Like the sometimes-confounding, hard-to-reach yet always-enchanting Bret and Jemaine of the “Flight of the Conchords” television series, New Zealand is sort of out there on its own, mysterious and captivating. We’re talking about two islands, inextricably linked, yet with quirky underdog identities all their own. And that very same description could apply to their home country of New Zealand. Hi-yo.
New Zealand is a country that knows isolation as few others do. Australia is about 1,000 miles away, and that’s one of its close neighbors. Adding to New Zealand’s extreme isolation is its extreme southern- and eastern-ness; it is home to some of the most-southern vineyards on earth, and because of its proximity to the International Date Line, the most-eastern vineyards too. Wine grows in New Zealand pretty much from tip to tip, on two landmasses that fit within the latitudes of about 35 to 47 degrees south, roughly halfway between the equator and the South Pole.
But the Kiwi wine curiosities do not stop there.
Unlike the way-underappreciated and underexposed “Flight of the Conchords,” New Zealand wine is a well-known commodity, despite being less than 1 percent of the world’s wine. It’s the same old story — wine was being made in New Zealand two centuries ago, but its modern wine history dates back only decades. That narrative is more dramatic in New Zealand than most places, though. In 1973, the country had one commercial wine producer and has only been known and accepted as a viable wine-producing country by the larger world’s wine consumers for a scant 30 years.
This is a country with a relatively new wine culture and relatively low production, yet somehow it would be a challenge to find a wine shop or even a chain supermarket’s wine department that did not have a dedicated New Zealand section.
That pioneering winery, Brancott Estate, first planted its vines in 1973, with the first vintage of Marlborough sauvignon blanc bottled and sold in 1979. Little more than a decade after Brancott opened, another winery, Cloudy Bay, produced its first vintages of sauvignon blanc. The next thing everyone knew, New Zealand was a part of the international wine conversation.
Sauvignon blanc’s success has inspired scores of others to give it a go, and today, the New Zealand style of sauvignon is a point of pride Kiwis can claim as unmistakably theirs. It’s not for everyone. The resounding note that shows up over and over in these bottles is fresh grapefruit and a grassy, green quality. The wines can also offer up other citrus expressions (lemon and lime zest, for instance), along with herbal green notes, gooseberry and ripe tropical fruits like pineapple and mango. These wines are crisp, tangy and refreshing. They are exciting to some wine drinkers and perhaps a bit too over-the-top to others. But one thing that pretty much everyone agrees on is that they have panache.
While sauvignon blanc is the main story in the modern New Zealand wine book, it is not the only story. The thin island nation, with its largely cool, maritime climate, also produces some sought-after pinot noirs in styles that range in flavor and style somewhere between New and Old World.
A long, cool growing season across New Zealand allows for even ripening and the ever-important retention of acidity. Beyond sauvignon blanc and pinot noir, the country’s two most widely planted grape varieties, New Zealand also notably grows and produces whites like chardonnay, pinot gris, riesling and gewurtztraminer. As for reds, merlot, cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc and syrah can be found.
New Zealand is home to about a dozen wine regions, and three of them stand out among the best and highest-producing. Marlborough is where New Zealand’s modern rise in winemaking began, dating back to those first sauvignon blanc plantings.
Marlborough, which also produces significant amounts of good pinot noir, lies at the northeastern tip of the South Island. All the way down at the southern end of the South Island, on the far end of the country’s Southern Alps mountain range, is the Central Otago region. This cool-climate spot is home to an abundance of pinot noir that is closer in style to the subtle, earthy pinot noir of Oregon or even Burgundy, than the riper, jammier styles of warmer climates.
About a third of the way up the North Island is Hawke’s Bay, one of the country’s sunniest and warmest wine regions. Accordingly, it is a spot that does well with reds, including syrah and the Bordeaux varieties merlot, cabernet sauvignon and cabernet franc, which are often included in blends.
New Zealand is out there, both as a place and a wine country, and that is what makes it so intriguing. That’s also what makes the quirky characters in “Flight of the Conchords” so unforgettable. In both cases, the youthful exuberance also helps.