Vineyards and olive trees stretch into rolling green hills. Before me sit four empty wine glasses, and one that still holds nearly half a glass of pale amber sauvignon blanc. This is wine tasting in New Zealand. I may as well be in a tourism ad. But, this is real life, and I am sitting here at one of the many wineries of Waiheke island, just a short ferry ride from Auckland. Here is the place I would first dabble in the wines of New Zealand, before I would become fully aware of the enthusiasm and pride Kiwis feel for the grape growing and fermentation that they do so well.
There are ten major wine regions in the country, including Central Otago: the world’s most southerly grape-growing region. The maritime climate and long ripening season favour a few prevalent varietals–a plethora of sauvignon blanc and chardonnay, with more and more wineries producing pinot gris, riesling, gewürztraminer and more. Though the white wines seem to claim the spotlight, you can certainly find reds here. Some regions are known for their pinot noir, cabernet sauvignon, and merlot.
Weeks later I would find myself wine tasting in the famed Marlborough Region, in the north of South Island. I set out on my first day on South Island with a middle-aged guide who didn’t drink and two Canadian companions. Having newly arrived on the ferry from Wellington, this feels a world away from the North, though the land is broken by just 92 kilometres–the Cook Strait. It is rough and expansive where the north is soft and flowing.
“I don’t drink very often, but I love to meet people, and I love this region,” our wine tasting guide explains as she drives us. “I think that when you come here, it’s not just for the wine, but because the landscape is amazing in itself.”
In the beginning, tastings made me anxious. The pretentious air is undeniable–all around are groups of people swirling their glasses before putting their whole face in for a deep inhale. A woman nearby comments on her preference for Chilean over Argentinean wines (something to do with the soils apparently). So, I try to fake it, eyeing the crowds as I swirl my glass. The anxiety quickly falls away as the alcohol works its magic (who’s going to spit when you’ve paid $70 for the tour?). Soon I realize that the majority of people are just doing what I’m doing: learning by imitation. There is something to this taking the time to really smell and taste, and to try to identify scents and tastes. It’s not all pretense, but a practice that forces you to slow down and take note of your senses–something that doesn’t tend to coincide with the consumption of alcohol. After a while, it really does take on the feeling of a real art.
Though Marlborough’s first commercial plantings date to the 1970s, there are signs that small-scale grape-growing and wine production could have happened 100 years earlier. Today, thousands of hectares are home to dozens of vineyards and wineries. There’s a romantic sense to sitting with a glass of wine, in the place where it was produced, and looking out to the stretches of vine that span on and on.
I allow myself to buy one bottle, and surprisingly (to myself, at least) opt for a gewürztraminer from a small, boutique winery. By the time I get back to town I am lightheaded and groggy from a long, hot afternoon of many, many different wines (maybe I should have started spitting). I chill the bottle in the hostel fridge (hidden in a bag, with my name label obnoxiously obvious) for a few hours before grabbing an old black coffee mug and sitting myself at a wooden picnic table in the back garden. The wine is honey and pear, syrupy sweet. But, it is more than that. I’ve seen where the grapes were grown, met the husband-and-wife duo that own the winery that produced it–and yes, paid double what I would normally spend. There’s something about knowing the history, the effort, the length of time and process put into that one bottle, that makes me want to appreciate it a little longer than usual.
Tour: Marlborough Wine Tours – Medium Wine Tour (4-5 hours) for $70 NZD:
Pickup in Picton, Havelock, or Blenhiem
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