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.
A quick day-trip from Auckland by ferry, Waiheke Island is a semi-secluded place reminiscent of New England vacation spots like Martha's Vineyard.
Wild on Waiheke - This is a party spot, with a focus on fun more than quality wine. It's worth a stop for lunch, like we did. They've got tons of outdoor family fun, like archery, horseshoes, and digital trap shooting. Yes, digital trap shooting with fake shotguns and sensor-equipped clay pigeons; it's like single-player laser tag and looks just as dumb. Not only are they a winery, but also a microbrewery. The wine nor the beer are outstanding, but there are some refreshing options like Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Gris, Ginger Beer and Wheat Beer for a warm day. The gourmet food is excellent: venison salami pizza, fresh oysters, and charcuterie are perfect for sharing. The views aren't anything to brag about, but the setting among vines and hedges buffering the road is fine enough. Wild is a great spot to have casual lunch and some fun, although I'd skip it if you're serious about wine quality.
Cable Bay - This ultra-modern winery and restaurant sit perched on a hilltop, a few minutes' walk from the ferry landing at the town of Oneroa. Their building is split into a casual tasting room and cafe on one side, and a formal dining room on the other. It's great that they offer two types of experience. The cafe serves mostly tapas-sized plates for sharing and a few mains. The highlight of the property is the wide vista of Church Bay (bet you thought I'd say Cable Bay) and the skyline of Auckland beyond. We visited for dinner at sunset, and I could hardly keep my eyes off the windows. Cable Bay produces a wide variety of wines sourced from their vineyards on Waiheke, in Marlborough, and Central Otago. Although we didn't do a full tasting, we shared glasses of wine over dinner. The 2014 Waiheke Chardonnay and 2014 Waiheke Syrah were our favorites.
Elephant Hill - Set on a coastal road overlooking Cape Kidnapper's, Elephant Hill is a beautiful place to visit in Hawke's Bay. Their modern tasting room with a curving bar is full of natural light from floor to ceiling windows. A large patio surrounded by fountains provides a chance to bask in sunlight with direct views of Hawke's Bay. While the setting of Elephant Hill is charming, the wine is less seductive. They produce a nearly-full range of French varietals. Unfortunately only their lower label wines are available for tasting, and they are fair. Sauvignon Blanc, Syrah, Pinot, Chardonnay... all were good but none stood out to me. Elephant Hill produces a few high-end wines called the Hieronymus (Bordeaux blend) and Airavata (Syrah). These wines are produced from the Gimlet Gravels subregion, where the best fruit in Hawke's Bay grows, so I'll safely assume these wines are excellent. Elephant Hill exports to the States. If you come across it, pick up a bottle and see what you think. If you are driving around Hawke's Bay, definitely stop in for lunch at a lovely spot.
The Martinborough wine region is about 80 kilometers east of Wellington, New Zealand's capital city. Centered around the small town of Martinborough, this area is compact and quaint. The laid-back vibe carries through to every aspect of the wine industry here. Wine tourism isn't overblown or seriously commercialized.
Te Kairanga - Locally know as TK, Te Kairanga is a winery owned by the American-based Foley Family Wines group. Because my parents are Foley wine club members, we went out of our way to visit TK. It's situated on a beautiful little property with a picnic area. The tasting building is actually the restored cottage home of town founder John Martin, with an warm wood-paneled tasting room. Cellar door manager Paul led us through their range of wines, lacing in plenty of anecdotes and dry one liners. He and my dad hit it off, which led to the tasting dragging on unbearably long. TK boasts of their specialized Pinots, which we found to be average in quality. Overall, TK doesn't shine, but it is a quaint and historic place to visit.
Poppies - On our bike tour of Martinborough, we "popped by" Poppies, and met the eponymous owner - Poppy Hammond. She was delightful and hospitable, and is one of the few female winemakers in this region. Her husband Shane is the viticulturist, so this is a true family operation. This relatively new winery has a farmhouse-chic tasting room and event hall. It's a beautiful building and a popular lunch spot. Poppy specializes in white wines, and offers a Pinot Noir in addition to the spectrum of whites. Despite Poppy's hospitality, we weren't wowed by the wines. It's not necessarily fair, since I am red-biased. But I did really enjoy her Rose of Pinot Noir. We recommend a stop at Poppies, especially if you have time for lunch.