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New Zealand’s 24 Pinot Noir Appellations

New Zealand has six regions whose names (appellations) appear on pinot noir wine labels. This article proposes there are another eighteen sub-regions/appellations within the original six that could/should appear on the labels. And that there will be many more in the years ahead. It’s a perspective from an engaged visitor from Canada, not an NZ industry insider. Grab a glass, crack the cap on an NZ pinot and read along.

by David Lawrason, WineAlignMay 6, 2015


 David Lawrason

David Lawrason

In the past two years I have been to New Zealand three times, drawn not by sauvignon which I do enjoy, but by pinot noir. During three weeks in 2013 I visited six pinot noir growing regions, 35 wineries and capped it with the four day NZ Pinot 2013 conference in Wellington. I tasted at least 300 hundred pinots and I became familiar enough with the range to suggest that there about 18 sub-regions distinct enough to be considered separate pinot appellations. And that is only an interim guesstimate. My most recent visits in 2014 and 2015 were not as intensive but I returned once more to Martinborough, and twice to Marlborough and Central Otago – the three largest pinot regions.

Premises and Overviews

What follows are observations based on an important premise. Interesting pinot noir is not cheap – I will be talking about wines for the most part that cost more than $30 in Canada or other markets outside of New Zealand. At this level pinot noir’s fascination is in the way its expresses its place of origin. And those who are going to spend more than $30 are interested. They want to know where the wine comes from, and they will pay for that individuality. They want to taste it and discuss it. So I am talking about NZ pinot noir as one of the world’s most engaging wines, not a commercial commodity.

New Zealand’s regulators are slow to address this issue. They are not yet properly identifying regions on the labels. Some argue that it is early days for New Zealand pinot noir; that sub-regionalization is a work in progress, that vineyards need to mature, that winemakers need more time to experiment in and define terroirs; that consumers are not ready to digest sub-regions; that New Zealand needs to present a simple, unified and easily understood face to the world. There are certainly logical arguments in all this, from a marketing perspective.

6 Otago Bannockburn

Bannockburn, Central Otago

This discussion is not about marketing. In the glass New Zealand pinot is already speaking in sub-regional dialects and its winemakers are too; indeed the whole theme of the NZ Pinot 2013 conference in Wellington was regionality. And as a pinot keener parachuting into the country to get to the bottom of NZ pinot noir it was abundantly evident that pinot noir is every bit as capable of expressing the details of terroir in NZ as it is in Burgundy, which has built its entire reputation on precisely the same foundation.

Some Kiwis seem to almost fear the Burgundy association. During the presentations at the Pinot Noir conference Burgundy became the “B word”, barely speakable. They argued their style is different, with which I agree – altho’ NZ pinot style is closer to Burgundy in fact that some other pinot regions. But style has nothing to do with my point; I’m talking about distinctions based on terroir. And instead of shunning Burgundy associations New Zealand should be embracing and emulating what Burgundy has accomplished in terms of putting terroir in the glass.

Some argue that sub-regionalization or Burgundization of New Zealand will make it too complicated. I ask, for whom?  Not those willing to pay for individualized wines – i.e. Burgundy lovers of which there are legions around the world

Some might argue that New Zealanders don’t want to play into the Burgundy snob factor. They want to be more populist and definitely more casual about it all. Yet they are busily building a distinct kiwi, barefoot and cut-off shorts pinot culture of their own.  It’s the way of the world, as natural as terroir itself and they need to get used to the fact they can be, and are, special.  No time for modesty and self-deprecation!

Generalizations and Stats

The Six Existing NZ Pinot RegionsIn 2013 New Zealand had 5,125 hectares of pinot noir (up 300ha over 2012), placing it in 4th in the world – after France, the USA and Germany. It is the largest production red wine in NZ, and second largest overall after sauvignon blanc. It represents only 9% of NZ’s production and 6% of its exports, but it is rapidly gaining traction outside of New Zealand. In the past five years pinot exports have increased 129%, and Canada remains a strong market – 4th after Australia, the UK and the USA.

The generalized view of NZ pinot noir is that is a fruitier, softer, jammier, higher alcohol and more approachable style than Burgundy, but lighter and leaner than California or perhaps even Oregon pinot. I would agree with this, but that style is more prevalent at lower price points where wines are expected to be drunk young.

Many NZ pinot winemakers are actually not fans of jammy, hottish pinots, and blame the local wine shows and writers for promoting that style earlier on. At the closing tasting at the Pinot Conference 2013 in Wellington – a tasting of wines considered to epitomize the top quality from each region – virtually are the wines were leaner, well structured, more savoury and age-worthy wines that were very high quality but rather brittle in their youth, despite considerable aeration in proper pinot glassware. They were quite Burgundian.

That particular tasting lined up two wines from each of the “established” pinot regions – the regional names that you will see on labels. And there were indeed different nuances of fruit expression (from currants to black cherry) and texture (from lean to rich). So let’s make these regions the starting point of the terroir exploration, arranged in geographic position from north to south. Within each I will discuss sub-regional differences that I encountered based largely on varying soil structures.

New Zealand Wine Regions

The Pinot Noir Regions and Sub-Regions (North to South)

1. Hawke’s Bay

311 pinot hectares
one potential sub-region

It may be odd to be opening a discussion of pinot noir with a region that is far better known for merlot, cabernet sauvignon and syrah. Indeed Hawke’s Bay is a warmish and rather humid coastal area to be growing rot-prone pinot, but there are some successful vineyards farther inland on terraces and south of the Heretaunga Plains in bordering hills where limestone and sandstone can be found. Lime Rock Vineyard has had notable success with its pinot on a 10ha, north-facing site in the Waipawa district. Sileni, Trinity Hill, Greyrock (Flying Sheep) and Osawa are all producing good pinot. From limited personal experience I expect Hawke’s Bay pinots to be fairly deeply coloured and soft with ripe raspberry fruit. Next trip I hope to look more closely at Hawke’s Bay. Don’t count it out.

2. Wairarapa

478 pinot hectares
three sub-regions
Te Muna Road

1 Wairarapa Craggy Range Te Muna Road Vineyard

Craggy Range Te Muna Road Vineyard, Wairarapa

The Wairarapa Valley is large, long pastoral valley up and over the Tararua Ranges about 90 minute drive from Wellington at the southern tip of the North Island. It was one of the first regions to plant pinot noir back in the early 80s, so some vineyards in the core sub-region of Martinborough are now passing their 20 year mark. It is a region of small wineries, none larger than 100,000 cases, most well below 10,000 cases.

Wairarapa is something of an unfortunate name in terms of marketability. It’s difficult to pronounce and similar to the Waipara Valley, another wine region on the South Island, of which more in a moment. For this reason it’s natural for most to refer to it as Martinborough, the name of a small town that centres the most well-established, and greatest number of wineries. But there is more to Wairarapa than Martinborough.

The climate of Wairarapa is relatively even, warm and dry in the rain shadow of the Tararua range on the west, and lower hills that screen maritime influence on the east. The lower end of the Wairarapa is a bit cooler as it is closer to the coast and influenced by a large lake that pools the waters of the Huangarua River. The soils of Wairarapa’s pinot vineyards are largely stony terraces over which the river once flowed. In some places the stones are very large, densely strewn about and running several metres deep.

3. Martinborough

The notion of sub-regions in Wairarapa is tenuous. But no one disagrees that Martinborough is the central region. The wineries are tightly clustered around the town on flat, but very stony soils. It’s wines are ripe with black cherry, quite thick, lush and silky textured, and often showed notable alcohol heat. Many also carried a savoury note and dusty character on the finish. Many wineries show this style: Ata Rangi, Te Kairanga, Shubert, Magrain, Vynnfields, Archer McCrae, Alxander, Alana, Brodie, Elder and Escarpment – many of them dotted along Nelson and Huangarua Roads on the edge of town.

4. Te Muna Road

The locals are starting to distinguish wines from newer plantings on very densely-gravelled Te Muna Road that lies about 5km from Martinborough. This includes a huge new planting by Craggy Range below an embankment on the river’s edge. And I did taste a leaner more vibrant, style in a couple of single vineyard samples with fruit more in the blackcurrant spectrum from Julicher, Kusuda, Craggy Range Te Muna and Big Sky.

Dry River Terraces which lies west of Te Muna and marginally closer to the coast might also be considered a separate region, but production is virtually limited to one winery called Dry River, a pioneering winery with a reputation and price rising well above all others in Wairarapa indeed amongst the most expensive in New Zealand. Nearby are the relatively large holdings of Murdoch James. Their 32 acre site is on limestone based hillside (the only significant sloping and limestone driven site in the region) from which they bottle another vibrant currant pinot called Blue Rock.  It too might one day be a sub-app.

5. Gladstone

This is a smaller region about 30 kilometres up the valley and farther inland from Martinborough, where the climate may be slightly warmer. Gladstone Vineyards, first planted in 1986, anchors a cluster of small wineries on stony terraces at the edge of the Ruamahanga River; with neighbouring Borthwick having major acreage as well. (Nova Scotia born, Brock University educated Alexis Moore took over winemaking in 2013 at Gladstone Vineyards). From a small sampling I found the pinots somewhat paler in colour, with good weight and strawberry/cherry fruit character – not as dense and powerful somehow as those of Martinborough. Masterton is yet another nearby sub-region that will one day seek its own appellation.

6. Marlborough

2,397 pinot hectares (largest in NZ)
three sub-regions (arguably more)
Wairau River
Southern Valleys
Awatere Valley

2 Marlborugh Brancott Valley,

Brancott Valley, Marlborough

At the 2013 Pinot conference I was most surprised by the quality of the pinot coming out of Marlborough, over any other region. The surprise had something to do with preconceptions. I had always had an elevated view of Martinborough (above) as one of the original, pioneering regions, and likewise a high expectation of Otago as being the colourful wild west region. Marlborough was supposed to be the commercial pinot centre with big companies trotting out friendly, simple, raspberry-scented pinots.

But the real story delves much deeper, beginning with the fact that Marlborough has a cool-moderate climate latitude at 41.8 degrees – warmer than Burgundy or Ontario, but cooler than California. Add in coastal influence and it is cool climate indeed, although blessed with generous doses of intense sunlight from a “hole in the clouds” that seems to reside over the region. A sweet spot indeed – but then even within Marlborough there is considerable climatic and soil diversity. I have only listed three sub-regions for now, but there could easily be another five to ten claimed in the years ahead.  And a reminder here that many larger volume pinots could be and are blended from more than one sub-region.

7. Wairau Valley

The Wairau Valley forms the heartland of Marlborough, narrow upstream where hills pinch in on the Wairau River, then it broadens into a wider river plain as it finds its outlet into Cloudy Bay. The river course sits tight against the Richmond Ranges on the north and can be susceptible to more rain. But the soils here are very stony, and there are excellent vineyards sites along Rapaura Road. In an area called the Golden Mile there are also old riverbed terraces. Some sites are thick with often very large stones that radiate heat into the vines. Both Golden Mile and Rapaura Road could easily be claimed as appellations in their own right.  Out towards Cloudy Bay the soils get sandier and lighter, and in the other direction up river, some sites are creeping up into the hillsides, so again more fodder for future appellations. There are almost too many wineries to mention in this area but those making some higher end pinots from Wairau fruit and more familiar in Canada would include (listed from west up the valley eastward down to the coast) Clos Henri, Oyster Bay, Seresin, Forrest, Nautilis, Geisen, Staete Landt, White Haven, Stoneleigh, Cloudy Bay, Hunters and St.Clair.

8. Southern Valleys

On the south side of the Wairau Valley the flat lands poke like fingers into the Wither Hills in a series of five valleys: Ben Morven, Brancott, Omaka, Fairhall and Waihopai. Cold air descends from the Wither Hills into these valleys creating a cooler, later ripening climate than on the northern side of the Wairu plain, so the pinots tend to be a bit leaner.  Each of the valleys could one day be named as individual appellation, based largely on micro-climate and distance from Cloudy Bay on the Cook Strait. In general the soils are quite similar with significant stone content but they also have higher levels of clay than the other sub-regions. And then of course there is a rapid growth of planting into the hills and ridges that separate the valleys, and wineries located thus – like Churton for example – are clearly in the belief that separate Southern Hills appellations make sense, especially those that have limestone outcrops.

3 Marlborough Churton Vnyd, Southern Hills, Marlborough

Churton Vineyard, Southern Valleys

What I noticed while tasting pinot from the Southern Valleys, is that many are already being labeled with individual valley and vineyard names – St. Clair’s Omaka, Delta’s Hatter Hills, Wither Hills Benmorven, Wither Hills Taylor River, Fromm’s Brancott Valley. Individual appellations cannot be far off.  Wineries situated in and using predominantly Southern Valleys fruit include Marisco, Spy Valley, Omaka Springs, Fromm, Dog Point, Brancott, Auntsfield, Wither Hills and Lawsons. Given the number of larger and more well-known wineries in this list, I think the responsibility to delineate the different potential sub-regions in this diverse area – and to promote sub-apps in NZ as a whole – rests largely on their shoulders of the larger Marlborough producers. Go for it!

9. Awatere Valley

Of any Marlborough sub-region Awatere is clearly the most deserving, and perhaps closest to achieving distinct appellation status. Southeast of the Wairau, over the Wither Hills and closer to the Pacific coast, the vineyards of the Awatere experience a cooler, drier and windier growing season. The area can be more exposed to occasional cold weather from the south than the other sub-regions, which tends to create a later ripening crop and even longer growing season. The soils are typically alluvial gravel on wind-borne loess, often exhibiting a diverse composition of stone materials. The pinots from Awatere are some of the leanest, greenest and nervy of New Zealand with cranberry-curranty fruit. Many still get blended into “Marlborough” pinots but keep your eyes peeled for pinots from Yealands, Vavasour etc. There are also new plantings even farther down the coast past Awatere.

10. Nelson

193 pinot hectares
two sub-regions
Waimea Plain
Moutere Hills

The Nelson region sits atop the South Island one range of mountains to the west of Marlborough, at the same latitude. It is at the head of long sound that runs off of Cook Strait. So it is a moderate to cool region, very well known locally for its orchard fruits and cold water seafood.  It is also a thriving arts community with a rapidly evolving culinary scene. In terms of viticulture there are two regions for now the Waimea Plain and Moutere Hills, although some would argue for a third Moutere Coast region at the western edge where the Moutere Hills come down to meet the ocean.

11. Waimea Plain

This is the largest region of Nelson, the flattest and closest to the town. The flats come off a large tidal basin and extend inland for about ten kilometres, narrowing as they come up against the hills. The Waimea River carves a path through the region but is not big enough to have much climatic influence. The plain is cooler and sandier closer to the ocean. Pinot Noir is grown here but sauvignon blanc, riesling are more important. The pinots tend to lighter, floral and quite racy. Important pinot noir wineries in the region include Waimea Estate, TeMania/Richmond Plains, Seifried, Kaimara Estate.

12. Moutere Hills

This is a scenic area of rolling hills framing the western boundary of the Waimea Plain. The hills run up from the coast, rising in altitude the farther inland they reach. The region is generally cooler than the Waimea plain, but more importantly the soil structure changes to include more rock, including some limestone. The cool climate and limestone combine to create some of the most fragrant and elegant pinots of New Zealand, particularly at Neudorf, which is rising to become one of the iconic small producers of New Zealand. Woollaston, Harakeke Farm, Kina Cliffs, Sea Level and Rimu Grove are other notable producers of pinot. The latter, Rimu Grove, is making great pinots from an unusual site where the hills meet a coastal inlet. Rimu Grove and neighbours near the sea could rightly achieve a Moutere Coastal appellation at some point.

13. Canterbury/Waipara

334 pinot hectares
two sub-regions (north to south)
Waipara Hills
Waipara Valley
Canterbury Plains
Waitaki Valley

Spanning 200 kms along the eastern coast of the South Island Canterbury/Waipara is still in formation as a pinot region, and needs some official and difficult sorting out of names. Canterbury is the best known regional/political name, describing the region around the city of Christchurch where the first winery opened in 1978. But since then there has been a massive shift of viticulture to the Waipara Valley north of the city, and subsequently into the hills on both sides of the valley floor. It makes most sense to me, in terms of appellations to use the three different specific sub-regions below (all within Canterbury). It is a cool climate region and generally dry within the rain shadow of the Southern Alps. Hot northwesterly winds often blow here. But it is also coastal, and it is fairly common for cooler, more humid winds to blow up from Antarctica and change the weather.

14. Waipara Valley

About 40 kms north of Christchurch, which lies on the edge of flat coastal plain, a cluster of low hills rise directly on the coast. But behind them runs the north-south Waipara Valley, which is increasingly being planted with very large vineyards.  There is the gamut of cool climate grape varieties, but aromatic whites like riesling, gewurz and pinot gris are important, as well as pinot noir. The flats of the southern Waipara Valley are largely sandy and alluvial with gravel patches from current and former river bed soils and terraces. Pegasus Bay and Torlesse are the pioneering spirits, but Bellbird Springs is achieving international star status as well. And Mud House has recently opened at large winery here.

4 Waipara Valley

Waipara Valley

15. Waipara Hills

The Waipara Valley is framed by hills on three sides, and pinot viticulture in particular is moving into these areas. To the north the valley splays and melts into hills that pinch in from the coast and the interior as the mountains begin to veer east toward the sea.  To the west the land rises into foothills leading to the Weka Pass. As with all hill areas there are varying aspects, elevations and soil strata. And so the pinot terrain becomes quite complex with limestone derived clay, stone and even some areas of limestone outcrop, particularly inland in the Waikari region pioneered by the highly regarded Pyramid Valley and Bell Hill. And the limestone soiled Omihi Hills region could angling for sub-appellation as well. There are a surprising number wineries here, most quite small.  Crater Rim, Muddy Water, Mt Beautiful, Alan McCorkingdale, Bishop’s Head, Dancing Water and Mountford are all producing interesting pinots  with structure and depth.

16. Canterbury Plains

The flat Canterbury Plains surrounding Christchurch may have given birth to wine in the region, but is arguably becoming less important as a wine region as development takes strong hold in Waipara. It has a slightly cooler climate than Waipara due to direct exposure to the sea. The plains are comprised of mainly of shallow free-draining stony soils with varying alluvial deposits thanks to a large number of creeks and rivers crossing the plain now, and in former eras. West Melton, Banks Peninsula and Rolleston are all sub districts of this area, where white wines are much more prevalent than pinot. I have had not had enough pinot grown here to establish a wine style but I have sense a lighter touch, more foresty touch.

17. Waitaki Valley

Inland and south of Christchurch the west-east oriented Waitaki Valley is generating considerable pinot excitement and rapid expansion. Climatically it is more like Otago than Canterbury, but falls geographically and administratively on the edge of the Canterbury line. It is farther south thus cooler but being farther inland (60 kms from the ocean) it experiences less humidity, warm summers and typically, long dry autumns. The main draw here however is the limestone-ridden/schist soils on the hills above the valley floor.  The vineyards are planted on north-facing (sun-facing) slopes along the south bank of the river near the town of Kurow. I have been very taken with the fragrance, energy, depth and minerality of the few Waitaki pinots I have tried, including Ostler’s great Caroline Pinot. Other wineries to watch include Valli, Q Wine and Otiake. A star is emerging, very much worthy of its own appellation/regional status.  It isn’t Otago and it isn’t Canterbury, so let it be its own very special pinot haven.

18. Central Otago

1,356 pinot hectares
Six sub-regions
Gibbston Valley
Cromwell Basin (Pisa/Lowburn)

Central Otago burst onto the NZ and international pinot scene through the 2000s; with wines and attitudes as brash and bold as the landscape – a magnificent mix of mesas/terraces, rivers and reservoirs back-dropped by snow-capped mountains. On my first trip to New Zealand in the mid 1990s I was asked if I would be interested in tasting pinot noir from a man named Alan Brady who had pioneered a winery called Gibbston Valley way down on the South Island near Queenstown. He would bring the wines to my B&B in Auckland.  Of course I agreed, and I remember being struck by the nerve, energy and fragrance of his wines. As well as by his passion for the future of Central Otago.

Today there are almost 100 wineries in Central (as they call it locally), all making pinot noir (plus riveting chardonnay, riesling and pinot gris). Pinot noir is 70% of Otago’s wine production. But as I quickly discovered during my first trip there in 2013, Otago is not one place, indeed there are at least six sub-regions. They are however united by latitude – a frost-prone 45-47 degrees (Niagara is 43.5, Burgundy is 47). It is claimed to be the most southerly wine region in the South Hemisphere.

They are also united by fairly high altitude in the arid lee of the Southern Alps (not unlike B.C.s Okanagan Valley at 49 degrees). So it is a cool region indeed, on paper. But the growing season can be hot and sunny indeed. Central Otago is more prone to make ripe-fruited pinots that often have high alcohol but also  good acidity thanks to cool night-time temperatures. Long cool and usually dry autumns also allow longer hang time and more flavour development.

It is the only continental climate pinot noir region in New Zealand!

The soils of Otago are essentially loess and gravel, which means they are quite well drained, even more so as most vineyards are some degree of slope. Shaped by glaciers and now carved by lakes, rivers there are a wide range of soils across the various sub-regions, comprised of schist, clay, silt loams, gravels, windblown sands and loess. The majority have stony sub-soils, with schist or greywacke bedrock.

Many Otago wineries have vineyards in more than one sub-region, and may blend regions. So the Central Otago appellation is widespread.

19. Gibbston Valley

5 Otago Gibbston Valley

Gibbston Valley, Central Otago

The Gibbston Valley is the first wine region visitors encounter when leaving Queenstown to explore Otago wineries. It was also the first place planted to produce a commercial pinot noir by Alan Brady back in 1987. The region is more like a shelf, bench or porch than a valley, running above the spectacular Kawarau Gorge that eventually tumbles into the Cromwell Basin. It is the highest sub-region of Otago and its cooler climate and north-facing hillside vines ripen later than neighbouring sub-regions. The soils are heavily schisted, and the combination produces pinots that are somewhat lighter, more elegant and stony than many Otago peers. Gibbston Valley was the original winery but others like Peregrine, Amisfield and Chard Farm are making some exciting wines

20. Wanaka

Lake Wanaka, with vineyards along its shoreline near the charming town of Wanaka, lies 80km and a couple of mountain ranges north of Queenstown. Rippon’s spectacular vineyard has become an iconic photo-opp for New Zealand wine, thanks to the backdrop of snow-capped peaks. Wanaka is a bit cooler and slightly wetter than other sub-regions, but the lake does reflect heat and helps prevent frosts. Rippon, an excellent biodynamic producer, anchors the small Wanaka region, but Mt Maude and Atiku are making wines of elegance as well.

21. Cromwell Basin (Lowburn/Pisa)

The large “central” valley of Central Otago winegrowing is defined by Lake Dunstan, a man-made 25km long reservoir with the orchard town of Cromwell at its south end. The lower altitude vineyards near Cromwell tend to be defined as coming from the Lowburn, while those from sloping sites and terraces on the lower slopes of the Pisa Range are defined as Pisa.  One might argue for two separate appellations here but there is a blurring of sites in my mind at least. It’s a warmer, earlier ripening area on sandier soils and overall I find the wine style to be quite ripe, fruit forward and fragrant with a certain juicy drinkability. Many Otago wineries have acreage here, but of those located in the Cromwell Basin look for Quartz Reef and Surveryor Thomson (both biodynamic), Rockburn, Archangel, Wooing Tree and Aurum.

22. Bendigo

Northeast of Cromwell, on slopes and terraces on the east side of Dunstan Lake,  Bendigo is possibly the warmest of all the sub-regions (although Alexandra is too) with vines planted on north facing slopes on stony and wind-blown loess soils. Some are at 220 metres, others higher up at 330 metres. At any rate, it’s rather wild country, with hot days and cool nights. I find the wines quite powerful, broad and chunky with a ripe fruit and garrigue (masculine as opposed to a more feminine style across the way in Pisa/Lowburn). Impressive wineries based on some personal experience are Misha’s Vineyard, Tarras, Mondillo and Prophet’s Rock.

23. Bannockburn

Bannockburn is perhaps the most well-established and well known of the Otago sub-regions, thanks to founding of three wineries in the 1990s that went on to carve out a great quality reputation outside of New Zealand – Felton Road, Carrick and Mount Difficulty.  The vineyards lie south of Cromwell (and removed from moderating effect of Lake Dunstan) on terraces and hills that have been carved into some breathtaking land forms. The region was once heavily mined for gold. This is a warm, dry region, producing powerful, age-worthy, distinctive and complex pinots, often with a note of wild thyme. Aside from Felton Road, Carrick and Mount Difficulty, look also for pinots from Hawkshead, Bannock Brae, Terra Sancta, Akarua, Georgetown and Wild Earth.

7 otago Alexandra

Alexandra Basin, Central Otago

24. Alexandra Basin

The most southerly sub-region of Otago, and perhaps the most southerly pinot region in the world actually had a winery in the 1860s, and the old walls still stand. The Clutha River drains out of the Cromwell Basin and flows south through a gorge into the Alexandra Basin.  It is very hot here during the summer but the nights are also very cool. The landscape is scenically average until you come upon some almost lunar-like outcroppings of decomposing schist, around which vineyards are often planted. I found the pinots here to be very ripe, rich and often possessing glorious cherry fruit.  Two Paddocks by actor Sam Neal is one of the most well-known Alexandra wineries, although tiny Grasshopper Rock is very much on my radar too. There are several other small wineries as well.

And that is a wrap for now. Hopefully this gives NZ pinot fans something of a more cohesive framework that begins to make some sense of what you are experiencing in the glass from New Zealand pinot noir. I urge NZ winemakers to get their regions onto the labels anyway they can to help the consumer cause. And I expect that over the next decade we will see many more appear.

David Lawrason
VP of Wine

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Buyers’ Guide to VINTAGES May 2 – Part Two

New Zealand On Our Minds and The First Big Pink Release
By David Lawrason, with notes from Sara d’Amato and John Szabo MS

David Lawrason

David Lawrason

Early May in Canada has become synonymous with New Zealand wine. The marketing folks from the tiny, perfect, green isles have owned this calendar moment for years, with wine fairs in four cities this month (Montreal May 5, Toronto May 7, Halifax May 12 and Vancouver May 14). And to no one’s surprise, NZ is the feature on VINTAGES May 2 release – along with some German delights which John covered last week. There is also the season’s first platoon of 2014 pinkies, on which Sara reports below.

New Zealand is on my mind a lot these days, having visited three times within the last two years, most recently in March. I am particularly interested in NZ pinot noir (no other country boasts pinot as its lead red wine) and next week I will publish an overly long and long overdue WineAlign exclusive identifying over 20 pinot noir appellations in the country. NZ has come up the middle between Burgundy and warmer New World regions to establish a very appealing pinot comfort zone that slices off pieces of both old and new worlds.

For now however we focus on the VINTAGES selection, featuring new wines sourced by LCBO buyers, who have also visited NZ recently. There will be those who question government officials jetting off on wine buying trips, but I would rather have informed and engaged buyers than uninformed buyers. That said, I also know they are buying to a quality/price formula that will “work” on VINTAGES shelves in Ontario. There are some new brands, which is always great to see, but they fall within a predictable price/quality spectrum – late teens pricing, 87-90 range scoring. Perfectly fine, but they have not really unearthed what’s new and exciting in NZ.

What is happening is real terroir-based winemaking by some very accomplished, inquiring and impatient winemakers. And the Kiwi terroir is a complex, diverse, regional and interesting as any place on Earth. NZ has been reticent to trumpet this. Remember that it is a tiny global player and they are still more concerned about entrenching brand New Zealand than promoting terroir-driven wines. I would argue that they (and the LCBO) need to get beyond this mindset very quickly or they will lose engaged wine lovers willing to pay the $30, $40, $50 that shows what they can really do.

This is especially urgent with Marlborough sauvignon blanc, a wine in danger of flame-out if more terroir-based diversity and nuance is not pushed forward PDQ (pretty damn quick). And then there are the increasingly fascinating universes of pinot noir, chardonnay, riesling and even pinot gris – all being terroir wines that wine enthusiasts love to drink and discuss, and will happily pay a premium to acquire, when quality is there. And the quality is there.

The New Zealand picks

Te Whare Ra 2014 Sauvignon Blanc, Marlborough, South Island ($24.95)

Dog Point Pinot Noir 2012 Te Whare Ra Sauvignon Blanc 2014David Lawrason – Te Whare Ra is a member of a small but formidable Marlborough association of organic wine producers. Located near Renwick its biodynamic vineyards are on a terrace above the Wairu River valley floor (almost neighbours of Seresin). This is a cool, compact style that I really like, and is increasingly common (thank goodness).
John Szabo – Say what? That’s Tee-Far-ee-Rah, or “the house in the sun” for you non-Maori speakers, or simply TWR to friends. Anna and Jason Flowerday’s organically certified, biodynamically dabbling family estate has some of the oldest vines in Marlborough, closing in on four decades. And their wines, like this pure citrus and chive-scented, green apple and herbal sauvignon, are superior. There are no concessions to base commercial appeal made here, just authentic and honest stuff.

Dog Point 2012 Pinot Noir, Marlborough, South Island ($49.95)

John Szabo – I can’t remember a Dog Point wine that hasn’t been a leader in its category, and the 2012 pinot is no exception. If your impression of Marlborough pinot is a wine of light, simple, tart red fruit flavours (like many), this will change it. It’s rather dark and savoury, considerably more concentrated and deep than the average, with excellent intensity, length and complexity. Cellar for another 2-3 years for maximum enjoyment, or hold into the ’20s without a stretch. Best 2017-2024.
David Lawrason – So if you want to experience the kind of quality and excitement I am referring to above, this is your chance.  From one of the great estates of Marlborough, this is a lovely lifted, rich, vibrant and delicious pinot with compelling freshness amid a riot of flavours.

Elephant Hill 2013 Syrah, Hawke’s Bay, North Island ($22.95)

David Lawrason – The 2013 vintage is one of the best yet for NZ reds, including Hawke’s Bay. The region’s syrahs are on fire in NZ, but just beginning to appear here. If you are at all a fan of Rhone wines you need to give this a try – but age a few bottles as well. Very good value.  The Elephant Hill 2013 Pinot Noir is also a good buy.
Sara d’Amato – Elephant Hill’s syrah never disappoints with its immensely satisfying profile that has the peppery character of the Northern Rhone but the density of fruit of the new world.

Elephant Hill Hawke's Bay Syrah 2013  Opawa Pinot Gris 2014 Waimea Classic Riesling 2014Sugar Loaf Sauvignon Blanc 2014

Opawa 2014 Pinot Gris, Marlborough, South Island ($16.95)

David Lawrason – As anywhere NZ has some wineries trying to cash in on the fresh, simple pinot grigio global phenom. But they also have an increasing number of pinot gris aiming at Alsatian opulence and complexity. Some use some residual sugar cosmetics, but many others – like this – do not.  This is a great buy from stony soils in the Wairau.

Waimea 2014 Classic Riesling, Nelson, South Island New Zealand ($18.95)

John Szabo – As if to underscore the region’s rapidly growing reputation for fragrant wines, every three years Nelson hosts the “International Aromatics Symposium” (next on is in 2017) to dig deeply into what it takes to grow aromatic varieties like riesling, pinot gris, gewürztraminer, grüner veltliner, and the like. Waimea seems to have it dialled already, as the winery’s two offerings (also check out the Pinot Gris) in this release are terrific. Perhaps it’s the slightly cooler, cloudier, moister conditions here relative to Marlborough across the hills to the south. Maybe it’s acquired knowledge. Whatever it is, keep it up, please.

Sugar Loaf 2014 Sauvignon Blanc, Marlborough, ($20.95)
Sara d’Amato – A classic Marlborough sauvignon blanc at a very reasonable price. White pepper, lemon, cucumber and grapefruit don the palate of this complex and elegant find.

The Rosés are Flowing
by Sara d’Amato

Sara d'Amato

The rosés are out in full force and I can’t help but delight in this time of year. The romantic in me feels spring is truly upon us but the pragmatist sees that rosés are sorely under-used and under-appreciated. Rosés have both the refreshing nature of a white but the substance of a mild red which makes them incredibly versatile with summer food from barbeques to Souvlaki to fish and seafood.

In our annual round up, as often they do, the French lead the charge with the driest, most authentic and appealing wines. Unfortunately our selection is extremely limited when it comes to rosés and thus we have many styles and regions completely absent from our pool.

However, if our small assortment is any indication, the style of rosé is changing as a reflection of changing consumer preferences. I would like to say that the sweet candied rosés are a thing of the past but they do still creep in, providing the same type of satisfaction as a snow cone on a sunny day. But it is the less simplistic styles that are making the biggest splashes.

More and more, wineries are beginning to produce increasingly serious rosés in the fashion of Tavel in the southern Rhône. It makes a world of difference, in terms of quality when the rosés were intentionally made pink as opposed to being bled out to further concentrate red wines or are a result of a melting pot of underripe grapes unacceptable for reds. Usually darker in colour and with a more significant tannic presence, these styles can even undergo a small degree of ageing.

But rosés need not be too serious and often a simple dry style, refreshing and easy to drink on a hot summer day is the most satisfying of them all. Classically, you can find these wines from the pink capital that is the Côtes de Provence but the grenache-based reds of Spain can provide equally undemanding pleasure. These inexpensive, terrifically popular styles from across the globe are thankfully in good supply in this spring VINTAGES rosé feature.

Mas Des Bressades 2014 Cuvée Tradition Rosé, Costières de Nîmes, Rhône Valley, France ($15.95)

Sara d’Amato – A perennial favourite, the Mas des Bressades combines the dry, authentic, seriousness of the southern Rhône with the charm and easy-drinking appeal of the Languedoc. Excellent value.
David Lawrason – Made from the classic Rhône varieties – grenache, syrah and cinsault – this perennial fave  shows fairly generous floral, red currant, strawberry aromas with vague peppery spice. A rose for the table.

Bisquertt 2014 Kissing Rosé, Colchagua Valley, Chile ($13.95)

John Szabo – Forget the kitschy packaging and silly name; this wine is really much better than the label would indicate. I suggest soaking it off so you can properly enjoy this tidy rosé from the newly-admired país grape, a perfectly light, lively and serviceable, dry and fruity wine, best with a firm chill. I like the wild strawberry flavours and savoury herbal notes.
David Lawrason – The pais, or mission grape, was first brought to the western hemisphere by Spanish missionaries. By-passed for generations as a serious table wine grape it is finding resurgence in South America as a rose/fruity wine variety. This is very pleasant indeed.

Mas Des Bressades Cuvée Tradition Rosé 2014 Bisquertt Kissing Rosé 2014 Brotte Les Eglantiers Tavel 2014 Carpineto Rosato 2014 Torres Sangre De Toro Rose 2014

Brotte 2014 Les Eglantiers Tavel, Rhône Valley, France ($19.95)

Sara d’Amato – Tavel is a mecca for rosé lovers. This appellation produces only rosés and locals prefer to distinguish these high-class beauties by calling them only Tavel and never cheapening them with the term “rosé”. Here is a classic, timeless style and one of the very few wines in this release that can do with short to mid-term ageing.

Carpineto 2014 Rosato, Tuscany, Italy, ($14.95)

Sara d’Amato – A more subtle offering than the norm from Carpineto but very appealing in its delicacy and ethereal lightness. Notes of tomato leaf compliment the salinity and dried strawberry fruit.

Torres 2014 Sangre De Toro Rosé, Catalunya Spain ($13.95)
John Szabo –
Another reliable wine from Don Miguel Torres, well-priced, admirably dry, juicy and crispy. This is easy and accessible, but also better than the mean.

Château De Beaucastel Coudoulet De Beaucastel Blanc 2013A Parting Thought

Château De Beaucastel 2013 Coudoulet De Beaucastel Blanc, Côtes du Rhône ($33.95)

David Lawrason – In recent years I have been mesmerized by the white wines of Beaucastel. Is anyone doing better whites in the south of France?  This is a bright, gently nuanced, very elegant and reserved white from local Rhone varieties like grenache blanc, roussanne and viognier.  This is an In Store Discovery.


And that’s a wrap for this edition. We are already hard at work on the May 16 release, and we have some other things up our sleeve in May, including a new feature called Buy the Case that will highlight best buys from the consignment stocklists of Ontario’s importers. And I am particularly looking forward to the great WineAlign Rolling Limestone bus excursion to Terroir in Prince Edward County. Until then, enjoy a great week of weather ahead and hope to see you at the New Zealand Wine Fair.

David Lawrason
VP of Wine

From VINTAGES May 2, 2015

Lawrason’s Take
Sara’s Sommelier Selections
Szabo’s Smart Buys
Buyers’ Guide to VINTAGES – Part 1
All Reviews

Editors Note: You can find complete critic reviews by clicking on any of the highlighted wine names, bottle images or links. Paid subscribers to WineAlign see all critics reviews immediately. Non-paid members wait 60 days to see new reviews. Premium membership has its privileges; like first access to great wines!

Beringer Knights Valley Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon 2012

WineAlign PEC Bus Tour

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Buyers’ Guide to VINTAGES July 5th – Part One

New Zealand’s Core Strengths
by David Lawrason, with Sara d’Amato

David Lawrason

David Lawrason

The collection of wines from New Zealand on the July 5 release provides a clinic on what the tiny, green land is up to these days, and we will get right to it. But first an alert that Part Two, which will focus on Spain and some fine 2010 Bordeaux, will be delayed by about 24 hours next week as Canada Day bumps a lab tasting opportunity until Thursday, July 3. We will all be playing catch up to fill in many reviews still missing at this point. And after travels in Europe and at the just-completed National Wine Awards in B.C., John Szabo will also be back with his observations and recommendations. So tune in on Friday, July 4th.

New Zealand’s successes are undeniable; with industry and export growth galloping ahead year after year. What may be less obvious is why. Sure, there are climatic and terroir conditions that have allowed  NZ to position itself in a cooler climate niche within the New World. But behind the scenes the New Zealand industry has been focused on exporting wine of the high quality rather than trying to lure fans with very cheap prices – as several other countries have done. Winemakers have gone to school in their own country, and Australia, and worked and studied abroad; while welcoming Europeans in particular to their midst.  Although rapidly exploring and developing terroirs and appellations on a local basis, they are hesitant to stamp them officially, and over-regulate. And they have kept it simple and focused in terms of a NZ brand and worked with a handful of grapes and styles that they can grow well, in contrast to tendencies of the Canadian industry that I discussed in regards to the June 21 release.

This release presents a mini-clinic on NZ’s core strengths, although not every wine is a winner. I urge you to click on all the reviews to get the full scoop before shopping.  The recommendations below from Sara and I tell the story, and we are only missing a great NZ chardonnay from to complete the picture. We have aligned on four wines.

Clos Henri 2102 Sauvignon Blanc, Marlborough, South Island $27.75 – David Lawrason. Such is the power of New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc on the global stage that is attracting investment from Henri Bourgeois, a leading producer of sauvignon blanc in Sancerre – the spiritual homeland of this grape. Having recently tasted Henri Bourgeois single vineyard bottlings from the Loire I can assure you that the NZ project has the same focus on taut, compact wines – which may be a relief to those who find Kiwi versions generally too intense. Sara d’Amato:. I’ve long admired the elegant style of Henri Bourgeois wines. The grapes on these sites in the Wairau are organically grown and produce richly flavoured wines. This sauvignon blanc is widely expressive on the nose yet remains restrained and polished on the palate. Eight months of lees stirring adds the volume, texture and complexity that makes this sauvignon stand out from the crowd.

Sileni Cellar Selection 2013 Sauvignon Blanc Marlborough, South Island ($17.95) – David Lawrason – Sileni is a frequent visitor to Vintages shelves, and I have always viewed it as competent and tasty but mid-pack in terms of quality. So perhaps it is the quality of the 2013 vintage – that all NZ is talking about – that has elevated this super bright, fruit drenched yet refined offering.

Momo 2103 Pinot Gris Marlborough, South Island $19.95 – Sara d’Amato, This playful and highly gulpable pinot gris is anything but a wallflower. It boasts wonderful concentration and plenty of succulent stone fruit that lingers memorably on the finish. The Momo range of wines are sourced from three of Seresin’s biodynamically farmed vineyards and generally offer very good value. David Lawrason:  NZ Pinot Gris is all in the eye of the beholder, as different winemakers sculpt this malleable variety into something unformed that captures what the winemaker likes and what he or she thinks “the consumer” likes. But I sense, as witnessed by this example, that they are trending toward a ripe, fruit, perhaps marginally sweet style as opposed to light crisp pinot grigio. This is very successful, a great chillable summer white.

Lawson’s Dry Hills 2011 Gewürztraminer Marlborough, South Island  ($17.95) – David Lawrason.  This gets a borderline recommendation. I want you to know that NZ may be the most consistently good gewurz producer outside of Alsace, because here ripeness and opulence matter. There is even a winery called Vinoptima that makes nothing but gewurz in NZ. This example certainly catches the style, although I would rather have seen a 2012 or 2013 vintage that really blooms. Still, it is very much worth a go for gewurz fans, and Lawson is a bit of a specialist.

Clos Henri Sauvignon Blanc 2012Sileni Cellar Selection Sauvignon Blanc 2013Momo Pinot Gris 2013Lawson's Dry Hills Gewürztraminer 2011Clos Henri Bel Echo Terroir Greywacke Pinot Noir 2012Staete Landt Paladin Pinot Noir 2010

Clos Henri 2012 Bel Echo Terroir Greywacke Pinot Noir, Marlborough, South Island ($28.95) – David Lawrason – I am intrigued by NZ pinot and am still working on an essay that purports there are already at least 20 fairly distinct appellations.  The upper Wairau Valley with it’s ‘greywacke” soils – a variety of sandstone that is hard, dark “grey” color, and contains quartz, feldspar and small rock fragments – is the soil involved here. And as with Clos Henri’s sauvignons, this house is all about the rocks. A superb pinot awaits folks – don’t balk, don’t walk, run to get some. Sara d’Amato: The vineyard for this wine is in a small, stony corner of Clos Henri’s property. It produces a wine with very good aromatic intensity, terrific definition, mineral, verve and purity of fruit.  The price certainly does not reflect its premium character.

Staete Landt 2010 Paladin Pinot Noir, Marlborough, South Island ($36.95) – David Lawrason: The organic/biodynamic movement has strong support in NZ, and Netherlands-born winemaker Ruud Maasdam has been a leading voice since starting Staete Landt in 2000.  Staete Landt, by the way, was the name given to New Zealand by explorer Abel Tasman in the 17th C. – a rather unimaginative moniker that translates as “land of the governor”.  Anyway, this pinot is far from dull; it’s uplifted, vibrant and elegant, all in one breath. And it’s where NZ can go and is going with pinot.

Other Whites

Talamonti Trabocchetto Pecorino 2012Hamilton Russell Chardonnay 2012Vina Robles 2012 Sauvignon BlancVina Robles Sauvignon Blanc 2012, Paso Robles, California ($19.50) – Sara D’Amato– A lovely, slightly smoky and leesy sauvignon blanc with a great deal more complexity than you generally find in a new world version of this classic Loire varietal. Vina Robles is known for its European, old world inspired styles but this example also highlights exceptional California fruit.

Hamilton Russell 2012 Chardonnay, Wo Hemel-en-Aarde Valley, South Africa ($32.95) David Lawrason –  It’s a bit old school, but this is profound, attention-grabbing, brilliant chardonnay. Anthony Hamilton Russell, along with Peter Finlayson of Bouchard Finlayson were the founding pioneers in the Hemel-en-Aarde appellation (Heaven and Earth) in coastal Walker Bay. He is meticulous and totally quality oriented, making wines with structure and complexity above all. If you would pay $33 for white Burgundy, California or Canadian chardonnay, you will be shocked by the value here.

Talamonti Trabocchetto 2012 Pecorino, Igp Colline Pescaresi, Abruzzo, Italy ($15.95) – Sara D’Amato.  This lovely pecorino is a perfect summer treat for those looking for something a little different. If you are used to sipping on pinot grigio or sauvignon blanc, you’ll likely find this more intriguing. Pecorino is known for its intriguingly complex nose and relatively low yields compared its widely planted neighbor, Trebbiano. The wine offers enticing aromas of peach, flint, white flower and green apple with a delicately refreshing palate. David Lawrason – Not much more detail required here – this may be the best white value of the release.

Other Reds

Red Rooster Reserve Meritage 2011Redstone Vineyard Reserve Cabernet Franc 2010Red Rooster 2011 Reserve Meritage, Okanagan Valley, British Columbia, Canada, $24.95 (366187) – Sara d’ Amato – Having just returned from the Okanagan judging the 2014 National Wine Awards of Canada, I wanted to highlight a rare Okanagan find (at least on the shelves of the LCBO). Perched on the Naramata Bench, this red Bordelaise blend has been deftly crafted by talented winemaker Karen Gillis whose fresh approach has garnered international acclaim.

Redstone 2010 Reserve Cabernet Franc, VQA Lincoln Lakeshore ($29.95) David Lawrason Redstone is a new property owned by Moray Tawse. It is in the Beamsville area but as the vineyards are lower below the bench it wears the Lincoln Lakeshore appellation. Having just tasted many Canadian cab francs at the 2014 National Wine Awards I can tell you styles vary widely, as winemakers search for a groove between serious and fresh styles. This falls in the middle.  I was intrigued to note that guest NWAC judge Jamie Goode, was more enthused by Cdn cab franc than we homegrown critics.

Château Los Boldos Vieilles Vignes Syrah 2011Hidden Bench 2010 Terroir Caché MeritageHidden Bench Terroir Caché 2011, VQA Beamsville Bench, Niagara Peninsula $38.20.  David Lawrason: I have always been intrigued by the dogged determination of Hidden Bench owner Harald Thiel to make super-premium red Niagara “Bordeaux” blends, even more so on his cooler Beamsville Bench sites.  This assembles merlot, cab franc, cab sauvignon and malbec in a vintage that was ripe and warm and gave these varietals a fighting chance. Although I am not for a minute suggesting you should open it now, this has the density, stuffing and tension that might make one a believer.

Château Los Boldos 2011 Vieilles Vignes Syrah Single Vineyard, Cachapoal Andes, Chile ($18.95) David Lawrason – Until 2008 Chateau Los Boldos was a family-owned 190-ha property in the Andean foothills of Cachapoal. That year it was purchased by the giant (red wine focused) Sogrape company of Portugal. Syrah was certainly not among the old vines at the property compared to the cabernet dating from the 40s and 50s. But this still has all the earmarks of lush, vibrant particularly Chilean syrah. And at this price syrah fans can’t afford not to take a look.

That’s a wrap for this week. Again, please stay tuned for Part Two on July 4th, and meanwhile enjoy some upcoming reading next week when Steve Thurlow reports on 20 Under 20 values at the LCBO and Julian Hitner provides a primer for Bordeaux-lovers on the under-appreciated Haut-Medoc region.


David Lawrason
VP of Wine

From VINTAGES June 21st release:

Lawrason’s Take
Sara’s Selections
All Reviews

Editors Note: You can find complete critic reviews by clicking on any of the highlighted wine names, bottle images or links. Paid subscribers to WineAlign see all critics reviews immediately. Non-paid members wait 30 days to see new reviews. Premium membership has its privileges; like first access to great wines!



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La Nouvelle-Zélande et ses pinots noirs

Hors des sentiers battus
par Marc Chapleau

Marc Chapleau

Marc Chapleau

Bon, un petit quiz pour commencer. Nouvelle-Zélande rime avec… ?

La trilogie du Seigneur des Anneaux, oui, d’accord, puisque plusieurs scènes ont été tournées dans l’île du Sud et notamment dans Central Otago. Mais encore ? Vrai, toujours, le pays rime avec kiwis (le surnom de ses habitants, en passant) et aussi avec leurs fameux agneaux (moins cher que celui élevé ici et pratiquement aussi bon).

Cela dit, et en ce qui nous concerne plus spécifiquement, la Nouvelle-Zélande rime surtout avec vin… de sauvignon blanc.

Ah, le subtil arôme d’asperge. Ah, l’envoûtante odeur de pamplemousse ici, de piment Jalapeño là. Je blague, à moitié. Car le sauvignon blanc de nos lointains amis est à la fois le bien-aimé voire le chouchou du public, et le mal-aimé, le souffre-douleur, d’assez nombreux critiques.

La popularité en général de ce cépage est d’ailleurs telle qu’encore aujourd’hui, il accapare environ 70 % de toute la production viticole néo-zélandaise.

Le Pinot noir bon deuxième

Même s’il est très loin derrière, représentant 9 % de la production de vin dans le pays, le pinot noir devient peu à peu la nouvelle vedette. Et cette fois, tant le public que les spécialistes s’accordent à lui trouver des qualités. Sans compter, au Québec, la Société des alcools, qui en fait la promotion ces jours-ci. Même qu’on y trouve en ce moment un peu plus de pinot noir (43) que de sauvignon blanc (37) !

New Zealand

Cet engouement tant chez nous que là-bas n’a rien à voir avec le fait que le pinot noir serait, par exemple, facile à cultiver – bien au contraire, comme on sait. La viticultrice Siobán Harnett, longtemps chez Cloudy Bay et aujourd’hui en poste chez Whitehaven, avait ainsi coutume de dire : « Le pinot noir est un cépage difficile et capricieux. Quand il mûrit, c’est comme pour les oeufs brouillés : pas encore prêt, ça s’en vient, hmm… c’est presque cuit… merde ! trop cuit ! »

Un des vins les plus polyvalents

J’oserais pour ma part avancer que l’un des atouts-clés du pinot noir de Nouvelle-Zélande, c’est sa polyvalence. Le fait qu’il s’accorde, à table, à une multitude de plats, des viandes aux fromages en passant par la cuisine de type asiatique, même épicée et même aigre-douce.

Peu tannique, à l’acidité élevée et avec, souvent, un restant de gaz carbonique qui avive ses saveurs, je vois effectivement peu d’autres vins, à part le rosé, qui puissent être aussi passe-partout.

La grande majorité des pinots noirs de Nouvelle-Zélande viennent de l’île du Sud et, pour l’essentiel, de la région de Marlborough. Mais au sud de ce Sud, dans Central Otago, le cépage d’origine bourguignonne, qui compte dans ce dernier secteur pour près de 71 % de la surface plantée en vignes, se fait de plus en plus remarquer.

Parmi les meilleurs

J’ai goûté récemment une quinzaine de pinots noirs de Nouvelle-Zélande. S’il est vrai qu’ils sont nombreux à se ressembler, à sentir et à goûter en gros la même chose, en revanche certains ressortent du lot. Voici ceux que j’ai retenus.

À tout seigneur tout honneur, le Dog Point Vineyard 2011 est superbe, avec sa texture serrée et sa minéralité qui rappellent bien des bourgognes vendus plus chers.

Également très bon, un peu plus boisé peut-être mais harmonieux et bien fruité par ailleurs, l’Astrolabe 2011.

Pour sa part, le pinot noir Whitehaven 2011, une maison appartenant au géant californien Gallo, doit sûrement une partie de sa relative élégance et de sa nervosité aux bons soins de la viticultrice dont je parlais tantôt, Sioban Harnett.

Dog Point Vineyard Pinot Noir 2011 Astrolabe Marlborough Province Pinot Noir 2011 Whitehaven Pinot Noir 2011 Saint Clair Pioneer Block 15 2010 Margrain Vineyards Home Block Pinot Noir 2010 Framingham Wine Company Limited

Dans Marlborough, Saint-Clair Family Estate produit une série de beaux pinots noirs dont le Pioneer Block 15, charnu et persistant, qui gagne à prendre quelques années de bouteille – même si, c’est vrai, ça ne vieillit pas rapidement sous capsule dévissable…

À Martinborough cette fois, dans l’île du Nord et pas très loin de la capitale, Wellington, Margrain propose un très bon pinot, encore une fois assez boisé mais très bien soutenu par l’acidité.

Pour terminer, on traverse de nouveau le détroit de Cook pour revenir dans l’île du Sud et à Marlborough, avec le pinot noir Framingham 2012, dans un style qui n’est pas sans rappeler celui de Margrain tout juste mentionné.

Une expérience intéressante

Une anecdote, avant de vous quitter. En fait, une expérience intéressante à laquelle j’avais été convié chez le producteur Felton Road, voilà quelques années : deux Pinot Noir « Block 3 » âgés de quatre ans et goûtés côte à côte, l’un bouché sous vis, l’autre sous liège. Mêmes conditions de conservation, même millésime. Le screw-cap l’a emporté, son fruit était plus éclatant, encore « jeune », mais par une faible marge puisque l’échantillon bouché liège, à défaut de fraîcheur aromatique, avait par contre plus de rondeur, son acidité s’était agréablement atténuée.

Santé !


Note de la rédaction: vous pouvez lire les commentaires de dégustation complets en cliquant sur les noms de vins, les photos de bouteilles ou les liens mis en surbrillance. Les abonnés payants à Chacun son vin ont accès à toutes les critiques dès leur mise en ligne. Les utilisateurs inscrits doivent attendre 30 jours après leur parution pour les lire. L’adhésion a ses privilèges ; parmi ceux-ci, un accès direct à de bons vins!

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Highlights from Villa Maria Dinner with Josh Hammond

A sold out crowd of 80 guests joined us for last week’s tutored tasting and dinner event with Josh Hammond, Villa Maria’s Marlborough winemaker.

Hammond grew up in the Marlborough region, in a grape growing family who sold grapes to this most award winning winery and one of the largest in the country. With over one million cases produced at the Marlborough facility, four winemakers to manage, and an intense Canadian tour schedule, Hammond certainly has his hands full and we appreciate the time he took to enlighten us regarding this exciting cool-climate region.

Villa Maria Winemakers Dinner

We had the opportunity to taste the Private Bin series of Sauvignon Blanc and Gewurztraminer as well as the Vineyard Select Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir. Lastly, we were treated to the Single Vineyard Series Southern Clays Pinot Noir showing remarkably well with a rich unctuous texture and an exciting depth of flavour. Minimalist intervention and careful bunch selection are the hallmark of these wines.

Villa Maria Winemakers Dinner

A very sumptuous, thematic and keenly paired menu was offered by the team at Rosewater Supper Club which featured duck prosciutto and roasted rack of New Zealand lamb (ensuring that Hammond didn’t feel so far from home). Thank you to the teams at Philippe Dandurand Wines and Villa Maria for helping to make this event so successful. For information on availability in your area, simply type “Villa Maria” into the Google custom search on WineAlign. We look forward to seeing you at the next exclusive WineAlign tutored tasting.

About Rosewater

Minutes from Toronto’s Financial and Theatre districts, the Rosewater offers a fresh and unique dining experience. From the intimate setting of the upper mezzanine level, which overlooks the main dining room, to the self-contained supper club on the lower level, this building lends an air of romance and casual decadence when dining on a fusion of modern classics.

Villa Maria Winemakers Dinner

Our winemaker events have been consistently and quickly selling out.  If you are interested in attending one in the future we advise you to purchase your tickets as soon as possible to avoid disappointment.

Photos courtesy of Dan Trcka,

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Dinner and Tutored Tasting with Kim Crawford Winemaker – Anthony Walkenhorst

WineAlign is pleased to present an exclusive Dinner with Kim Crawford’s award-winning Senior Winemaker Anthony Walkenhorst 

[NOTE: Both nights for this event are now sold out]

Kim CrawfordKim Crawford is one of New Zealand’s most exciting and innovative wine producers. Kim Crawford Wines started out in a small Auckland cottage in New Zealand. Since its launch in 1996, the label has gained critical acclaim around the globe. The website reads: “We do things unconventionally, take risks, start things, and welcome different.”

Seasoned winemaker, Anthony Walkenhorst, joined Kim Crawford in 2005, working alongside the founder Kim Crawford. The first wine Anthony made won the Sauvignon Blanc Trophy at the New Zealand Wine Awards and the following year the Small Parcels Rise-and-Shine won a trophy for best Pinot Noir. He continues to carry the torch, crafting bold, unique and vibrant wines that ensure Kim Crawford’s exceptional style is present in every bottle.

Anthony Walkenhorst

Kim Crawford Winemaker – Anthony Walkenhorst

On Thursday night Anthony will be joined by our own David Lawrason.

Wines to be sampled at dinner:

– Kim Crawford Small Parcels Fizz, Marlborough Methode Traditionnelle

– Kim Crawford Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc, 2013

– Kim Crawford South Island Pinot Noir, 2012

– Kim Crawford East Coast Unoaked Chardonnay, 2012

– Kim Crawford Small Parcels Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc, 2013

– Kim Crawford Small Parcels Pinot Noir, 2012

Event Details:

Date: Thursday, Oct 3rd, 2013 [SOLD OUT]

Date: Friday, Oct 4th, 2013 [SOLD OUT]

Location:  Gladstone Hotel (1214 Queen St W, Toronto)

Reception: 6:30pm

Five Course Dinner/Tutored Tasting: 7:00pm – 8:30pm

Price: $60 (includes all fees and taxes) 

Purchase Tickets here  [Sold Out]

About Kim Crawford

Kim Crawford

Kim Crawford Vineyards

Since launch in 1996, the Kim Crawford label has gained critical acclaim around the globe. Being big was never our aim. Being the best has been. Now, New Zealand producer, Kim Crawford is rejoicing in anticipation of the 2013 harvest and believes it will be a vintage to remember, the “Vintage of a Lifetime.” In addition to earning the distinction for being New Zealand’s driest growing season in about 70 years, the 2013 vintage has also benefited from the sunniest first three months of the year since 1930, rivaled in observed history only by the 1978 season. Consumers can expect flavorful, delicious white wines from the 2013 vintage.  

About Anthony Walkenhorst

Before joining Kim Crawford, Anthony received his First Class Honours Bachelor of Agricultural Science Degree from the highly esteemed University of Adelaide in Southern Australia. To further his wine education, Anthony then travelled the vintage trail to work harvests from Australia to the Napa valley but finally ended up in New Zealand.  Visit Anthony’s blog 

About Gladstone Hotel

Gladstone Hotel

Gladstone Hotel

Internationally recognized as Canada’s favourite Boutique Art Hotel, the Gladstone uniquely blends historical Victorian architecture with contemporary luxury, downtown culture and whole lot of art, making it an iconic Toronto hub for locals and international travelers alike.

Supporting 37 artist designed hotel rooms, over 70 art exhibitions a year, 4 diverse event venue spaces and 2 restaurants, all on a strong values-based mandate, the Gladstone strives to foster an authentic experience for its guests and the local community.

Note: Our winemaker events have been consistently and quickly selling out.  If you are interested in attending then we advise you to purchase your tickets as soon as possible to avoid disappointment.

Filed under: Events, Wine, , , , , ,

Lawrason’s Take on Vintages April 13 Release

The County is Back, Bargain Burgundy, California’s L’Aventure & Cade and Lifford’s New Zealand Offerings

David Lawrason

David Lawrason

Popular brands from New Zealand and a handful of decent value Portuguese reds get the limelight on this release but as colleague John Szabo amply covered them last week, I veer off in other directions. Due to a whopping head cold on one of my tasting days I was not able to cover the entire release, but I did catch the Prince Edward County wines, some terrific In Store Discoveries and other sundry delights. I also had a chance to taste the growing portfolio of New Zealand pinots being offered for direct purchase by Lifford Wine & Spirits, so I offer links to some favourites reviewed here on WineAlign.

But first I want to dedicate this edition to two friends in wine who passed away last week. Barbara Ritchie was a colleague on the tasting/writing circuit for many years, a gentle, intelligent and diligent taster and writer who beyond all expectation long survived the death of her twin sister Ann in 1996. They were founding members of the Wine Writers Circle of Canada, and both will be remembered in a service at The Toronto Hunt on Sunday, April 21.

I also sadly salute the passing of David Churchill, a film critic and novelist who indulged his passion for wine by researching and writing for the LCBO’s VINTAGES magazines that we have all relied on for years. He was a creative, quick-witted, generous and gregarious lad who lived life with gusto, and he was an immeasurable help to me in accommodating my deadlines and writings about VINTAGES offerings. He is missed.

County Wines Re-Visited

Since moving back to Toronto from the Prince Edward County region in 2010, I have done my best to keep on top of new wines and wineries. This spring sees the opening of Hubbs Creek Vineyard on Danforth Road in Hillier where John Battista Calivieri and partners have been growing pinot noir and white grapes since 2001. The 2010 pinot is a very fine, very Burgundian addition to the County lexicon. And ThreeDog Vineyards has its official opening in June, as yet an “un-tasted” property growing pinot noir, chardonnay, pinot gris and hybrids in the north end of the County off Highway 49.

You can personally check out all the latest offerings at “County in the City” on Thursday, April 25 at the Berkeley Church in Toronto. The evolving line-up includes newer wineries like Lighthall, Exultet, Stanners and Devil’s Wishbone. Meanwhile, County standards like Norman Hardie, Rosehall Run and Huff Estate are also featured on this month’s release.

Rosehall Run Cuvée County Chardonnay 2010Huff Estates South Bay Vineyards Chardonnay 2009Norman Hardie County Unfiltered Pinot Noir 2011Rosehall Run 2010 Cuvée County Chardonnay ($21.95) is a benchmark County chardonnay from a winery that has focused on the County’s best grape from Day One. This is sourced from the winery’s own site on Greer Road as well as nearby Hillier region vineyards. It’s typically light and lively with nicely ripe fruit flavours thanks to the warmer 2010 vintage – if not quite as deep as its JCR Rosehall Vineyard portfolio mate.

Huff Estates 2009 South Bay Vineyards Chardonnay ($29.95) shows some real class and depth at the hands of winemaker Frederic Picard. It’s a maturing, quite buttery style from a lighter vintage. The South Bay Vineyard lies very near a bay of the same name near the County’s south shore – not at the winery itself which last year added a restaurant to its excellent inn, and the terrific Oeno Gallery.

Norman Hardie 2011 County Pinot Noir ($35.00) follows evenly in the footsteps of previous vintages even though 2011 was a “lighter” vintage. The only place this evident is in the very pale ruby colour. This will cause some to pause, but the aromatics are convincingly ripe, clean and complex. Pinot fans will be pleased, right through to the typical County minerality on the finish.

Fine, Affordable Burgundy & Beaujolais

If Prince Edward County pinot noir deserves comparison to any place in the world it is Burgundy. The County has not yet developed the vine age, nor perhaps does it have the sites, to be compared to top 1er Cru and Grand Cru Burgundy, but I have tasted some basic Bourgogne that are akin to County pinots.

Domaine Des Marrans Fleurie 2011Domaine Parent Pinot Noir Bourgogne 2011Domaine Parent 2011 Pinot Noir Bourgogne ($21.95) is a case in point, with a juicy tartness and cranberry scented fruit that is very reminiscent of some County pinots. And this wine rises well above its station at the bottom of the Burgundy pecking order. Anne and Catherine Parent hand harvest and sort the best fruit from flatter sites near their home base in Pommard and Volnay to create this wine. The 2011 vintage in Burgundy is being called very good, with a somewhat larger crop and lighter structure than the age-worthy 2010s or the very ripe 2009s.

Domaine Des Marrans 2011 Fleurie ($19.95) continues the string of delicious “Cru” Beaujolais from the south of Burgundy. They are based on gamay, not pinot noir. When I was in Burgundy last spring one sommelier sniffed that Beaujolais was a great “luncheon wine”. Indeed it is. But regular readers will know I have taken a shine to the “crus” ever since a new generation of elegant, floral and ripe wines began to appear with the 2009 vintage. I have been drinking them for dinner quite regularly, indeed just last week I BYO’d a bottle of 2010 Cote de Brouilly to an excellent French dinner at Celestin on Mt Pleasant (free corkage on Tuesday nights).

Huge Mosel Value

Dr. Hermann Ürziger Würzgarten Riesling Spätlese 2007I continue to be amazed by the nose-diving prices of fine German wines. It’s almost inconceivable that a maturing beauty like Dr. Hermann Ürziger Würzgarten 2007 Riesling Spätlese could be offered here for a mere $16.95. Everything about this wine is classic. The family has been in the Mosel wine business for centuries, although the current generations only created this winery in 1967. This riesling is harvested from impossibly steep vineyards on the home property above the village of Urzig, one of a handful of vineyards the family owns, totalling no more than 7.5 ha in the middle of Mosel. What a great opportunity to explore Mosel riesling’s charm and ageworthiness. Try it to celebrate the first truly lovely evening of spring – whenever that arrives.

California’s L’Aventure & Cade

About two years ago I was on a crash, seven-day group tour of several California wine regions. On day one in Paso Robles, admittedly bleary-eyed after the travel and a late first night, we visited L’Aventure, one of the most memorable tastings of any that would follow. But first we had to make it through a very long introduction by winemaker Stephen Asseo. Thank goodness his tale was interesting – a French winemaker bored by the strictures of AOC regulation at home and setting off in 1996 to find great terroir elsewhere in the world. He arrived in the Pacific cooled western hills of Paso Robles with their calcareous-based soils and shouted Eureka! He densely planted over 100 acres of syrah, cabernet sauvignon, petit verdot and mourvedre, and undertook a laborious, organic growing regimen that yields a paltry two tons per acre. He kept repeating that above all he wanted balanced wines, and when we crowded into his tasting room and he began to pour his inky reds I was still a doubter. By the end of the tasting I was hooked, and I am delighted to report that I remain a convert after a more leisurely and studied tasting of the pair being released now as In Store Discoveries.

Cade Napa Cuvée Cabernet Sauvignon 2009L'Aventure Côte à Côte 2010L'Aventure Estate Cuvée 2010L’Aventure 2010 Estate Cuvée is a profound, complex, structured and nuanced blend of almost equal parts cabernet and syrah with some petit verdot. L’Aventure 2010 Côte-À-Côte is an equally massive if softer blend of grenache, syrah and mourvedre. Both hit well over 15% alcohol, with barely a warm buzz. Both are $95.  Both are worth a look by collectors of California wine. Both are better than Opus One, also being released April 13, at just over twice the price.

But if it must be Napa cabernet and Opus is too rich for your blood, do try Cade Napa Cuvée 2009 Cabernet Sauvignon, which is equally as good but much less than half the price at $78.95. This is a new, organically farmed Howell Mountain winery complete with LEED certified environics (the walls are insulated with blue jean rags). It is owned by the Plumpjack group – most well-known to wine collectors for cultish Plumpjack Cabernet. But the partners, including Gavin Newson, a former mayor of San Francisco, and Gordon Getty, an L.A composer and Shakespearean, also own three wine shops and now have interest in three hotel properties. In any event, this a classic, sculpted Napa cabernet with some mountain minerality on the finish.

More Great White Bordeaux

Château Haut Bergey Blanc 2009I jumped the gun on the last newsletter extolling the virtues of white Bordeaux. Three more have turned up as In Store Discoveries this time. All are over $50, but fans of the genre won’t complain. I especially draw your attention to the magnificent Château Haut-Bergey 2009 Blanc from Pessac-Léognan at $57.85. This is one of the great whites of the year to date, with wonderful vitality and richness. The small, ancient property was purchased by Sylvaine Garcin-Cathiard, wife of a Bordeaux wine merchant, in 1991. The white wine vineyard is a paltry 2ha of gravelly soil planted to 82% sauvignon blanc and 12% semillon. The wine was barrel fermented and aged 12 months in new French oak but you barely recognize the oak effect amid the exotic fruit and richness.

Lifford’s New Zealand Offerings

As mentioned, four important New Zealand wineries are featured with multiple listings on this release – Oyster Bay, Coopers Creek, Cloudy Bay and Dog Point (don’t miss Dog Point). Multiple listings seems to be a new strategy by VINTAGES, and the fact that three of the four are top-selling brands, suggests some deal-making at play. Which is all fine until you consider the hundreds of other worthy NZ wineries that would have loved to have been a part of this feature.

While VINTAGES does its thing, wine importers are busy doing theirs, and Lifford Wine & Spirits in particular has taken a shine to NZ wine and is busy building a market. Owner Steven Campbell recently took some of his staff, plus key sommeliers from across Canada, to the Pinot Noir NZ 2013 conference in Wellington. “I have been to every conference from day one” he says, “always looking for great new producers”. He was not alone this year as representatives from Ontario’s B & W Wines and Connexion Oenophelia were also on scouting missions.

Lifford's New Zealand Portfolio Tasting

Lifford’s New Zealand Portfolio Tasting

Lifford presented its beefed up NZ portfolio to buyers in Toronto earlier this month – with a fine range of wines by Ata Rangi of Martinborugh, Carrick and Felton Road of Central Otago, Craggy Range of Hawkes Bay, Staete Landt of Marlborough, and two new houses: Mountford of Waipara Valley and Neudorf of Nelson. Over 30 wines were poured. I focused on the many pinot noirs in the line-up, partially in preparation of a planned article on NZ pinot noir that will pinpoint over 20 sub-regions where this grape is showing its diversity.

Meantime, here are links to some of my favorites. Some of the wines are currently on consignment, others available by private order through Lifford until April 19.

Ata Rangi 2011 Pinot Noir, Martinborough $79.95
Ata Rangi 2011 Crimson Pinot Noir, Martinborough $36.95
Carrick 2010 Bannockburn Pinot Noir, Central Otago $44.95
Craggy Range 2011 Pinot Noir Te Muna Road, Martinborough $49.95
Craggy Range 2010 Calvert  Pinot Noir Calvert, Central Otago, $67.95
Felton Road 2011 Bannockburn Pinot Noir, Central Otago $71.50
Felton Road 2011 Calvert Pinot Noir, Central Otago $84.95
Mountford 2009 Village Pinot Noir,  Waipara Valley $46.95
Mountford 2009 Pinot Noir Estate, Waipara Valley $89.95
Neudorf 2011 Moutere Pinot Noir, Nelson $69.95
Staete Landt 2009 Paladin Pinot Noir, Marlborough $39.95

And that’s a wrap for this edition. In the days ahead I hope to see you at Malbec World Day on April 16 (which includes many other Argentina varieties) and at County in the City on April 25 (where the winemakers bring Prince Edward County to you).


David Lawrason
VP of Wine

From the April 13, 2013 Vintages release:

David’s Featured Wines
All Reviews

County in the City

Malbec World Day

Filed under: News, Wine, , , , ,

John Szabo’s Vintages Preview for April 13, 2013

Iconic New Zealand; Bargain Portugal; Smart Buys from the Jura and for the Cellar, and more.

John Szabo, MS

John Szabo, MS

New Zealand is the main feature of the April 13 VINTAGES release, but of eleven wines offered, only four producers are represented, and ten of the wines are from Marlborough. A fair representation it is not, and it comes across as a very corporate assortment. Nevertheless, Cloudy Bay and Dog Point are the clear quality leaders, and I highlight their best releases in this report.

And where the LCBO falls short, private consignment agents have stepped in to fill the gaps. For those interested in the true inside scoop on what to buy, stay tuned for a comprehensive report on New Zealand’s top producers by region, all represented in Ontario, to be released prior to the upcoming New Zealand Wine Fair. For more background, re-visit my piece on what it’s like to travel in New Zealand, and for the really keen, my piece with thoughts on the New Zealand wine industry.

Pairing Food & Wine for DummiesThis report also highlights five fine values from Portugal, the other theme of the release, as well as the Top Ten Smart Buys, including a pair for the cellar and a fantastic ‘terroir’ wine from the little-known Jura. Pour yourself a glass and check out my video interview on “Pro and Kon” with writer and CBC radio host Konrad Ejbich about Pairing Food and Wine [for Dummies].

Highlights From Top Ten Smart Buys

Sommelier’s Choice: The Jura

The Jura is a small, 80-kilometer long sliver of eastern France opposite Burgundy’s Côte d’Or on the other side of the Bresse plain, framed to the east by the foothills of the Alps and the nearby Swiss border. It belongs to the greater region known as Franche Comté, once part of the Duchy of Burgundy, but later under Spanish rule thanks to the expansion of Carlos V’s empire. The Spanish influence of this period is still felt strongly in the peculiar wine style for which the Jura is known, Vin Jaune, a savagnin-based wine aged under a veil of yeast, just like Fino Sherry.

Vin Jaune Ageing in Barrel

Vin Jaune Ageing in Barrel

But chardonnay, planted in the Jura since the 15thC, can also be extraordinary, not surprisingly, since the Jura is, after all within sight of Burgundy with similar limestone-based soils. Yet wine style and labeling confusion has held exports in check. Chardonnay from the Jura comes in either the sherry-like oxidative style called locally “typé or traditionelle“, while others are more modern and reductive, called “fruité” or “floral” in local parlance. Both can be excellent, but often there’s no way to know what to expect from the label alone. So Jura wines remain largely insiders’ picks for those in the know, at least for now. They’re what sommeliers love to drink on their days off, given the remarkable terroir expression at non-Burgundian prices.

Château-Châlon Vineyards

Château-Châlon Vineyards

Henry Le Roy is the Paris-born owner of Domaine de l’Aigle à Deux Têtes in Vincelles, in the southern part of the region. I had lunch with him in Château Châlon last fall – he’s a quietly confident man who competed in two world kayaking championships. He’s still fit.

Le Roy fell in love with the Jura, as many who come here to holiday do. But it wasn’t easy to make the move from Paris and establish his domaine. “An outsider is someone who comes from more than 10kms away” he remarks somewhat sardonically. “To be considered a local you must have at least five generations in the cemetery.” Being from Paris makes him the ultimate outsider, but he has managed to acquire some top terroirs and is crafting excellent wines.

Le Roy’s 2009 ‘En Griffez’ Chardonnay Côtes Du Jura ($23.95) is made from 50+ year old vines planted on a ludicrously steep, 40% south facing grade with fully calcareous stony soils and fermented with wild yeast (bien sûre). It’s a lovely, earthy-mineral wine, with slightly soft texture thanks to the warm 2009 vintage, and beautifully integrated old wood spice flavours. 12.6% alcohol is deceptive – this is powerful and stony wine for fans of top notch Burgundian style chardonnay and shouldn’t be missed.

Comparative Tasting

Bachelder Bourgogne ChardonnayAnd speaking of Burgundian chardonnay, for a truly decadent and educational soirée, compare the En Griffez above with the 2010 Bachelder Bourgogne Chardonnay ($29.95) from Canadian Thomas Bachelder. He’s another outsider who has found a home, at least part of the time, in Burgundy, that is when he isn’t making chardonnay in Niagara or in Oregon. This is a very fine Bourgogne Blanc to be sure, from a vintage I like very much, well above the average quality for the generic appellation. It offers intriguing green peach and nectarine, green walnuts and lime-lemon citrus flavours alongside old wood spices like cinnamon and cassia bark, with really well-balanced, mid-weight palate, crisp but also creamy, and exceptional length for the category.

A Pair For the Cellar

Collectors seeking age worthy wines should consider this pair that will make for brilliant drinking in a decade. The 2009 Château Latour Martillac, Pessac-Léognan, Cru Classé ($53.85) is a refined and aristocratic Bordeaux, in which the ripeness and concentration of the 2009 vintage is evident. It has perfectly ripe but fresh red and black fruit tied to the warm earth/terra cotta notes typical of Péssac, classically styled, yet still supple and balanced. It’s temptingly delicious now, though will really be in full swing by the end of the decade.

Château Latour Martillac 2009Domaine Durieu Châteauneuf Du Pape 2010The 2010 Domaine Durieu Châteauneuf-Du-Pape ($35.95) is likewise an intense, dense and terrifically complex southern Rhône, traditionally styled, aged entirely in large concrete vats. It offers rich, succulent black cherry and baked strawberry fruit allied to black olive tapenade, dried resinous herbs and orange peel spice, while tannins are firm but fully coated in fruit extract, acids balanced and alcohol generous but also in check (14.5% declared). This should be best after 2018.

Also featured in the top ten you’ll find an excellent Rioja, a well-priced, classically styled Bourgogne Rouge, solid and satisfying reds from Mendoza and Sicily, and a pair of wonderfully fragrant whites from cool climate Europe. See them all here.

Marlborough, New Zealand: The Connection between Cloudy Bay and Dog Point Vineyards

Cloudy Bay, and especially Dog Point, are the wines from New Zealand to look for on April 13th, and there’s an interesting connection between them. Cloudy Bay Vineyards, established in 1985 by David Hohnen, co-founder of Cape Mentelle in Western Australia, is the winery that put Marlborough on the world map back in the late 1980s. The style of sauvignon blanc for which the region would become famous was developed by winemaking team of Ivan Sutherland, James Healy, and Kevin Judd. Much of the fruit for Cloudy Bay’s celebrated sauvignon came from Sutherland’s personal property at the convergence of the Brancott and Omaka Valleys in the southern part of the region, which he and his wife Margaret purchased and planted in 1979.

Dog Point Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc 2012Dog Point Section 94 Sauvignon Blanc 2010Dog Point Chardonnay 2011Sutherland and Healy stayed at Cloudy Bay until 2003, when the pair left to launch Dog Point Vineyard. Today, their 100 hectares, including some of the original plantings, are farmed organically and hand picked (a rarity in Marlborough). Some of the fruit still goes to Cloudy Bay, but according to Sutherland and Healy, they (sensibly enough) keep the top, hillside vineyard fruit for Dog Point. The style is intense and edgy, with lots of lees contact and wild yeast complexity, some of the finest wines in the region in my view.

Kevin Judd, incidentally, also left Cloudy Bay in 2009 to start his own, very good label called Greywacke, and he gets 95% of his fruit from the Sutherland vineyard, and makes his wine at the Dog Point winery.

Cloudy Bay Te Koko Sauvignon BlancCloudy Bay Sauvignon Blanc 2012Cloudy Bay remains a top player in the region, however. The iconic winery was bought by luxury goods firm LVMH in 2003, the same year Healy and Sutherland moved on. And after a dip in quality when production of the sauvignon blanc was ramped up to over 100,000 cases by the end of the decade, Cloudy Bay appears to be back on form with a strong set of recent releases. The 2012 sauvignon is the classic one to watch for, while the Te Koko Sauvignon, wild fermented in barrel with full malolactic, is a relatively new expression of Marlborough sauvignon, one that is gaining in popularity as producers look to distinguish their offerings and move away from the ubiquitous (and rather homogenous) pungently grassy style.

Wines to try:

2009 Cloudy Bay Te Koko Sauvignon Blanc ($47.95)

2012 Cloudy Bay Sauvignon Blanc ($29.95)

2011 Dog Point Chardonnay ($39.95)

2010 Dog Point Vineyard Section 94 ($39.95)

2012 Dog Point Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc ($23.95)

Five Best Buys From Portugal

Portugal is the other theme of the April 13 release and there are some excellent bargains on offer. Topping the list for value is the 2010 Ramos Pinto Duas Quintas ($16.95). It’s a typical Douro blend of tinta roriz, touriga franca and touriga nacional from two (duas) farms (quintas): the Quinta de Ervamoira in the heart of the Douro with its warm micro climate and schist soils, and the Quinta dos Bons Ares at cooler elevation and on granite soils. The result is a wine with terrific complexity and structure for the money.

2009 Quinta De Ventozelo Reserva Douro Tinto ($21.95) is a more bold and ripe, intensely fruity and expressive blend of mainly touriga nacional with 20% each of touriga franca and tinta roriz (tempranillo) that drinks nicely now. The palate is suave and polished, yet with sufficient grip and structure to ensure development over at least the short to mid term.

Ramos Pinto Duas Quintas 2010Quinta De Ventozelo Reserva Douro Tinto 2009Delaforce Touriga Nacional 2009Monte Vilar Reserva 2011Deu La Deu Alvarinho Vinho Verde 2011

Also worth a look from the Douro is the 2009 Delaforce Touriga Nacional ($18.95), while the 2011 Monte Vilar Reserva Vinho, Regional Alentejano ($14.95) from further south delivers plenty of character and satisfaction for under $15. Fans of bright, fragrant-floral whites will enjoy the 2011 Deu La Deu Alvarinho, Vinho Verde ($19.95).

That’s all for this week. See you over the next bottle.

John Szabo, MS

From the April 13, 2013 Vintages release:

Top Ten Smart Buys
Best Buys from Portugal
All Reviews


Stags' Leap Winery Cabernet Sauvignon 2008

Malbec World Day

County in the City

Filed under: News, Wine, , , ,

John Szabo’s Vintages Preview for March 2, 2013

New Zealand Industry Strengths & Challenges; California and Southern Italian Discoveries and Top Ten Smart Buys

John Szabo, MS

John Szabo, MS

Aotearoa, The Land of the Long White Cloud: New Zealand.

Three sunny summer weeks and a few thousand kilometers later and I’ve scratched deeply into the surface of a country that occupies a place of growing importance in the world of fine wine. Over a mere three decades, New Zealand has earned an envious international reputation for its high average quality wine production, now widely exported to all of the world’s major markets. Sauvignon blanc, mainly from Marlborough, remains the country’s calling card. But the real story, of course, runs much deeper. Read below for some observations on the industry.

And since I was in New Zealand during the media tasting for the March 2nd release, I was able to taste only about half of the new wines on offer. The features are California and Central-Southern Italy, and there are some fine discoveries from each, which I’ve folded into the top ten smart buys.

California Discoveries

Chalone Monterey County Chardonnay 2010Frog's Leap Cabernet Sauvignon 2010Those familiar with Frog’s Leap won’t consider this a ‘discovery’, but others unaccustomed to Napa cabernet with moderate alcohol, fresh fruit flavours and even a hint of herbal-green flavour might be pleasantly shocked by the 2010 Frog’s Leap Cabernet Sauvignon ($56.95). This winery has long espoused a balanced, fresh, lively style (it’s also farmed organically), and this 2010 is indeed fresh and succulent, with genuinely juicy acids and balanced alcohol (13.9%), not to mention terrific length. Most importantly, this wine gives you the desire to come back for another sip.

In a similar fashion, devotees of balanced and crisp, minerally chardonnay will be pleased with the 2010 Chalone Monterey County Chardonnay ($29.95). Chalone is a perennial favorite for its classy, restrained style, and this 2010 is refreshingly crisp with mouth-watering acids and remarkable flavour intensity, lingering on chalky-limestone minerality. It’s enjoyable now, or hold for a half-dozen years or so.

Bonterra Pinot Noir 2010Vina Robles White 4 2010Quality pinot noir from anywhere in the world under $20 is a rarity, making this 2010 Bonterra Pinot Noir from Mendocino County ($19.95) all the more memorable. Don’t expect a life-changing experience, but this organically grown, mid-weight example is pure and inviting and varietally accurate, with lightly dusty tannins and balanced acidity – a perfect mid-week sort of pinot.

Of the discovery wines from the Central Coast area, the 2010 Vina Robles White 4 ($18.95) is worth a look. It’s an original blend of viognier, verdelho, sauvignon blanc and vermentino, surprisingly subtle on the nose, though the palate picks up the flavour intensity. It’s nicely balanced and contained overall, showing generous but balanced alcohol (14.2%), and above average length.

Central and Southern Italy Smart Buys

Terrelíade Nirà Nero d'AvolaSelvanova Vigna Antica Aglianico 2009Choose carefully from the Italian feature. Vintages has unearthed a few authentic, genuine Italian treasures alongside some undistinguished, internationally styled commercial wines aimed, one supposes, at drawing non-Italian wine drinkers into the category. Topping my list for regional character and value is the 2009 Selvanova Vigna Antica Aglianico ($15.95). This is a wine with a real sense of volcanic minerality; you can clearly taste the rusty iron, tar, scorched earth-like soil profile, allied to tart red and black cherry fruit and dried herbs-pot-pourri-faded flowers. Tannins are fierce and grippy, giving this a distinctively rustic, old world structure. It’s categorically not a fruity wine, but a terrific value for fans of unique, terroir-driven wines. Cellar 2-3 years, or serve with hard cheese or grilled lamb.

The 2010 Terrelíade Nirà Nero d’Avola ($18.95) is made in a similar, if less dramatically rustic vein, tailor-made for grilled or braised game meats. It’s intriguingly spicy and herbal, like roasted green pepper, with black licorice, dried leaves and spiced black cherry fruit. The tannins are also tough and rustic, but coated by generous alcohol (14.5%), balancing the palate and adding succulence.

And other March 2 Smart Buys

Te Awa Chardonnay 2010Southbrook Vineyards Triomphe ChardonnayOther smart buys worth pointing out include a pair of cool chardonnays: the 2010 Te Awa Chardonnay ($18.95) and 2011 Southbrook Vineyards Triomphe Chardonnay ($21.95). It’s not a stretch to say that the wines from Hawke’s Bay, New Zealand, and those from the Niagara-on-the-Lake area of the Niagara Peninsula share some commonalities. Both areas are slightly warmer than the relative mean, and tend to produce fairly generous and round styles while still respecting the cool climate idiom.

Southbrook has really nailed it on the head with this 2011, moving away from a more oxidative/wood-inflected style to an example that’s axed on ripe orchard fruit flavours, even honeydew melon and pineapple tropical fruit, while still maintaining a sense of cool climate restraint. The palate is pure, flavourful, effortlessly balanced with very good length and little wood influence. Te Awa’s example is likewise a classy, elegant and refined barrel-aged chardonnay at an attractive price, in which citrus, orchard fruit and judicious oak intermingle on a balanced frame of acids and alcohol.

Marqués De Cáceres Gran Reserva 2004And finally I might be accused of hoarding were I not to draw your attention to the 2004 Marqués de Cáceres Gran Reserva Rioja ($29.95). The Spanish tradition of releasing wines at maturity is largely under-appreciated in a world where the younger and fresher, the better it is. Gran reservas by law can’t be released until their 6th year from vintage, and this eight-year-old wine is in brilliant drinking form right now, with no need for further cellaring (though you can certainly hold onto this for another decade without pushing the limits). It’s a refined, complex, elegant wine, but what I most appreciate is the fine balance between old and new school styles – this sits comfortably between the two, and it’s just about perfect as such. (See my full list of Top Ten Smart Buys here).

Pinot 2013

My visit to New Zealand was occasioned by the 5th edition of the Kiwi’s celebrated Pinot Noir NZ conference, a triennial affair that attracts a huge delegation of local and international journalists, importers, sommeliers and winemakers. Such has been the success of the conference that it’s enough to mention “I’m going to Pinot” in wine circles, and the meaning is clear. That’s no small feat for a country that had no pinot noir, nor virtually any other vine planted for that matter, prior to the early 1970s.

Pinot Noir NZ 2013

Opening Ceremony
Pinot Noir NZ 2013

Following are some observations, including some strengths and challenges ahead for the New Zealand wine industry as I see it. I’m in the process of posting over 300 New Zealand wine reviews on WineAlign from the tastings over those three weeks (even though I tasted many more wines than that), some from the pinot conference itself, others from prior and subsequent visits to wineries on both the North and South Island. My April 13th report will sketch out the major regions with a focus on pinot noir, along with profiles of recommended producers and their top wines, so stay tuned, and colleague David Lawrason who was also in New Zealand has many more reviews, observations, and regional reports to share. And finally, if you’ve never been to New Zealand, or even if you have, you may get a kick out of my personal snapshot of what it’s like to travel in New Zealand. Read it on WineAlign at: On The Road; John Szabo’s New Zealand.

New Zealand: Industry strengths

New Zealand has experienced unquestionable growth in the last twenty years. In 1991, just 12% of wine production was exported. By 2011, that figure had jumped to 70%, with major markets in the UK, Australia and the US (Canada purchases 3% of NZ’s production). There are now over 700 wineries across the country, farming a total of just over 34,000ha, almost exactly the same size as Champagne, a considerable area. Success has been swift and abundant, and here are some of the explanations why.

Minor variations on a theme of terroir

Winery owners and marketers are quick to play the uniqueness and diversity card, as well they should – it’s a sine qua non these days to sell wine at premium prices. But the reality is that New Zealand is not France or Italy, which can be considered an advantage. By this I mean that despite slight variations in climate and soils, New Zealand wines on the whole occupy a relatively small stylistic sphere, focusing on a select few varieties, unlike France or Italy. New Zealand is much more uniform.

The climate is cool. Even in the warmest regions like Hawke’s Bay and Gisborne, the temperature rarely breaks 30ºC. It get’s much hotter in Southern Ontario. The secret to a reliable grape crop lies not with heat but with the relatively dry climate, thanks to the rain shadow effect produced by the stretch of mountains that form the backbone of the country from the North to the South Island. All of the country’s vineyards lie on the east side of the ranges where rainfall is moderate – the west side can see as much as eight or nine meters of rain per year. Sunlight is also unusually intense, with high UV due to the thin layer of Ozone over this part of the planet. Thus sunny, dry, cool, conditions prevail in the majority of regions, with long growing seasons.

The net result is stylistic similarity across grapes: the cabernet blends are invariably more Bordeaux than Napa, the syrah more Rhône than Barossa, the pinot and chardonnay more Burgundy than California. This in turn allows New Zealand to present their wines as a collection of variations on a similar theme, rather than a hodge-podge of radically varying styles sharing only a country code. All marketers know the power of a simple and consistent message; it’s much easier to get across than a complex one. What united message could France or Italy possibly put forth to the world, other than that of bewildering diversity?

One need only look to the obvious example of Marlborough sauvignon blanc and its wild success to see the benefits of consistency. Indeed, if anything negative could be said about Marlborough sauvignon it would be that’s been too successful at being consistent, with one brand barely distinguishable from another. (Interestingly, the way forward now in Marlborough is introducing more variation – more on this in an upcoming article).

Of course there are nuances between regions and producers, between the Wairau Valley and the Awatere valley of Marlborough, or limestone soils of North Canterbury and the schists of Central Otago. But initial success is based on consistency across a region.

Collaborative spirit

Winemaker's divebombing into Wellington Harbor

Winemaker’s divebombing into
Wellington Harbor

Another easy lesson of success is that of a collaborative spirit, evident at every turn in New Zealand (or at least internecine strife was well hidden). During Pinot2013, presentations were divided into regional groups. Producers gave the delegates a collective regional overview before the tastings each morning and afternoon, with several winemakers rising to speak for each region. For the most part, there was a real sense of mutual respect and deference between winemakers, and an understanding that the rising tide raises all boats. My hat’s off especially to the crew from Central Otago, who put together an informal, informative presentation delivered by at least a half-dozen (mostly barefoot), winemakers. There was a fun, unpretentious, let’s-get-together-and-show-the-world-what-we-do spirit that is often absent between producers in the same region, who consider themselves in competition with one-another.  The smart ones know that the competition is not with each other, but with the rest of the world. Divided they fall.

Access to market

Another of New Zealand’s strengths appears to be relative freedom from government intervention and open access to market. This is as much a comparative comment on the Ontario wine industry, which has been retarded by antiquated alcohol distribution laws and a quality-incompatible grape growers collective that protects prices, not quality, but the benefits for NZ producers should be outlined.

Like Canada, New Zealand, too, had it’s flirtation with prohibition, in fact a much more serious relationship with it than did Canada. Several NZ counties went fully dry for a period, and some still hold a referendum every three years to gauge the public’s position on the matter. But when the tide changed in the late 1960’s, it was a wholesale turnaround, not a halfway compromise as in Canada. Kiwis have been known for their radical and extreme social experiments on themselves.

Today, NZ wineries are free to distribute in restaurants, private shops, though their cellar door or export. In other words, each producer has equal opportunity access to market, a critical advantage that Canadians especially can appreciate. In order to build a solid export market, it’s critical to have strong following at home. In NZ you can ship a case of wine from the North to the South Island without obscene taxation, or sell in any shop that’s willing to carry your product. That’s something to be thankful for.


Finally, but not lastly, New Zealand as a country also enjoys an enviable international brand image of clean and green, a fact capitalized upon by the New Zealand Winegrowers Association in their key tag line “Pure Discovery”. New Zealand is indeed an environmentally conscious and beautiful country with an understanding of the importance of natural resources, the inescapable consequence of living on a remote Pacific Island. (And this despite early European settlers’ best efforts to chop down as many trees as possible to make way for sheep pasture.)

Stunning Rippon Vineyards, Central Otago

Stunning Rippon Vineyards
Central Otago

An initiative to encourage sustainable winegrowing was launched in the mid-1990’s, later called Sustainable Winegrowing New Zealand, or SWNZ.  The key areas of focus were biodiversity; soil, water and air; energy; chemicals; byproducts; people; and business practices. The program has been highly successful: “Participation in SWNZ rose to almost 100% between the launch of the policy and the target date of 2012 — an estimated 94% or more of New Zealand’s producing vineyard area (accounting for approximately 90% of the wine produced) is now SWNZ certified. A further 3-5% of vineyard area operates under other certified organic programs.” (Source: That’s pretty impressive.

Furthermore, wines from vintage 2010 on must have been produced under one of the recognized, independently audited, sustainability programs in order to participate in any of the New Zealand Winegrowers’ national and international marketing, promotional and awards events. Most of the growers I spoke with were very positive about the SWNZ program, and had been motivated to improve their business practices because of it. And once certified by SWNZ, the step to organic certification is considerably easier, so it’s expected that organic production will rise to almost 20% of the total by the end of the decade. New Zealand is certainly not the only country that has launched a sustainable scheme, but it is clearly one of the most successful. This is something that seems to resonate ever-more with consumers around the world.

Industry challenges

All industries have challenges, and New Zealand wine has a few obstacles ahead as I see it.


In hand with the concept of sustainability is profitability. A winery that is not profitable is not sustainable. It’s more than a little alarming that several of New Zealand’s most critically acclaimed producers, as I have been informed, are not turning a profit. Growing top quality wine is expensive anywhere, but particularly so in New Zealand. It’s a shockingly expensive country to live in, as I experienced first hand. How will these growers convince the market that their wines are worth enough to make them sustainable? Or will their top wines remain loss leaders, while lower end, volume wines pick up the tab, as seems to be happening in some Marlborough operations in particular? Again, this challenge is hardly unique to New Zealand, but that doesn’t make it any easier to manage. It would be a shame to see the industry consolidate around a safe low to middle-ground range of quality and deprive the rest of the world of some pretty amazing wines.

Relatively high production costs and the need to be sustainable lead to high prices. In regards to pinot noir in particular, prices are aggressive. Good quality, inexpensive pinot noir is hard to come by in any country, but the early promise that NZ pinot would fill in the gaping hole in the market left by Burgundy, namely in the $20-$30 price segment, has never been realized. It seems NZ prices went from zero straight to $35, at least for the good stuff, without stopping in between. Yet to sell for any less would most likely be unsustainable, not too mention that if you can sell in the home market for $50 or more from the cellar door, there’s little motivation to drop prices for export. How this will all work out remains to be seen. In any case, these wines will have to compete with the best from around the world.

In Defense of Deference

In reference to the point regarding the strength of wine style similarity, and the one above regarding profitability, it’s perhaps deference, or a combination of more experience, better understanding of terroir, and a healthy dose of deference that could well become the distinguishing factor that preserves the very top end of New Zealand wine. Matt Kramer’s now infamous thought-provoking (and anger-provoking, too, it seems) opening address for pinot2013, the 2+2=5 speech (actually entitled “Can Atheists Make Great Pinot Noir”), brought the discussion of how to make truly great wine to the forefront of many subsequent talks, speeches and private discussions, so it obviously resonated. (See Alder Yarrows admirably accurate transcription of the speech on his website vinography and don’t miss the amusing, occasionally enraged comments of some readers).

While many seem to have missed the point of Kramer’s talk – it has nothing to do with religion, nor is it an anti-science manifesto, and still less any kind of comparison to Burgundy – Kramer essentially argues that complete and obsessive control over the entire winemaking process, from blocks of identical clones picked at uniform ripeness to a host of other possible manipulations to regularize production, can take you to four, that is, a very good wine. But to get 2+2 to equal five, at least with our current understanding of the unfathomably complicated set of inputs and outputs that result in wine, requires a bit of deference to nature, or terroir, or whatever you wish to call it. The factors that comprise greatness are as yet not fully measurable or quantifiable. Winemakers the world over could well produce more interesting results (along with less interesting results occasionally, too) by slacking off on the reins of control, and allowing for potential “imperfections” to actually make more meaningful wines. Beauty is often in the imperfect. Will New Zealand winemakers have the courage and faith in their terroir to ease off and give it a chance to speak? Authenticity and uniqueness have been proven to command high prices in the wine market.

What was also mostly lost in Kramer’s speech and in the bluster that followed, is the importance of the observer, in this case the drinker. The drinker has to be pre-disposed to believe in greatness in order to find it. There’s no inherent greatness, no ‘5”, in a concoction of molecules in a glass. No doubt most of the scientific community will disagree (see Dr. Jamie Goode’s thoughtful reflection on Kramer’s speech at wineanorak), but for many, I’d argue even most wine lovers, a little perceived mysticism makes for more enjoyment. Deference to a natural process is a better story than rigid adherence to a set of numbers. Clever wine salespeople rarely attempt to wow you with clonal numbers, measurements of brix and pH and titratable acidity. Winemakers in New Zealand and elsewhere can raise the bar on perceived quality with a judicious combination of scientifically sound and deference-imbued wines, and charge sustainably for them.

Cultural cringe

Also, it must be said, that New Zealanders suffer at times from cultural cringe, a common complex in post-colonial nations, an admission I heard frequently during my travels. As a Canadian I can relate; we too suffer at times from a feeling that our own culture is inferior to the cultures of other countries, or in this case, that our wines are not as good as theirs. As a backlash against the cringe, by the end of pinot2013, it became virtually taboo to even mention Burgundy in relation to NZ pinot noir. Panelists during the final tasting moderated by Tim Atkin were forewarned that any mention of Burgundy would result in an immediate red card (Atkin actually had a set of football style yellow and red cards with him). Only “the place that begins with a B”, or “the MS” (for Mother Ship), were permissible mentions.

It’s surely tiresome to always compare yourself to something else, but conscious and intentional avoidance of any comparisons whatsoever also invoke a bit of a cringe. In the specific case of New Zealand pinot, many of the wines are tremendous, and should have to neither seek out nor avoid bench-marking against other examples from anywhere else in the world. A diminishing cultural cringe and a growing sense of self-confidence borne by time should pave the way for a new and original method of communicating NZ wines to the world.

On the other hand, the flip side of cultural cringe is excessive back-slapping. Some winemakers expressed concern about the growing sense of complacency within the industry considering the already considerable success to date. Perhaps in this respect a little cringe is a good thing, since blinding yourself to everything else is a sure-fire way to cease learning and improving. Winemaking psychology, like fine wine itself, is a fine balance.

All in all, New Zealand’s strengths far outweigh the weaknesses, and the future is bright. And I haven’t even really touched upon the actual quality of the wines. Suffice to search for the top scoring examples on WineAlign and let the wines do the talking. And don’t miss my report for this coming April 13 VINTAGES release, with a focus on New Zealand wines.


John Szabo, MS

John Szabo, Master Sommelier

From the March 2, 2013 Vintages release:
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On The Road; John Szabo’s New Zealand

If you’ve never been to New Zealand, or even if you have, you may get a kick out of my personal snapshot of what it’s like to travel in New Zealand.

On The Road: A Snapshot of What it’s Like to Travel in New Zealand

John Szabo, MS

John Szabo, MS

When I arrive at the Gisborne airport to collect my rental car, I’m met by a friendly woman, who knows my name before I give it to her. She leads me to the small parking lot outside of the diminutive, low-slung building, which also doubles as the baggage pick-up area. Convenient. She politely opens the right side door of the car, and I start to throw my knapsack down onto the passenger seat as I always do. Then I realize it’s not the passenger’s side. It’s the driver’s side. Oh yeah, this is a former British colony and they drive on the other side of the road. Time to pay attention. Words of advice: when crossing the road, remember: look right.

More sheep pastures

More sheep pastures

New Zealand is a sparsely populated country, with famously more sheep than people. This is no exaggeration. Sheep outnumber citizens by 7-1 (although the ratio is down from the 1982 high of 22 sheep for every citizen). It’s possible to travel for miles on back roads without crossing a single soul, and one gets the impression that time has spun a little more slowly here. In fact, New Zealand feels as though it were several decades, and in a few places, several centuries behind the rest of the hyper-developed world.

Phone numbers here still have seven digits and license plates just 6 characters. Apparently it’s OK to park in the bus stop zone during certain hours, as long as you leave enough room for the bus. You’re as likely to pick up magnetic resonance as cell phone reception outside of city and town centers. New Zealand is emphatically not underdeveloped; there’s electricity and running water and amenities of all kinds, even organic produce, espresso coffee and concept restaurants. It’s just that the water is still clean – there are lakes and streams that you can drink from without Maori revenge.

Picton Habour, South Island

Picton Habour, South Island

And there’s a small town feel to the entire country. An anecdote to illustrate: I left my hat at the Inter Islander Ferry Terminal in Picton on the south Island after the trip over from Wellington. When I realized it, I track down the number for the terminal to inquire, though I had little hope of ever recovering it. Leave something, say, at Pearson Airport, or even the Toronto Bus Terminal and just try to get a live person on the phone who can help you. And even if you manage to reach someone, you can almost hear the sarcastic laughter.

But when I ring up the Ferry terminal, a living, breathing woman answers straight away, without having to press zero or pound or some cryptic code of characters. Panicked by having to interact with a real person, I stutteringly ask for the lost and found department, managing to spit out that I may have left my hat in one of the men’s washrooms. She responds, most shockingly, that she has the hat, even though I hadn’t even gotten around to describing it. She then even offers to send it by post to wherever I was staying. “Brilliant, I say in disbelief tinged with bewilderment, “but how can I get the money to you to cover the cost?” There was a brief silence, a silence of puzzlement, as though my question were a little queer. Finally she responds that “we” would take care of it. Well, whoever you are, I thank you. And yes, I got my hat back.

St Leonard's Woolshed

St Leonards Vineyard Cottages
The Woolshed

Another anecdote illustrative of the small town, frontier spirit evident throughout the country: Paul and Daphne, the owners of St. Leonards Vineyard Cottages in Marlborough where I stay (in a rustic but fully refurbished, airy and comfortable former sheep-shearing shed) inquire on the day of my departure if I might happen to be heading to Kaikoura on the coast. I think it an extraordinary coincidence that I am indeed heading past Kaikoura, on my way down to North Canterbury (extraordinary, that is, until I later realize that there was pretty much no other direction to go in other than back from where I had come). When I say that I am, they ask me, very politely, if I would mind, and I quote, “delivering a bag of lemons to the store in Kekerengu on the way?” I’m a little puzzled at first, not knowing of course where Kekerengu was, or even the name of the store, or how I would enter the address in my GPS. The details are more than vague, even if the request is not untoward.

I make a non-committal agreement to run the errand, happy to help out, though admittedly somewhat wearily considering the long drive I have ahead on unknown roads, wondering how far out-of-the-way I might have to go to, and how easy it would be to find this store to deliver a bag of lemons. I wait expectantly for more information; Daphne doesn’t seem to understand my hesitation. After a slightly awkward silence, I press for details. “So where is the store exactly and what’s it called? I ask.

The Store, Kekerengu

The Store, Kekerengu

She smiles, finally understanding my confusion. “Well, it’s actually called “The Store”, she says. “Oh, I see”, say I, “is it easy enough to find in Kekerengu”?

She laughed again and replies that The Store is all there is in Kekerengu. Kekerengu is not so much of a town as it is an outpost with a single building called The Store. “You’ll come out of the hills, over a rise, then as the road veers left towards the coast you’ll see The Store. You can’t miss it.”

So much for the GPS. It’s rarely needed in New Zealand and besides, it doesn’t know where The Store is anyway.

Loaded with fragrant Meyer lemons, we embark on the drive out of Marlborough over the Kaikoura Mountain range (more like hills, really) down into the Awatere Valley, past yet more vineyards that are part of the Marlborough region, sheep-dotted pastures and grazing lands and on down to the Pacific coast.

After a stop at “The Store” in Kekerengu to deliver the Meyer lemons, precisely where Daphne said it would be, and another hour’s drive further south along the coast between hills, the railway and the ocean beyond, we turn inland from highway One and climb high into the real mountains. I get my first taste of backcountry driving in New Zealand.

One-lane bridges

One-lane bridges

This is the land of the two-lane highway; four lanes are far more rare than black sheep. We cross about a dozen nearly dry rivers, each spanned by a one-lane bridge. Luckily the roads are virtually empty and we don’t have to wait to cross a single one. Indeed we pass no more than half a dozen cars over the course of the 100 kilometer journey from Kaikoura to our next stop at the accurately named Hurunui River Retreat, a truly remote retreat in the most unlikely of places. It’s to be found just off the loosest of gravel roads some five kilometers off the main road, with no signs. Strike two for the GPS, which declares that we have arrived at our destination in front of an open shed filled with bails of hay. Not promising.

You have arrived at your destination

“You have arrived at your destination”

It turns out that the real Retreat is another two kilometers down this most improbable of access roads from the GPS’s declared location. Fortunately the cell phone miraculously crackles to life and we reach the owner of the retreat. She gives us the courage to keep grinding along the gravel until we see the two small cottages that comprise the Hurunui River Retreat. She’s standing at the top of the drive just to be sure we don’t drive on past at the speed of the city.

Huruniu River Retreat

Huruniu River Retreat

In addition to innumerable sheep I see along the way, I also spot that rarest of breeds, the hitchhiker. I see them all over the roads, sometimes alone, occasionally in pairs, and even in larger packs. And they seem happy and hopeful and carefree, not like a hitchhiker in Europe or North America, if they still exist. There they look forlorn, desperate. There’d be no other reason to put your life at risk other than some catastrophic circumstance. In New Zealand, hitchhiking is a plausible way to get around. On more than one occasion, the winemakers who were touring me around made apologetic gestures to these itinerant travelers as we drove past, as though to say they would have gladly picked them up were it not for the foreign journalist in the passenger’s seat, who might think it strange. I can’t remember the last time I saw anyone hitchhiking in Toronto.

Nature's works of art

Nature’s works of art

New Zealand is also the land of the camper van, a sensible form of transportation/lodging, considering the scarcity of accommodation options once you’re outside the last village or town. If you want to go back-country exploring, it’s probably the only way to go, and most townships invite you to the “free camping zone” – meaning you can park your campervan just about anywhere without hassle from local authorities. The coasts are largely undeveloped, much as I imagine California’s coastal Highway 1 might have been a hundred years ago, or BC’s Sea to Sky highway in the 1950s.

New Zealand is a land of considerable natural beauty. It’s also the land of the long white cloud, or Aotearoa in Māori. If you enjoy open space, a natural gallery of nature-hewn works of art with few people to share them with, excellent lamb and some pretty fine wines, you’ll enjoy traveling in New Zealand.

Watch WineAlign for over 300 New Zealand wine reviews which will be posted in the days ahead.

John Szabo, MS

Letter from Gisborne; John Szabo’s New Zealand
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