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New Zeal for New Zealand

The Lord of the Rings, the America's Cup, Sauvignon Blanc: These are just three reasons New Zealand has become such a fashionable destination. Here's a guide to the country's best, from the most beautiful wilderness lodges to the finest wineries.
Scene-Stealing Spots

Producer Barrie Osborne fell in love with New Zealand while he was there to make The Lord of the Rings. Here, a few of his favorite places.

Saffron Restaurant, in Arrowtown, near Queenstown. "The tables and chairs are made of a warm, beautiful local wood called rimu. And the fish and lamb are great" (18 Bucking;ham St.; 011-64-3-442-0131; www.saffronrestaurant.co.nz).

Mount Ruapehu, in the center of the North Island. "The mountain is fantastic for hiking. It's a perfect cone, with a crater lake at the top and volcanic boulders strewn around" (www.ruapehunz.com).

Margrain Vineyard, in Martinborough wine country. "There are seven or eight vineyards within walking distance, and the incredible Pacific Rim-style food at the Old Winery Café tastes like it came right from the field" (011-64-6-306-8333; www.margrainvineyard.co.nz).

Whangaroa Harbor, in the upper North Island. "You can catch marlin, tuna and kingfish, and there are amazing oyster farms nearby" (fishing charters can be arranged through Kiwi Charters, 011-64-9-402-5565, or Primetime Charters & Gamefishing, 011-64-9-407-1299).

 

A Brief History of New Zealand Wine

It's hard to reconcile New Zealand's present with its past, at least where wines are concerned. This beautiful country, which now turns out tangy Sauvignon Blancs, perfumed Pinot Noirs and stylish Chardonnays, was until quite recently known mainly for vegetal-tasting and semisweet wines. Some were made from unremarkable grape varieties like Müller-Thurgau, others from hybrids with such catchy names as Seibel 5455.

New Zealand's first vines were planted in 1819 and its first wine made around 1840--by an Englishman, J. R. Busby. The years that followed were marked by bad luck and bad choices. The vine louse phylloxera that rampaged through France arrived in New Zealand at the end of the nineteenth century and destroyed many vineyards. In 1910, a strong temperance movement took hold, which drove winemakers to plant cheap grape varieties that could be harvested as table grapes if necessary. Finally, in the 1960s, growers began planting vinifera varieties like Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay in lieu of ignoble labruscas like Isabella and Alphonse Lavallée. Winemakers gradually identified specific regions as most suitable for specific grapes, such as Gisborne and Hawkes Bay on the east coast of the North Island. In 1973, the first vine was planted in what would become New Zealand's most famous wine region, Marlborough, on the northern tip of South Island. Marlborough went on to produce New Zealand's first internationally acclaimed wine, Cloudy Bay. The groundbreaking 1985 vintage not only alerted other New Zealand winemakers to the region's potential but announced to the rest of the world what was possible in "the land of the long white cloud."
--Greg Duncan Powell

 

New Country Lodges

New Zealand is famous for rural lodges--such as Huka Lodge, Wharekauhau, Blanket Bay and Paratiho--that serve memorable food and excellent local wines. Recently, several more intimate properties have opened.

Omata Estate is in the beautiful and secluded Bay of Islands, a group of 144 golden-sand islands off the northern tip of the North Island. The stately four-bedroom rock-and-timber lodge, decorated with native wood furniture and art by eminent New Zealand painters, is set on a manicured lawn in front of a private bay and jetty. It's ideal for extended families, especially because there's a staff apartment--ostensibly for bodyguards, but perfect for teenagers. Omata also has a highly regarded vineyard and restaurant; the Orongo Bay oysters, from an oyster farm around the corner, are amazing (011-64-9-403-8007; www.omata.co.nz; doubles from $185).

Eagles Nest, also in the Bay of Islands, has two cliffside cottages and two spacious villas. Both villas have an industrial-style stainless steel kitchen, sliding glass walls and a polished beige-and-black interior; one also has a lofty louvered-glass roof (011-64-9-403-8333; www.eaglesnest.co.nz; cottages from $445).

Earthsong Lodge, on Great Barrier Island, a 30-minute helicopter ride from Auckland, is ingeniously made of straw and adobe. Nearly three-quarters of the island is a wildlife sanctuary, and the lodge's treetop decks have panoramic views of crimson-flowering pohutukawa trees and empty beaches. Owner and chef Trevor Rendle, a member of Slow Food (the international movement to save regional cooking), forages for ingredients like scallops to sauté with dill and serve on cucumber spaghetti (011-64-9-429-0030; www.earthsonglodge.co.nz; doubles from $210).

--Amanda Jones

 

Sauvignon Blanc: The National Grape

Sauvignon Blanc is a strange grape. Long suspected of being a distant and poor cousin of Cabernet Sauvignon, it rose enormously in status in 1997 when it was proven not only to be related to Cabernet but, in fact, its parent. The variety is as recognizable in the vineyard as it is in the glass. The name Sauvignon suggests the French sauvage (wild), and the vines are. They grow like weeds, and the shoots are brittle. (This makes Sauvignon particularly vulnerable to wind damage.) The grape is not as adaptable as the ubiquitous Chardonnay, and its flavors change so quickly that a couple of hours' delay at the time of picking can make the difference between a wine of finesse and one of flab.

New Zealand Sauvignon bears only a passing resemblance to its Loire-based French counterparts; there's less of the famous gunflint flavor you'll find in a good Sancerre and more gooseberry, lime, lychee and tropical fruit. And aromas of cut grass and hay are even more pronounced in a New Zealand Sauvignon than they are in a California version. New Zealand Sauvignons are produced in a range of styles, from rounded and wood-matured to gently oak-spiced to zingy. But however they're made, they're unlike any other wine on the planet--and that's the appeal.

--G.D.P.

 

Wine Producers to Watch

Montana Established in 1944, Montana dominates New Zealand wine production, owning properties in the country's three major wine regions and accounting for half the country's grape crush. Its 2001 Brancott Sauvignon Blanc ($11) is classic, bright and crisp; its nonvintage Deutz Marlborough Cuvée (not yet imported to the U.S.), created in partnership with the French Champagne house Deutz, has a delicate yeastiness and an impressively long finish.

Vavasour Located in the Awatere Valley, where the soil is even stonier than in the nearby region of Marlborough, Vavasour produces one of New Zealand's most complex Sauvignon Blancs. The 2001 ($18) has a fantastic flinty acidity balanced by the smoky oak flavors that come from a short aging in wood.

Te Mata Every wine region needs an energetic someone to put it on the map, and in Hawkes Bay that someone is John Buck of Te Mata. He's proven that New Zealand can turn out top-quality reds, particularly Cabernet blends. Te Mata's single-vineyard Bordeaux blends, Awatea ($32) and Coleraine ($44), are definitely worth seeking out--especially the 1998s, with their rich black-currant fruit and cedary tannins.

Palliser Estate Martinborough is New Zealand's top Pinot Noir region, and Palliser Estate one of its leading producers. Its 2000 ($26) is powerful, rich and spicy, redolent of raspberry and coffee, with a finish that lasts and lasts.

Pegasus Bay Canterbury is the wine region closest to Christchurch, the biggest city on New Zealand's South Island. The area occasionally produces great wine, usually from Pegasus Bay. The velvety 2000 Prima Donna Pinot Noir ($60)--marked by notes of cherries and dried plums--is outstanding.

Kumeu River Run by Michael Brajkovich, New Zealand's first Master of Wine, Kumeu River's Chardonnay is remarkable for its complexity and unique style. The 1999 ($22) is, in a word, incredible, with rich flavors of honey, oatmeal and nuts, and heady aromas of ripe fig and grapefruit.

Neudorf This winery is located in Nelson, on the northernmost tip of South Island, one of New Zealand's prettiest wine regions. Its estate-grown 1999 Moutere Chardonnay ($30) is one of its best: The wine is concentrated and intense, with flavors of melon and butterscotch.

--G.D.P.

 

Auckland Black Book

Hilton Auckland recently opened, lucky for those coming to the America's Cup yacht race next February. The hotel has a decidedly ocean-liner-like feel, with curved white walls and yards of glass framing harbor views (Princes Wharf; 011-64-9-978-2000; doubles from $115). Its restaurant, White, continues the theme with a white-leather interior, though the menu includes dishes from both land and sea: sesame-crusted rack of lamb, prawns with blue-cheese polenta (011-64-9-978-2020).

Soul, a bistro in a vast, modernist space in the America's Cup marina, is always packed. Diners select one of six types of fish and choose the method of cooking: grilled, roasted, blackened or beer battered (Viaduct Basin; 011-64-9-356-7249).

Otto's, in a converted courthouse with gilded ceilings and leather banquettes, is the city's new darling. The Malaysian-spiced lamb loin and pastilla of lamb shank with sweet onions keep Aucklanders returning (40 Kitchener St.; 011-64-9-300-9595).

Vinnies is 12 years old, but its menu, which updates dishes from New Zealand's indigenous peoples, is always inventive. Maori ingredients get included in such favorites as seared baby abalone with miso-flavored mashed kumara (sweet potato) and smoked eel with wild fern fronds (166 Jervois Rd.; 011-64-9-376-5597).

Bambina, a stylish café in the Ponsonby shopping area, is the best place for a midday espresso break (268 Ponsonby Rd.; 011-64-9-360-4000).

Kapiti Cheeses sells a huge array of products, many of which are made in-house. The buttery Kikorangi Triple Cream Blue is so good it converts blue-cheese haters, and the Mount Hector goat cheese is heavenly topped with spiced figs (136-142 Fanshawe St.; 011-64-9-377-2473).

--A.J.

Published September 2002
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