- The Underground Wine Letter - http://www.undergroundwineletter.com -


I recently attended a new release trade tasting in Los Angeles for New Zealand wines. It was sponsored by the New Zealand Wine Growers Association. Some 26 wineries were represented and there were well over 100 wines available to taste in a 3 hour period. These types of tastings are a way to get a general idea of the wines. But, for me, they are not an opportunity to write detailed notes on each wine. I do not like to do marathon tastings because I think it renders the notes of little value the more wines you taste. Said another way, I am not a fan of the drive-by sip and spit. But, in this instance, it was not so much about trying to taste all the wines, but to learn more about what is going on in the emerging wine world of New Zealand. I think it is a very exciting story. So here I am going to offer some background and opinion along with brief notes on some of the wines I particularly liked. Later, I am hopeful of doing more comprehensive notes on many of the New Zealand wineries and their wines.

The wines of New Zealand represent a new frontier. And, although in its infancy, plantings and production have been increasing rapidly and the wines have a lot to offer. First, yields are generally quite moderate and there is a real trend of making wines that are very food friendly. That is, they are generally low in alcohol and not extracted or manipulated. This, thankfully, it is the new big trend in wine and one that I have advocated for a very, very long time. Second, there is a real commitment to maintaining a continuity of sustainable agriculture and noninvasive winemaking with generally little or no new oak. Finally, New Zealand wines have largely dispensed with corks. I was told that perhaps as much as 98% of the total New Zealand wine production is in screw cap bottles. Most of these wines are made from young vines and are meant to be consumed young. But, I have no doubt that as certain of the vineyards mature; there will be an increasing number of age worthy wines.

Consider these facts from the period 2004-2010:

– The number of wineries increased by nearly 50% to 672

– Vineyard plantings increased by some 90% to nearly 75,000 acres

– Production in terms of tons per acre varied from just over 3 tons per acre to just over 4 tons per acre

– Total production increased by about 70% to 190 million liters

– Export volume increased by over 450% to 142 million liters

And, in New Zealand as of 2008 the most widely planted varietals and their approximate percentages were:

– Sauvignon Blanc (45%)

– Pinot Noir (16%)

– Chardonnay (13%)

– Riesling, Merlot, and Cabernet Sauvignon (10%)

– Gewurtztraminer, Pinot Gris, Viognier, Malbec and Syrah (16%)

Grapes are grown on both islands from Northland in the North to Central Otago in the South. Marlborough accounts for the great majority of Sauvignon Blanc production. Pinot Noir plantings grew some 400% from 2000-2008 and now is the second most widely planted varietal, although still a distant second behind Sauvignon Blanc.

Below are my abbreviated notes on some of the wines that I particularly liked along with importers and contact information where available:


Sauvignon Blanc

Sauvignon Blanc is the most well known wine of New Zealand. Amazingly the first planting of Sauvignon Blanc was in Auckland in the 1970s and then in Marlborough in 1976. The first commercial quantities were produced in 1980 and by the 1990s it was firmly established as New Zealand’s flagship wine. From 2000 to 2010 plantings increased by nearly 300%. From 2004 to 2008 exports increased by some 350%. Some 91% of all Sauvignon Blanc plantings are in the Marlborough region.

The wines are generally light, clean, crisp, and refreshing. They match extremely well with fish and lighter foods. The flavor profile for me is grassiness, melon, citrus, green pepper, grapefruit, tropical fruit, and minerals. My personal preference is for the wines that display more fruit and less green pepper and grassiness. But matched with certain foods such as spicy Asian dishes even the more grassy, peppery, and citrus styles have a place. In short, the wines are very versatile and generally inexpensive (in a range of under $10 to just over $20). And, they are not only user friendly with food, but nearly all of them have screw caps which makes them very easy to open. Easy to buy, easy to open, and easy to drink – what else could you want? These are wines to try.

2010 Woollaston Estate Sauvignon Blanc Nelson.

Very light yellow color. Faint perfume. Slightly tropical. Very nice melon tinged fruit with a citrus accent. Crisp finish – Highly Recommended. 2-yellow-stars www.woollaston.co.nz [1] San Francisco Wine Exchange, San Francisco, Ca.

2010 Vavasour Sauvignon Blanc Clifford Bay Marlborough.

Very light yellow color. Nice perfume. Tinge of grapefruit. Very clean and crisp. Hints of melon and grapefruit. Nice, crisp finish – Highly Recommended. 2-yellow-stars www.vavaspur.com [2] Foley Family Wines Healdsburg, Ca.


2010 Nobilo Regional Collection Sauvignon Blanc Marlborough.

Very light yellow color. Lovely perfume. Hints of melon and grapefruit. Rounded. Tinges of grapefruit and melon. Crisp finish – Highly Recommended. 2-yellow-stars www.nobilo.co.nz [3] Constellation US San Francisco, Ca.


2010 Stoneleigh Sauvignon Blanc Marlborough

Very light yellow color. Perfumed nose. Faintly grassy. Very nice fruit. Citrus tinge. Crisp finish – Highly Recommended 2-yellow-stars www.pernod-ricard-nz.com [4] Imported by Pernod Ricard USA Purchase, NY.


Pinot Noir


Pinot Noir was well known in North Island vineyards in the 1890s and early 20th century. Then it languished until the wine boom blossomed into full swing in the 1970s. Since the 1990s, plantings have expanded to all regions of the South Island and to several sites in the North Island. From 2000 to 2008 plantings increased by over 400% to some 10,500 acres. Exports grew almost 350% from 2004 to 2008 with nearly 75% going to the UK, USA, and Australia.

The temperate maritime climate of New Zealand is well suited to growing the fickle Pinot Noir grape. The soil types are also very compatible making an environment for the vines to excel. The style of wine produced is very traditional with an emphasis on the purity of the fruit, low yields, non manipulative winemaking, and relatively low alcohol levels. As a result, the wines are gaining increasing popularity as shown by the sharp increase in plantings and exports. But, there seems no doubt that the wines are destined to continue to improve since most of the current production is coming from young vines. These are definitely wines to seek out. Prices tend to vary quite a bit, but are generally in a range of $15-$40.

2009 Felton Road Pinot Noir Central Otago.

Deep color. Faint perfume. Quite rich. Very good depth. Very nice flavors. Restained and quite closed. Needs time to open – Highly Recommended. 2-yellow-stars www.wilsondaniels.com [5] Wilson Daniels Napa, Ca.

2008 Rippon Pinot Noir Central Otago.

Deep color. Gorgeous perfume. Lots of fruit. Rich. Round. Great balance, texture and flavor. Unusual for New Zealand Pinot Noir this wine is made from older vines up to 25 years old. There is an extra dimension of richness and depth which sets it apart – Outstanding. 3-yellow-stars www.stationimports.com [6]

2008 Pegasus Bay Pinot Noir Waipara.

This is another Pinot Noir made from older vines up to 20 years old. Deep color. Lovely perfume. Lots of fruit. Touch of spice. Supple. Balanced – Highly Recommended. 2-yellow-stars www.empsonusa.com [7] Empson (USA) inc. Alexandria, Va.

2008 Spy Valley Pinot Noir Envoy Outpost Marlborough.

Deep color. Lovely perfume. Berry fruit. Round. Flavorful. Very nice spice tinged fruit. Balanced. Nice finish – Highly Recommended. 2-yellow-stars Imported by Broadbent Selection cmiles@Broadbent.com [8]

2008 Escarpment Pinot Noir Marlborough.

Deep color. Lovely perfume. Very nice fruit. Rounded. Flavorful. Very well structured. Balanced tannin. Could use a bit of age – Highly Recommended 2-yellow-stars www.empsonusa.com [7] Imported by Empson (USA) Inc. Alexandria, Va.



New Zealand Chardonnays tend to emphasize the fruit with oak a secondary influence. They are very food friendly and go well with fish and a wide variety of lighter and richer dishes. Not as well known as New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, but they are definitely worth trying if you are looking for a Chardonnay that is not over powering.


2008 Neudorf Chardonnay Nelson.

Light yellow color. Lovely perfume. Tropical fruit with a tinge of vanilla and spice. Lovely fruit. Tropical with a faint spice. Citrus tinge. Floral accents. Very nice crisp finish – Highly Recommended. 2-yellow-stars


2007 Kumeu River Chardonnay Hunting Hill Auckland.

Light yellow color. Lovely perfume. Faintly floral. Hint of peach. Lovely citrus tinged fruit with a suggestion of peach and pear. Nice crisp finish – Highly Recommended Plus. 2-n-half-yellow-stars www.wilsondaniels.com [5] Wilson Daniels Napa, Ca.


Red Wines From The North Island Of New Zealand



Syrah from New Zealand? Yes! And true to the style of most New Zealand wines they emphasize the fruit and have relatively low alcohol levels in a range of 13%-14%. The represent an interesting contrast to the big Australian and California Syrahs. The price range seems to be around $30-$50.

2008 Passage Rock Syrah Waiheke.

Dark color. Great perfume. Lots of blackberry fruit. Faintly smoky. Balanced. Lots of flavor – Highly Recommended Plus. 2-n-half-yellow-stars www.passagerock.co.nz [9]

2008 Man O’ War Dreadnought Syrah Waiheke.

Dark color. Deep perfume. Lovely fruit. Rich. Round. Balanced – Highly Recommended. 2-yellow-stars Gotham Wine Group NYC, NY. Tenzing Wine Company Chicago, Il Young’s Market Company Los Angeles, Ca.

2009 Te Mata Estate Syrah Hawke’s Bay.

Dark color. Lovely perfume. Lots of fruit. Floral, spice tinges. Hint of vanilla. Nicely balanced. Flavorful – Highly Recommended Plus. 2-n-half-yellow-stars NickTaylor@directwines.com [10]


2008 Bilancia Syrah Hawke’s Bay.

Dark color. Lovely blackberry perfume. Lots of rich supple fruit. Rounded. Touch of vanilla. Very nice balance and finish – Highly Recommended. 2-yellow-stars Vine Street Imports Philadelphia, Pa.


Cabernet Sauvignon Blends


Interestingly New Zealand is starting out with the Bordeaux varieties and experimenting with blending the different varieties just like is done in Bordeaux. I think this is a very good approach and one that I think will be used more and more in California which has been mostly fixed to the Cabernet Sauvignon varietal.


2008 Trinity Hill Cabernet/Merlot The Gimblett Hawke’s Bay.

Dark color. Deep perfume. Faintly cedary. Gorgeous fruit. Touch of spice. Balanced. Flavorful – Highly Recommended. 2-yellow-stars www.trinityhill.com [11]

2007 Newton Forest Cabernet Sauvignon/Merlot Cornerstone Hawke’s Bay.

Dark color. Lovely perfume. Lots of rich fruit. Flavorful. Rounded. Spicy, vanilla tinges. Nice finish – Highly Recommended. 2-yellow-stars info@forestwines.co.nz [12]


So there you have it – a brief introduction to New Zealand Wines. I think this story is just beginning. As the years go by, I fully expect that the wines from New Zealand will be increasingly recognized over the world for their purity, style, and balance. They are food friendly and this is yet another major secular trend in which New Zealand wines can excel. Try some of these wines and be adventuresome in trying other New Zealand wines. I think you will be pleased.