This is a four-part series I wrote for WhichWinery.
Where In The World: New Zealand Wine Country
A few years ago, I took the plunge to travel down under to Australia’s friendly neighbor to the east, New Zealand. Not just for the majestic sounds, sun-soaked beaches and snow-capped mountains, but for the wine. (I’m glad we can be honest with other each.)
Young and old vines amidst the rolling hills of Marlborough wine country.
It was the explosive citrus. The fresh-cut grass, the exotic fruit tones (Is that guava I taste?) mixing with a tolerable minerality. It was that crisp, zesty zing–like biting into a juicy grapefruit–that seduced me to fork out some serious airfare for this trip. It was Sauvignon Blanc. And I was in love.
Much like the movie Sideways searched for the perfect Pinot, I was determined to sip every Sav Blanc I could get my little hands on. (Okay, so they’re more like “man-hands” if we’re still being honest.)
Most Americans, myself included, usually think of Marlborough as the main—maybe only—wine-producing area in New Zealand. There are quite a few wine areas that spread over New Zealand’s north and south island according to New Zealand wine growers, the national organization of New Zealand’s grape and wine sector:
“New Zealand extends 1,600km (1000 miles) from sub-tropical Northland (36° S) to the world’s most southerly grape growing region Central Otago (46° S). Vineyards benefit from the moderating effect of the maritime climate (no vineyard is more than 120km, or 80 miles, from the ocean) with long sunshine hours and nights cooled by sea breezes.”
My friends and I decided we wanted to conquer both the north and south islands in the only acceptable, touristy-way possible—in a campervan. I was the solo wine-guzzler in the group, so I made sure we put Martinborough, Hawkes Bay (North Island), Marlborough, Nelson and Canterbury on our itinerary. Time for a quick pro-tip here, most people think traveling with non-winos is a bore, but I love it. Why? Well, built-in designated drivers=more wine for me.
We headed north from Wellington in a bright orange campervan with a tipsy tourist (me) tossing around in the “kitchen area/sleeping quarters” while two non-wine drinkers navigated the curvy and mountainous roads towards Hobbiton—a tourist trap compromise to balance out my winery stops. With some chilled Sav Blancs from the budget grocery store and a bag of “Kiwi As” chips what could possibly go wrong?
Later in the trip …
Last time I left you, I was drinking in the back of a campervan on my way to Hobbiton. What’s the worst thing that happened to me, you ask? Nothing.
I enjoyed myself immensely in the faux Middle Earth setting—and the many other noteworthy touristy stops, such as Rotorua, hot springs, spelunking in caves and eating my way through the food scene in Wellington. We didn’t get as far as Auckland, but I really liked the diversity of the North Island even though everyone there told us go straight to the South Island. Before I take you to the South Island, we must get into the wine scene on the North Island, which is well worth a stop.
New Zealand (NZ) has made it easy for visitors to follow their main wine trail all the way from the North Island and into the South Island. The “Classic New Zealand Wine Trail” is marked with brown metal signs along the road. NewZealand.com even says that the trail is not called that for nothing because you can visit over 120 cellar doors that cover about 75% of the country’s wine producing regions. (BTW, “cellar door” is what the Kiwis cleverly call the tasting room.) The NZ wine trail goes from Napier on the North Island to Blenheim, which is in the Marlborough wine region in the south.
Through our North Island travels, we started in Napier and headed south towards Marlborough. People recommend taking four days to do the trail. This part is entirely subjective. I’ve known people who have spent weeks trickling down this trail. We spent about five to six days. Some days on the trip, we tried to rush to four or five wineries, whereas one day in the Canterbury region, we spent all afternoon tasting and eating at one winery with the winemaker. Like with most travel plans, be sure to stay open to what happens. For instance, on one of our wine days we stopped in a pub for a quick bite and ended up drinking beer, watching All Blacks rugby and befriending all the locals in the town’s only pub. You never know what can happen. That’s probably the most I’ll talk about beer, so back to the wine.
The two main wine regions we hit in the North Island were Hawkes Bay and Wairarapa. While most people immediately associate Sauvignon Blanc with New Zealand, these non-Marlborough wine regions are known for producing their own tasty varietals. (Varietal is a fancy wine word for grapes. Sexy, I know.) Hawkes Bay is known for making some bold Cabernet Sauvignons. And Wairarapa makes some of the best Pinot Noirs in New Zealand.
Hawkes Bay is huge and contains about 80 wineries, whereas Wairarapa has about 20. The scenery in both parts is equally amazing. Ranging from the Craggy Range Winery, which is nestled at the base of the towering Te Manu Peak, to the sophisticated Te Mata Estate winery, you can get a blend of different experiences. If you tire of the wine, you can go to the beach, hike the gorgeous scenery or learn the “Haka”(an ancient Māori war dance traditionally used on the battlefield to display a tribe’s strength and unity) from the locals at the pub.
After hugging the curvaceous, steep roads on the North Island, our bright orange campervan was ready for some smoother, coastal roads. And after tasting some robust Cabernet Sauvignons and Pinot Noirs in Hawkes Bay, I was ready for the refreshing, fruit-forward Sauvignon Blancs in Marlborough.
The Marlborough Sounds as seen from the ferry ride between Wellington (North Island) to Picton (South Island) on our way to Marlborough wine country.
We headed for Wellington, which is where the Interislander Ferry transported us, and our campervan (aka Mr. Brightside), through the picturesque Marlborough Sounds to the town of Picton, which is at the northern tip of Marlborough wine country. The ride itself relaxed our tired souls as we sailed through the silent “sounds” with nothing more than a few sailboats and clouds floating by us.
As soon as the ferry dropped us off, we reunited with Mr. Brightside and continued to follow our favorite “Classic New Zealand Wine Trail” road signs. They led us to glory—star-bright Sauvignon Blanc glory. We tracked the signs until I saw the first hint of vineyards. As a bonus, flocks of fluffy sheep were gently grazing in between the vines. We even pulled down a dirt road to get a closer look at the sheep before we began our cellar door tour. We arrived a little late, so most places were closed for the day, but we entered our first winery with no problem, purchased a few bottles and drank the night away under the stars.
We woke early to spend the next two days exploring Marlborough. So many cellar doors are located close to each other so everything is really easy. We checked out Hans Herzog, Nautilus Estate, Brancott Estates, Saint Clair, Cloudy Bay, Giesen, Highfield and a bunch of others that seem a little fuzzy to me. I could spend all day at each one, but there are just too many. We aimed for a nice mix of casual cellar doors, including smaller ones we’d duck into on a whim along with other fancier ones, such as Wither Hills, consisting of stunning buildings and modern art. It’s easy to fall in love with Marlborough. Much like tasting Cabernet Sauvignons in Napa Valley, every place has unique and amazing Sauvignon Blancs that they love to tell you about. But do note that true kiwis will never brag to you. Look up “tall poppy syndrome” if you need more context.
As I promised with my compromises, I couldn’t keep my friends in Marlborough forever. They wanted to hit other southern and adventure-filled cities, so I obliged. With a sad face and a sober mind, I took the wheel of Mr. Brightside and drove away from Marlborough. The “wine trail” signs no longer popped up on the side of the road. But the snowy Southern Alps sprung up to our right as we drove parallel to the Pacific Ocean on our left. The idyllic scenery eased the blow of leaving wine country. Then out of nowhere, I saw a broken sign that pointed to a winery. With my friends sleeping in the back, I went for it. My friends would never know. And if they woke up, what’s another winery to them?
I pulled into the winery parking lot and slowly exited Mr. Brightside trying not to wake my friends in the back. Success! This little winery was perched on a hillside that overlooked the Pacific Ocean. The smell of slight sea salt that juxtaposed with oaky wine-stained barrels was blissful. I walked into an empty cellar door. Trying not to be a pushy American, I held off on knocking on the counter and shouting, “Excuse me!” I felt no need. Soon enough, an older man resembling Ernest Hemingway strolled out with a wine thief in one hand and a glass half filled in the other.
Vineyards in the town of Kaikoura set against the backdrop of the snow-capped Southern Alps in the Canterbury/Waipara wine region.
“Hi,” I said as I tried to figure out if he worked there or just drank there.
“Hello,” he replied never looking up. “Wanna taste some wines?”
Without thinking twice, I followed him to the counter. And without knowing it, I stumbled into the Canterbury/Wairapa wine regions of New Zealand. Both, I would find out, were incredible. The Ernest look-alike turned out to be the winemaker. He poured his Sauvignon Blanc, Rieslings and then we went into the lower level to barrel taste his reds. The unexpected one-on-one time with the winemaker (at no cost) is always appreciated. When we walked back out to the tasting room, my friends were there. They weren’t upset, but rather were taking photos and telling me how much they enjoyed the scenery. It’s these unexpected turns in life that make it so interesting. Sure, we had a plan in New Zealand, but when we allowed ourselves to veer down dirt roads and go with the flow, we found adventures we never thought possible along with extraordinary people.
The rest of the trip we crossed off some bucket-list items in the adrenaline category—bungy jumping, zorbing and jet boating. New Zealand is filled with adventures and wineries of all kinds. The best way to make the most of New Zealand and its wine regions is to take the Classic Wine Trail—and follow every appealing dirt road and broken wooden winery sign in between.