Mark Aselstine
 
July 10, 2013 | Mark Aselstine

New Zealand Wine-A Hawke's Bay Primer


Over the past few years, New Zealand is a destination that’s grown in terms of acceptance among normal international tourists, while also becoming a more sought after destination for wine drinkers specifically.

So why are wine drinkers flocking to New Zealand?

To start, the wine world has undergone a dramatic change of late.  The rich and dense Cabernet Sauvignon’s that made California famous have become passé.  Instead wine drinkers are looking for more complex and interesting wines from cooler growing environments.  New Zealand in a way is an ideal cool growing environment because of its unique geography that most people simply aren’t aware of.  Since New Zealand is actually two islands (let’s be honest, Americans don’t do wonderfully well at geography), there is an incredible amount of influence from the cool waters of the Pacific Ocean on grape vines planted near the coast on either island.  While people generally only associate New Zealand wine with crisp white’s and Pinot Noir, there are warm enough vineyards to produce a range of other world class choices, some of which we’ll talk about below. Vines on both the north and south islands benefit from long summer days, but also the cooling affects of the ocean as well as the cooler night’s that you’d expect from the world’s most Southern vineyard sites.

One region which makes some great wine and also doubles as a great tourist destination is Hawke’s Bay.  Hawke’s Bay is located on New Zealand’s north island’s eastern coast.  The area is known for its majestic beauty as well as a focus on a local food and wine culture.  To us, it reminds us a lot of Sonoma closer to home here in California.  The region is home to New Zealand’s oldest farmer’s market, the world’s largest colony of Gannet’s (it’s a huge sea bird with a wingspan of 6 feet or so) as well as one of the best and most extensive Art Deco building collections in the world. There’s plenty to do outside of food and wine for visitors, but we’ll stick to some of the lesser known wineries that we’ve run into and what we like about them in this space, as well as the winery which might be the standard bearer in the region:

Alpha Domus:  Owned by the Ham family since 1991, the winery uses only its own estate vineyards to produce their range of incredible wines.  On the high end they produce a cool climate Bordeaux styled blend called AD the Aviator which has been consistently rated at 90 points and above by major wine critics, while being touted for its expressive aromatics as well as its firm balance between fruit and tannins.  On the white wine side there are Chardonnay choices (please note, this isn’t going to be the big oak driven Chard’s that made Napa famous, but a more austere and light oak style that is the driving style of New Zealand Chardonnay) as well as a Semillon . Of note for American drinkers is the Noble Selection white which in essence is a late harvest (dessert wine) Semillon. Given the uptick we’re seeing locally here in San Francisco with sweeter wines, this is the type of wine that could easily find a home on the cocktail and dessert path in the city.

Mission Estate Winery: In a story which is quite familiar to those of us living in California, Mission Estate Winery was originally opened by a group of French Missionaries who planted vines in order to have something for sacrament as well as, table wine.  As you might expect, the history of the estate gets rather complicated from there (as it should with a 150 year old history) but Mission Estate continues to be Hawke’s Bay’s oldest winery.  With a high end price of around $40, these are approachably priced and likely under priced given the quality.  The Antoine red blend combines a traditional Bordeaux approach with New Zealand fruit and is really a stunning example of traditional French winemaking style with locally available grapes.  There is a lighter texture to this wine that simply isn’t possible in other parts of the world, almost a finesse to the Cabernet Sauvignon. Winemaker Paul Mooney was once a geophysicist when combined with a family tradition of making wine in Bordeaux, makes a couple of good reasons why he makes a more acidic and less fruit driven wine than many of their neighbors.

Tironui Estate:  Located literally next door to Mission Estate (much the same way that Denner Vineyards in Paso Robles shares a border with the famed James Berry Vineyard yet only charges a fraction of the price for its wine) Tironui Estate is owned by a family currently living in Malta, but with roots in New Zealand. We wanted to mention Tironui in this space because of that connection (the area has already been proven when it comes to winemaking great results are coming), but also because Tironui’s story helps to tell the story of what the wine industry might look like as time goes by.  Oregon has complained recently of California’s buying wine in their state, just as California winemakers complain of new Chinese ownership of vineyards in Napa Valley. 

It’s a global world in general and as we become more “flat” ownership may very well be more driven by heritage and dreams rather than current location.  It’s already happened during an age of the jet set consulting winemaker whose name ends up on the label, perhaps for only a few days of work while others spend every day in the cellar and in the vineyard.  As I have family living in South America, this style of a more global world of wine is a good thing. 

The last time we saw a surge of globalization in the wine world, we saw Italian vintners accept modern winemaking techniques and bring their wines to their rightful place among the wine elite after a decades long struggle for consistent quality.  I hope that ownership stakes like the one we see at Tironui benefit not only their namesake winery in New Zealand, but help bring winemaking and grape growing back to Malta. If you aren’t familiar Malta is an island in the Mediterranean Sea just south of Sicily.  That’s pretty much prime grape growing real estate, if there’s any land left over on a small island space and like most Mediterranean islands, there are native grapes to the area just waiting to be explored.

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