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Despite being isolated in the South Pacific, wineries in New Zealand managed to stay connected with consumers around the world during COVID-19 lockdowns.HANDOUT/Reuters

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After having been closed off for much of the past three years, like much of the world, New Zealand is starting the 2023 grape harvest with hope for top-quality wines and in anticipation of the return of international wine tourists. New Zealand’s borders have reopened and COVID-19 restrictions have been eased, allowing wine lovers from around the world to once again experience the beauty and hospitality of the country’s wine regions.

Global interest in New Zealand wine has never been higher. The country’s trade organization, New Zealand Winegrowers, announced in October exports to international markets reached a record high of NZD$2.03 billion, which includes strong support from Canadian consumers (a record-breaking NZD$157 million in exports for the year ending September 2022). New Zealand wine is exported to more than 100 countries and ranks as the country’s sixth-largest exported good.

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Despite being isolated in the South Pacific, wineries in New Zealand managed to stay connected with consumers around the world. New Zealand Wine Week, which is billed as a celebration of all things New Zealand wine, has been successfully moved online. The 2023 edition is happening this week, with a mixture of virtual seminars with some in-person tastings happening in major markets around the world. A range of presentations are planned, with conversations taking place between wine producers and media to share the latest behind-the-scenes information.

Wineries are bridging the gap in other ways. The organization representing the Gimblett Gravels Wine Growing District in Hawke’s Bay makes a point of sharing a case of specially selected red wines with journalists and critics around the world. Australian Master of Wine Andrew Caillard selected his top 12 bottles from the 2020 vintage following an extensive blind tasting of submissions from members (to avoid bias, he didn’t know which winery made which wine). Seven blended red wines and five syrahs were singled out, including two selections each from Church Road, Elephant Hill and Trinity Hill.

Nearly 1975 acres of vineyards fall within the Gimblett Gravels zone. Unlike much of New Zealand, which centres its attention on sauvignon blanc and pinot noir production, close to 90 per cent of plantings are red wine grapes, including syrah, cabernet sauvignon and merlot, which have garnered international attention for the classic, age-worthy character.

The 2020 vintage in Hawke’s Bay will be remembered for the near-perfect growing conditions, with no adverse weather events affecting the ripening of the grapes, as well as the unusual circumstances of a grape harvest that took place just as New Zealand was rolling out COVID-19 lockdowns in late March.

This is the 13th year the association has shared this vintage collection with writers like myself. Other suitably ambitious wine regions should take a page from their playbook. Sharing these wines help member wineries gain insight into where Gimblett Gravels wines stand each year and help to chart the evolution and progression of the wines coming from this distinctive growing region.

Judging by the across-the-board quality of the 2020 selections, these are remarkable wines, with appealing and richly layered character, which are exciting by any standard of measure. Many of the wines in the 2020 selection are made in small quantities; most don’t end up on liquor store shelves. But if any become available, I’ll be sure to highlight their release as a chance to taste some of the best bottles coming from New Zealand right now.

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