly be wine and adventure.
We visited over 40 wineries across six regions and tried many other wines at restaurants. It was a thorough (and thoroughly enjoyable) crash course in New Zealand wine. The Kiwis have made a big name for themselves in Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir, and most wine drinkers are familiar with big exported labels like Nobilo, Monkey Bay, and Kim Crawford. The scope of New Zealand wine goes well beyond those in terms of variety and quality.
I learned A LOT about viticulture and wine production, as well as how varietals vary in various climates (alliteration intended). Sauvignon Blanc from Martinborough on the North Island is consistently grassy, fuller-bodied and herby, which I prefer. In Marlborough on the South Island, it is more often citrusy, tart, and refreshing - the style that Lindsay prefers. In addition to the expected Pinot Noir and Sauv Blanc, NZ produces some incredible Syrah, Pinot Gris, and Riesling. We shipped home 15 bottles of wine, and it was tough to narrow down the competition to fill that case. We focused on sending home wine that isn't available in the U.S. Luckily, many of these producers export at least a few of their styles to the States.
Below are my overall favorites, then read on for a regional run-down of the wineries we visited. For a broader view of our time in New Zealand, check out our Oceania blog.
Craggy Range has it all. This internationally-respected winery produces some of NZ's best French varietals. We visited twice! After a delicious dinner at Terroir, their on-site restaurant, we returned the next day for a full-range tasting. This winery was our favorite in the Hawke's Bay region. We brought home three bottles: a 2014 Avery Sauvignon Blanc, a 2013 Le Sol Syrah, and a 2013 Aroha Te Muna Road Pinot Noir.
The Felton Road Block 5 is the best Pinot Noir in the world. That's an outlandish statement to make by a man with an amateur's palate and no formal wine education. But I dare you to find a bottle of Pinot that is more fine, balanced, and smooth as this one. This winery is tucked back off a gravel road outside of Queenstown and is worth going out of your way to visit. It's also worth scouring the internet to see if you can procure a bottle of this very limited release wine. If not, good luck waiting on the mailing list for years to acquire it.
Tucked into an industrial park, this unassuming tasting room and wine production facility exceeds expectations. Owned by an Austrian transplant, this New World wine has Old World character. They create very good Bendigo Estate Pinot Noir, although their top prize is a vintage Methode Traditionelle (champagne). It's one of the best bottles of bubbly I've ever had. Sadly, we couldn't bring any back to the States, but they do have a distributor in Colorado.
Highfield Estate winery, in the western Marlborough town of Renwick, sits atop a small hill overlooking the Wairau Valley. This lovely winery also has an on-site cafe, a sun-soaked patio, and a three-story faux-Tuscan tower overlooking the vineyards. Highfield has merged with TerraVin, and both line-ups are available for tasting here. Each label was impressive and had their own standouts. The TerraVin "J" Merlot blend was phenomenal: rich body, smooth tannins, and full of fruits. The Highfield Riesling is a semi-sweet delight on a warm day, as well as a perfect accompaniment to Thai food.
Schubert's winery in Martinborough is located next door to Ata Rangi, one of the most consistently high-rated Pinot Noir producers in New Zealand. Frankly, I enjoyed Schubert's offerings much more. Their Pinots are perfectly balanced, fruity, and interesting. I brought home a bottle of their 2013 Marion's Vineyard Pinot. We also loved their Dolce desert wine, a sweet white blend with low 9% ABV, and bought one of those, too.
Follow along as we learn to make the world's most unique cocktails, visit the best wineries, and drink a variety of beers - all just to make you jealous of what you can't find at home.