But there is a lot more to the land of the long white cloud than Sauvignon. New Zealand may seem just a dot on a map of the other side of the world, but it is 1,000 miles long, stretching much the same distance as that between the cool champagne region of France, and the heat of Seville in Spain. The key point about growing grapes in New Zealand is that, unsurprisingly, the climate is largely determined by the sea that surrounds the South and North Islands of New Zealand and the cold winds that sometimes come straight out of Antarctica. The mountains that run like a spine down both islands also have an effect on rainfall, so that places like the inland wine growing region of Central Otago have just 400mm of rain while Milford Sound on the west coast gets over 6 metres of rain a year. That is one of the wettest places on Earth.
Over millennia, the volcanic nature of New Zealand has also had an effect on soil structure producing a diverse range of mineral rich terroirs. Add to these natural advantages the inherent drive of the people of this small nation, where the population is smaller than that of Yorkshire and you have a dynamic, agricultural-based country, with a can-do attitude. They have built a lively tourism industry out of bungee jumping, jaw-dropping beautiful scenery and a devotion to conserving New Zealand’s vibrant ecology.
I have just spent the last few weeks exploring the wine regions of New Zealand, getting to know not just the vibrant Sauvignons, but also the sun-ripened flavours of Syrah, Merlot and Cabernet, the delicate complexity of Pinot Noir and the rounded, citrus style of Chardonnay, as well as many other grapes now being grown in these islands.
I started in the north, on a small island just a 35-minute ferry ride from Auckland. Someone else from Yorkshire had got there first – Captain Cook. In 1769 Captain Cook moored Endeavour just off Waiheke Island and noticed the tall trees that grew there. They were kauri trees, immensely tall, strong and straight, and having noted the presence of the trees in his diary, a few years later cutters were sent to chop them down to be used as masts for ships. These days there are very few kauri trees left on the island, because they take so long to grow, but it was those trees that inspired the name of the vineyard ‘Man O’War’ that I visited first of all.
Waiheke island is a delightful jewel of an island. These days it is an upmarket place to live, being an easy commute to the capital while the subtropical climate, with good sunshine and a refreshing breeze keeps the holiday trade busy too. Tourism is a major industry, with the local population of 8,000 growing threefold during the season. This means that you may need to book your lunch at one of the vineyard restaurants, but the expansive beaches are empty and the roads are almost deserted. This is an island of rolling countryside, where winds clip the tops of hills but vines can flourish on sunny, north-facing slopes. Olives grow here too; the local oil has a delicious herbaceous freshness. Waiheke is also an island where land is very expensive, and so wines need to be exceptional to be worth their cost of production. From my tastings around the island, they definitely are.
Man O’War vineyard is part of a large integrated farm that occupies most of the eastern part of the island. They have around 70 hectares of vines, mainly planted to red grapes, Cabernet, Merlot, Malbec and Syrah, although some of their whites, produced in tiny quantities are quite exceptional.
Also exceptional is the location of the tasting room, on the shore of a long sandy beach. Some of the visitors to Man O’War had arrived by boat – surely the best way to explore wineries. Stand out wines from here include the gloomily named Gravestone 2013 (Field and Fawcett, £19.60), which echoes the Graves area of Bordeaux. This is a Sauvignon Blanc/Semillon blend that gets clean away from gooseberry-fresh Sauvignon flavours and instead concentrates on citrus, guava and minerally crunch. Its three years in bottle has expanded the flavours and tasting the 2012 shows even more depth.
Demonstrating that Waiheke island is particularly good for reds, the Merlot/Cabernet/Malbec blend 2011 (Field and Fawcett £19.95, also available at Hic!) is the current vintage, with dark, savoury cassis-laden fruit and supple tannins while Bellerophon (Hic!, £36), is a Syrah Viognier blend that tastes like it has come out of Côte Rôtie with deep raspberry and white pepper notes, Sichuan spice and enough structure to last several years.
A similar blend of Syrah and Viognier (Dreadnought 2011, Field and Fawcett, £32.50) made with whole cluster berries grown on steep slopes and aged two years in barrel develops red and black fruit flavours, gamey savoury notes and chocolate. This is the wine to team with steak.
Other Waiheke wines to look out for include Stonyridge, one of the first vineyards to be established on the island, especially Larose 2014 which sells out en primeur each year at around £80 a bottle (check Seckford Wines). Tantalus is a new winery, with an excellent restaurant on-site and terrific range of Cabernet-based wines. So far these have not made it to the UK, but undoubtedly will do soon. Cable Bay Five Hills 2010 (Amazon) also shows the strength of Waiheke in making deep flavoured reds.
One particular wine that, so far, is not available in Yorkshire comes from Man O’War who also part own a tiny island off Waiheke. Ponui has a population of just eight people and work in the vineyards, in particular harvesting, is tide-dependent. This island is a cat-free sanctuary for the ground-living, now endangered, kiwi bird, but alongside conservation work, there are vineyards and some exceptional Pinot Gris grapes which go into Exiled 2016 (around £20). With apricots on the nose and light pear and pineapple fruit on the palate, this is a wine to enjoy anytime you have a view of the sea.