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New Zealand MW trip

New Zealand MW trip

I was privileged to be a part of the recent MW trip to this spectacular country in February.

We started in Waiheke, an exquisite island off Auckland. Waiheke used to be a bit too far for commuters, and with a weird Belgian history (one of the main towns is called Ostend), it was for many years a hippy, surfy place. The wine aspect of this changed with the arrival of Steve White, a sailor who called the sea his home, who founded Stonyridge and produces one of the now most celebrated wines in New Zealand, Larose. There are winemakers and brewers from Argentina, the States, and Germany on the island too.

A fantastic welcome dinner with Sir George and Lady Fistonich, of Villa Maria helped kick off the trip in grand style. They are of English extraction, hence the title, but very proud to be among the pioneers of the whole New Zealand industry, much of which was founded by the Croatians amongst whom George grew up.

Next we flew (courtesy of Air New Zealand, one of the sponsors of our whole trip) to Napier, to see Hawkes Bay. Startled by the Syrahs, Chardonnays and other warmer climate varieties, our first welcome was at Elephant Hill, a truly spectacular German-owned winery with a vista to the sea and a superyacht-level villa draped with a priceless, tasteful art collection. Around Hawkes Bay we tasted wines from Trinity Hill (Scottish owned), Craggy Range and many others. One highlight was a visit to Te Mata to taste a vertical of their flagship wine, Coleraine, an exquisite Bordeaux Blend named after their Northern Irish origins.

Onwards to Wairarapa, encompassing Gladstone, Masterton and Martinborough. As we moved south, the wines became cooler, but the welcome was no less warm. ‘Wai’ is the Maori (pronounced ‘Moorie’) word for ‘water’, which explains why quite so many of New Zealand’s place names have ‘wai’ in them, all the more so for wine areas. Wonderful Pinot Noirs and all manner of other wines from, amongst many stellar examples: Ata Rangi, Dry River, and Kusuda, made by Hiroyuki Kusuda, from Japan.

We drove south, through gorgeous gorges and monumental mountains towards Wellington to board our ferry to Blenheim, for our first encounter with Marlborough (all named after English places and people!). Against the forecast (a relief for some and a mild disappointment for others) the Cook Strait and Marlborough Sounds were as flat as anything, and our crossing entirely cyclone-free. The scenery was breathtaking.

We tasted at Astrolabe, and found so much more than Sauvignon, including the punkiest-trousered punky winemaker I have met, Andrew from Framinham, a proud Geordie from Gateshead (with a late-night drinking ethic to match!) who fashions one of the finest Rieslings I have ever tasted – rightly awarded as such and one of the best in the country. There were many other highlights from No 1 Family, Greywacke and many others, and I finally got to meet the lovely Jane Hunter, whose wines I have admired for decades.

Next, in a thankfully sea-worthy collection of largely German and Japanese four-wheel drive vehicles we went on our long planned Marlborough Vineyard Safari. Monsoon safari. It was just huge fun. The Awatere River (re-pronounced as ‘a watery’) had been almost dry the day before, but the cyclonic rains – much needed – had swelled it into a torrent that made fording it a challenge for all but the hardiest of our winemaker chauffeurs. I was with Simon from Astrolabe, and he was driving a borrowed car, so I have no idea whether he was buoyed by that or not. But we were. Everyone made it across.

Of course we tasted Sauvignon Blanc, but oh how so much more complex it can be. Deft use of lees, malolactic, oak, and handling has resulted in a panoply of different flavours that would have been unthinkable only a few decades ago. A wonderful lunch undercover at Aunstfield was the venue for us to discover Savvy delights from producers such as Spy Valley and Clos Henri (from France).

Then a real highlight, in a sea (or atmosphere perhaps) of highlights. Air New Zealand, generous sponsors of the trip with other travel, wine and help, had provided us with our own plane – the All Black Plane, on a private flight from Blenheim to Christchurch, via Marlborough, Nelson, and the Canterbury valleys. It was just perfect.

The vineyards of North Canterbury were an amazing discovery. Michael Henley popped up again. Now there’s a man who really needs to get his arse into gear to write a Research Paper, become an MW, and get private flights from Air NZ, instead of having to make his own way. At Pyramid Valley, we met my namesake MW, Steve Smith (Michael’s colleague, so – you know – have a go…) and encountered some truly fabulous wines from many estates, scarcely known outside their homeland for reasons of exclusivity and absence of need. Well, they are now. Black Estate, Pegasus Bay, Bell Hill and The Boneline, were amongst many highlights for me.

Via Christchurch, we then transited the Southern Alps from the luxury of our nothing-to-distract-you-from-the-view coach. We saw Aoraki / Mount Cook, from the shores of Lake Pukaki with crystal clear skies and limpid emerald waters. It was very special. No WiFi obviously, but perhaps even more special for that.

Onwards to Central Otago to resist photographing what is, apparently, the most photographed vineyard in the world. No-one managed this. And nor could we resist the wines. Majoring on Pinot Noir (but with more than enough Riesling, Chardonnay and other delights too), we were treated to three very specially organised, and brilliantly orchestrated masterclasses on all aspects of Otago Pinot Noir. A revelation as we discovered less oak, less alcohol, less extraction of fruit, but more scintillation, more elegance, grace, satin and texture. Valli, Rippon, Doctors Flat, Felton Road, Wooing Tree, Two Paddocks, Mount Edward and myriad others, producing a tapestry of variations on the grape that I don’t believe anyone would have credited only a few years ago. Stunning wines and a stunning end to our vinous odyssey of adventure and discovery, in the Scotland-like (Bannockburn for example!) scenery of the majesty of the South Island.

One thing to take from all of the above is that this is a (largely) British founded, Croatian consolidated, globally influenced, internationally owned and operated, wine industry in a country settled by the Maori around 1000 years ago, and Western Europeans about 700 years after that.

Everyone we met was an immigrant of some sort.

And so were all of us.

New Zealand is the most welcoming and cosmopolitan country I have every visited and the New Zealanders can feel very proud of being able to call it home. I know I would be.

Te Aroha
Te Whakapono
Me Te Rangimarie
Tatou Tatou E

(Love. Faith. Peace. Be amongst us all)

An extraordinary vote of thanks to everyone who hosted us, wherever they were from, and especially to Jane Skilton MW and Emma Jenkins MW for making all the above happen in such a wondrous way.

Rod Smith MW