One of the world's most picturesque vineyards is that of Rippon in New Zealand's Central Otago region. (Susan Hathaway)
Hobbits, misty mountains, crystalline lakes, outdoor adventures and now wine. Beautiful New Zealand was largely an asterisk in the minds of many Americans until Peter Jackson's Tolkien films and the America's Cup began sending beguiling outdoor images across our screens but now this magical land down under is captivating a new audience of wine lovers.
When the first Lord of the Rings film was released in 2001, New Zealand's wine industry happened to be gearing up for its biggest surge. Since then, it's been as unstoppable as a raging orc sniffing manflesh. According to wine industry analysts Gomberg-Fredrikson, New Zealand's wine exports to the United States have moved into third place in value behind Italy and France, which is quite remarkable given the fact that New Zealand produces less than 1% of the world's wine.
New Zealand's U.S. wine exports rose by 24% last year, to $327 million, with close to $1.14 billion of total wine exports worldwide. And heading the list as one of our country's two largest markets for Kiwi wine is Northern California, sharing the honor with metropolitan New York, according to David Strada, San Francisco-based U.S. marketing manager for the New Zealand Winegrowers. "I think it's because there's such a well-developed wine culture here," he explains. "People are interested in what's new and different."
Bay Area wine lovers are finding more than novelty in Kiwi wines. "They're fabulous," says Laurie Lumenti of San Mateo about New Zealand wines. "There are so many good ones that it's hard to pick which one to serve on the weekends; one's more fantastic than the next," she opines.
Mack Daniels of Menlo Park agrees, adding value to the equation. "New Zealand wines can be very, very good at an excellent price. It's fun to find wines that beat California and France in terms of being really good and more affordable. I believe emerging wine locales are better price performers than the well-recognized locales."
Daniels, Lumenti and many other wine drinkers first made note of Kiwi wines after fruit-forward, grapefruity, delightfully tart Cloudy Bay sauvignon blanc burst on the scene years ago, which turned out to be the pivotal point in the New Zealand wine industry. This set off worldwide demand for Kiwi sauvignon blanc that continues to this day. In fact, the varietal still makes up 72% of the wine produced there, says Strada.
Kiwi "savvies," as those in the trade call them, still command wide attention but what's been dazzling many local new-to-New-Zealand-wine drinkers are other varieties like pinot noir, cabernet blends, syrah, chardonnay and what Kiwis call "aromatics," which refer to alluringly fruity whites like riesling, pinot gris, gewürztraminer and others.
According to Ryan Woodhouse, the New Zealand wine buyer at K&L Wine Merchants, customers who find their way to his well-stocked shelves are rarely disappointed in any New Zealand wine they try. "The wines have pure fruit intensity and an open, expressive nature but also, in general, have great acidity, are food friendly and vibrant," he notes. And in an era when consumers are starting to turn away from the high-alcohol California fruit bombs championed by a few wine critics, "New Zealand wines have fruit concentration and texture without necessarily being really big and over the top," says Woodhouse. "There's a refreshing vitality to the wines."
Interestingly, big-wine lover and wine critic Robert Parker called a pinot noir from New Zealand's Felton Road "a dead ringer for a grand-cru Burgundy" after a blind tasting of pricey French wines back in 2002 that included one down-under pinot from this Kiwi star. Meanwhile, notable German winemaker Ernst Loosen compared a Kiwi riesling to the best Mosel from the best German producer. And British wine writer Jancis Robinson put New Zealand's Central Otago region on the list of the world's top pinot noir-producing areas.
As small and young as New Zealand's wine industry might be, it's well ahead of the big boys when it comes to environmental practices. As of last year, 98% of the country's wine producers were certified sustainable with a goal to reach 100% by 2020. At the same time, a growing number of wineries are certified organic and biodynamic farming methods are increasingly being used by the top producers.
New Zealand wines generally aren't costly -- although the line-up of higher-priced "trophy wines" sought out by collectors is quickly increasing -- but it would be a mistake to equate the screw-cap closures on most Kiwi wines with cheapness. "It was all about quality," explains Strada from the New Zealand Winegrowers when describing the mass movement away from corks in the early 2000s. Winemakers didn't want their wines to have "cork taint," something that can occur in as many as 8% of cork-closed bottles and is an ongoing frustration for wine drinkers who buy wines from other parts of the world.
While New Zealand's wine industry has been on a roll for the last 20 years or so, the country itself is just two-thirds the size of California, with two long coastlines on two skinny islands. There are seven sheep for every one of the 4.7 million Kiwis in this agrarian country. Nevertheless, New Zealand has 10 main wine regions with additional sub-regions and developing areas, notes Strada.
These regions are invariably gorgeous, with green valleys full of grapevines backed by jagged volcanic hills. Marlborough, the biggest region, has massive plantings of sauvignon blanc and other varietals. Central Otago is the up-and-coming place for killer pinot noir. Hawke's Bay and beautiful Waiheke Island are known for fine Bordeaux-style reds and syrahs. The fast-growing Waipara region is having success with pinot noir and the aromatics. Pinot noir and various other varieties have brought attention to the Martinborough region. As highly respected Sonoma County winemaker Ted Lemon explains it, "There is a wide range of wines and wine styles produced" in New Zealand, which makes the discovery process fun for consumers.
Lemon is particularly savvy about Kiwi wines because during the off-season of his heralded Sebastopol winery Littorai, he helms the winemaking at Central Otago's Burn Cottage, whose elegant, complex pinot noirs are now coveted by wine buffs in both hemispheres. Just as he was a pioneer winemaker on the Sonoma Coast -- now one of California's most storied regions -- he was early to see the potential in New Zealand. Today, he believes that "exceptional wines are being produced" in many regions of New Zealand. "I see no reason why Kiwi pinot noir cannot compete with the best in the world," Lemon states.
The country's "great geologic and climatic diversity," less ego-driven winemakers, growers and owners compared to the United States, and the industry's awareness that "it must engage and enchant palates all over the world" to drive sales forward are among the country's attributes, Lemon says. But he notes that the young Kiwi wine industry still has a lot of growing to do and challenges ahead to grab consumer attention away from the California and European wine they typically drink.
When he's down under, Lemon's top Central Otago winemaking brethren -- usually wearing the Kiwi uniform of shorts and t-shirt -- are an energetic, perceptive crew. Francis Hutt, winemaker at Carrick Wines and considered one of the young up-and-comers in New Zealand, reports: "The U.S. is a great market but it's far away and we spend a lot of time educating people. No, we're not part of Australia. At low tide, I can't walk across to Sydney and go shopping," he jokes.
Winemaker Duncan Forsyth of Mount Edward Winery says producers like him aren't stuck on tradition. "We want to experiment and see what works for us. There are no native grape varieties in New Zealand, so who's to say? Pinot noir and riesling are our mainstays here but we planted grüner veltliner, albariño, gamay, chardonnay and chenin blanc," he explains, with mostly positive results.
Kiwi wineries might be creating their own traditions but utilizing the best parts of the old world of wine can create a winning strategy. The crew at star winery Ata Rangi near Wellington often describes how this early producer in the region planted its first vineyards using the so-called "gumboot clone," which consisted of unauthorized cuttings from the renowned La Tâche vineyard of France's Romanée-Conti that had been smuggled into New Zealand in a traveler's rubber boots. As the story goes, the cuttings were seized at the airport but eventually made their way into the vineyard, now producing the silky tannins, cherry fruit and brooding quality found in this most famous of all pinot noir vineyards.
Often the most passionate New Zealand wine consumers in the Bay Area are those who have explored the wines while traveling across this ravishing country on vacation. Kiwi wine touring, describes Ryan Woodhouse of K&L, can take some time because wineries usually aren't grouped together like in some Northern Hemisphere regions. But there's another factor involved. "The countryside is stunning," he says. "It takes you forever to go anywhere because you keep pulling over to take photos."
Just like Kiwi wine consumption in Northern California, tourism in New Zealand is leapfrogging forward, with American visitors finding plenty to do when not sipping wine. Biking -- sometimes between wineries -- and hiking are popular pastimes among visitors, while more daredevil activities like bungee jumping, kayaking, skiing and jet boating have given New Zealand a reputation for adventure travel.
According to recently returned visitor Jo Worth of Menlo Park, her Kiwi vacation "was just about perfect!" The scenery was "stunningly beautiful," she says, and she loved the challenging hikes, cruising the fjords, the free museums and national parks and, in particular, the divine wines and relatively large number of good winery restaurants -- something seldom seen in California wine country. In addition, even many of the top-tier New Zealand wineries are open to the public, which isn't quite as prevalent here in California.
Palo Alto resident Edward Murray also recently enjoyed the gorgeous vistas, convivial wine touring, great food and plentitude of outdoor activities in New Zealand, he explains, adding a plug for the New Zealanders themselves. "The people are warm and friendly and always very helpful. You don't have to wait more than 30 seconds looking at a map on a street and somebody will come up and volunteer to assist you," he recalls.
The only disappointment for Bay Area wine lovers who've recently visited New Zealand is that some of the exciting wines they sampled don't make it into local wine shops -- at least, the entire portfolios from the Kiwi wineries they came to love down under. According to Woodhouse of K&L, "There's an ocean of stuff out there and only a tiny amount gets on the shelves."
David Strada from the New Zealand Winegrowers concurs that -- despite the rapid increase in Kiwi wine availability in America -- "My guess would be that only about 15% of wineries export to the United States." But that doesn't mean Bay Area wine buyers can't sample some remarkable wines. At K&L, for example, Woodhouse cherry-picks the best-of-breed wines from the top New Zealand producers, thus giving customers a good overview of what the country's industry has achieved. "Most of the iconic wines of New Zealand's regions are here," he proudly states.
Not just on Bay Area retail shelves but for a good price. Due to the removal of Kiwi in-country taxes and the determination of New Zealand winery owners to expand their overseas markets, some ballyhooed wines can actually be cheaper here than if purchased at the winery 7,000 miles away from us. Notes Woodhouse: "I've sold wine in London and here and I think the Bay Area is one of the most competitive places, price wise." Indeed, bargains abound at other Bay Area wine shops as well.
As more Bay Area wine drinkers discover all that New Zealand wines have to offer, the supply will inevitably get larger. Although he's only referring to the variety that has made his considerable reputation, what Sonoma Coast winemaker Ted Lemon says about the New Zealand wine industry could apply across the board. "It's early days for Kiwi pinot noir in the states although that is changing fast," Lemon reports. "There's amazing potential still to be uncovered. The sky is the limit for New Zealand."
New Zealand wineries/wines to look for by wine region: