Thursday, June 1, 2023

Kiwi Reds

New Zealand, the other Down Under country, is known for its juicy Sauvignon Blanc with a tropical personality.  Not as well known are the tasty Kiwi reds. 

The list of New Zealand red wines is fairly limited with the usual Bordeaux varieties, the odd Syrah, and best of all, distinctive Pinot Noir that can take its place with the best Pinots in the world.  

Pinot Noir

New Zealand's top Pinot Noirs come from Marlborough, Martinborough and Central Otago. Marlborough and Central, are on the South Island. Martinborough is at the southern end of the North Island, across the Cook Strait from the South Island.

Marlborough Pinot Noir

Red wine fans can be divided into two general groups: the Cabernet Sauvignon crowd and lovers of Pinot Noir.  Before everything went PC, Pinot Noir was thought of as a feminine wine for its soft tannins and round voluptuous fruit; the yin of red wine. Cabernet was described as a masculine wine, probably because of its tight personality and rough edges; the yang to Pinot Noir's yin.

Exercising your wine memory is crucial for the serious wine lover. After tasting a wine that made you sit up and pay attention, your next move is to open a memory index card system, starting a new card for each time you taste a new vintage of a memorable wine. 

During a visit to New Zealand, I had an unexpected surprise when I tasted a superb pinot from Central, as the southern region is often called.  Like most anxious wine tasters, I fell for the hype about Marlborough Pinot Noirs and knew little about the pinots from Central Otago.  To be clear, both places make great Pinot Noir, but I was conditioned to favor Marlborough over Central. 

Then I visited Felton Road and tasted the Block 5 Pinot Noir, one in a small lineup of pinots from Felton Road. Block 5 was (and is) a standout, for its fragrant rose petal nose and leathery back notes.  Deep and layered, Block 5 showed concentrated cherry/berry fruit and excellent subtle tannins.  

To me, Pinot Noir has always been a wine that invites you back for a second sip.  Felton Road filled that invitation and then some.  

If are looking for pinots to try from New Zealand, here are a few more choices:  Burnt Cottage, Peregrine, Pyramid Valley, Akawa.  And from Marlborough: Cloudy Bay, Greywacke, Villa Maria, Ten Sisters.  Martinborough Pinot Noirs: Martinborough Vineyard, Ata Rangi, Dry River, Palliser.

The Other Reds

Kiwi wineries are happy that we like their Pinot Noir, but they also want wine consumers to know that New Zealand red wine is more than just Pinot Noir.  If you went to Hawke's Bay on the North Island, you'd find Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Syrah to sample and savor. 

Gimblett Gravels

The district with the wonderfully-named Gimblett Gravels is where you'll find an assortment of red grapes, led by Merlot and Syrah.  At the end of the 1980s, a group of growers and winemakers, identified the deep gravelly soils as ideal for big reds.  

I was in New Zealand after Gimblett Gravels was established and visited Craggy Range in Hawke's Bay.  My contacts back in California told me to look up Steve Smith MW, co-founder of Craggy Range and the first viticulturist in the world to become a Master of Wine. In characteristic Kiwi hospitality, Smith showed me the winery and then we sat down to taste Craggy Range wines in the winery's excellent restaurant. 

Craggy Range reds from Gimblett Gravels, mainly the Cabernet/Merlot blend and the Syrah, were big, rich and bold with pure fruit flavors.  Before my visit at  Craggy Range, I had sampled the red wines of Te Mata and found the wines to have the same Hawke's Bay richness and structure.

An aside. During my first year with the Wine Spectator, in 1979, I worked with founder Bob Morrisey.  Bob and I were retired military journalists, he the Marines, me the Air Force, who during our travels in the military had developed a taste for fine wine.  

The Spectator started in La Jolla, then moved to San Diego and it was there where I first tasted New Zealand wines, in an unusual setting. Every year, a small ship of the New Zealand Navy made port in San Diego, inviting local food and wine people aboard for a sumptuous meal of Kiwi delicacies and select wines.

That afternoon, Bob and I sat on the fantail of the ship, hosted by the ship's captain and chaplain, who referred to himself as "padre," (an odd coincidence Bob and I laughed about later, because of the San Diego Padres baseball team), noshing on Sauvignon Blanc and New Zealand shellfish, and grilled lamb and Pinot Noir.

It was, without question, the most unusual place I've ever tasted wine and I wonder if the U.S. Navy has ever sponsored an American wine and food tasting while visiting a foreign port.  Nah!


Next blog: Anderson Valley

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