‘My kids are the first generation of Kiwis growing up with wine,” says Steve Smith, co-founder of Craggy Range in Hawke’s Bay, New Zealand, as he pours me a glass of his new rosé. “We’ve gone through an era of technical ability and now we’re developing craftsmanship. Our wines are starting to show a sense of place.”
Case in point: his 2013 Gimblett Gravels Vineyard Rosé, pale-salmon in my glass and refreshingly crisp under the unexpected heat of the spring sun. The years-long labour of love, launched the night before at the opening party of the Food and Wine Classic, was conceived in the context of what Smith calls the “serious rosés” from the south of France. It is made with merlot and syrah grapes that were planted specifically for the task, then hand picked and fermented with wild yeast in old French barrels. The finished product is a fine ambassador for Hawke’s Bay, which Smith says is the only place warm enough for Kiwis to grow syrah.
I am here to start my journey along the Classic New Zealand Wine Trail, a route that leads from the North Island’s Napier, the largest city in Hawke’s Bay, to the South Island’s Marlborough region, ground zero for sauvignon blanc. The hugely popular variety has been the country’s calling card to the world’s wine scene, but it often overshadows the fact that New Zealand has a huge diversity of grape-growing land: It can be as warm as Napa city or Bordeaux, and as cool as Champagne or Mosel – greater variation than found in either California or South Africa.
And now, 40 years into the story of modern New Zealand wine, the industry is keen to showcase its breadth, and to get the world’s wine-lovers – and wine-buyers – hooked on its range of offerings.
It is a theme that comes up again and again as I make my way along the route. At Elephant Hill, for instance, also in Hawke’s Bay, where I enjoy a late lunch of gnocchi with creamy cheese and pickled shredded pumpkin after a 26-kilometre bike ride from downtown Napier, the selection of single-estate wines available for tasting runs the gamut. I could try sauvignon blanc and pinot noir, of course, but also rosé, chardonnay, syrah, merlot and, my favourite of the day, the 2011 Le Phant Blanc, a floral, slightly spicy blend of pinos gris, viognier and gewurztraminer.
Farther south toward Wellington, I stop in at the little town of Martinborough, whose one-day Toast Martinborough event celebrates the release of the year’s vintages and sees thousands of visitors enjoying live entertainment, food and wine at each participating winery, all of which are within easy walking distance. At Ata Rangi, whose founder, Clive Paton, planted his first vines in the region’s dry, rocky soil in 1980, I learn that pinot noir is the area’s shining star.
The winery has been racking up awards for its complex vintages for two decades, and is capitalizing on that fame with its more-accessible, fundraising Crimson label. Proceeds benefit Project Crimson, a conservation organization working to restore the country’s dwindling stock of pohutukawa and rata trees, the red flowers of which are a beloved symbol of New Zealand summers.
After a quick flight to Blenheim from Wellington, I go for lunch at the hilltop Brancott Estate Heritage Centre, whose neutral decor seems designed to direct your eyes to the floor-to-ceiling windows that overlook endless vineyards and the mountains beyond.
It is here that the first sauvignon blanc vines were planted in 1975 – a prescient decision when common wisdom suggested that the region was too cold for grapes. Decades later, this grandparent of the Kiwi wine industry has refined its offerings to include pinot noir and pinot gris, and it’s the latter that I sip on alongside my fresh spring salad of grilled potatoes, arugula, asparagus and cherry tomatoes tossed with Buffalo mozzarella and – a surprise – local pine nuts.
The next day, lunch is in the sunny backyard of the boutique Herzog Winery; in anticipation of tasting the small-batch natural wines later, I opt for a pilsner from Blenheim’s award-winning Renaissance Brewing Co. to go with my meal.
While I wait for the food to arrive, I wander the garden – the white roses are in full bloom, and the olive trees are starting to bud – and gaze at the rows of grapes, an invisible patchwork of 22 varieties across just 11.5 hectares that are undergoing organic certification. Colourful wildflowers attracting beneficial insects fill the spaces between rows, and rose bushes stand at each end, the canaries in the coal mine that will show the first signs of disease.