Most Americans don't know much about New Zealand, save some sexy landscape shots from the Lord of the Rings trilogy and the wonky humor on "Flight of the Conchords." Yes, there are more sheep than people on New Zealand's two main islands in the southwestern Pacific Ocean, but it's not surprising when you consider that it's the world's youngest country, first settled by the Maori between 700 and 1,000 years ago. And contrary to what most people think, New Zealand is not a tiny island nation bobbing off the coast of Australia. More than 1,000 miles from its nearest neighbor "Down Under," New Zealand is nearly 1,300 miles from the northernmost tip of its North Island to the southernmost tail of its South Island - almost the length of two Californias - with geologic diversity that includes alpine glaciers, volcanoes, fjords, subtropical forests, plains and sandy beaches.
With all that in mind, is it that surprising to learn that there's also more to New Zealand wine than Sauvignon Blanc?
Kiwi SB, as it's commonly called here at K&L, is good, sometimes even great. But thinking of New Zealand only in terms of this refreshing white wine is akin to reducing California wine down to Napa Valley Cab or France to Bordeaux. You're overlooking a lot of fantastic wine in the process. That's why I was very excited to receive an invitation to a tasting and luncheon at Michelin-starred Providence Restaurant with the world's only MW winemaker and viticulturalist, Craggy Range's Steve Smith. K&L has been long-time supporters of Craggy Range; we've been carrying their wines since 2002, not long after they began appearing on the market.
"There are 500 documented soil types [in New Zealand], with vined planted to approximately 70 of them," Smith told the crowd of writers at Providence. And New Zealand's climate is entirely effected by the ocean - there's no continental influence at all. The geologic and climactic diversity make it possible to grow a wide range of grapes, including Riesling, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot, Malbec and Syrah.
Tasting notes after the jump...
For the tasting, we started with the most familiar varietal grown in New Zealand and built from there. The first wine we tried was the 2009 Craggy Range "Te Muna Road" Sauvignon Blanc ($16.99), which was less grassy than you'd expect a Kiwi SB to be. Aromas of apple, apricot, gooseberry and white flowers gave way to a palate that was full of bright, chalky lime and apricot, with soft edges and a refreshingly dry finish.
The second wine we tasted was the 2008 Craggy Range "Kidnapper's Vineyard" Chardonnay ($16.99), a perfect blending of New World fruit and Old World structure for the price. Leesy on the nose, the Chardonnay smelled like sliced Granny Smith apples and wet stones, with a squeeze of white grapefruit. Saline upfront on the palate, it had a delicate profile with juicy citrus fruit, stony minerality, a rounded texture and a long, luxurious finish.
The 2008 Craggy Range "Te Muna Road" Pinot Noir came next. A little reserved out of a Bordeaux glass, the Pinot's nose was dominated by bay leaf, with dusty earth, cranberry and currant filling it in. Tight and light on the palate, upfront flavors leaned toward cherry and earth. With some time it opened up to reveal hints of cocoa powder, savory herbs and brighter mid-palate fruit. The tannins were perfectly integrated and the acids were lively, but definitely needing the taming contrast of food.
We wrapped up the tasting portion of the afternoon with the 2008 Craggy Range "Te Kahu" Gimblett Gravels Vineyard Bordeaux Blend ($16.99). This isn't a New World fruit-bomb of a Bordeaux blend, but instead distinctly New Zealand. The green pepper and savory herb notes of Cab Franc came through first on the nose, with sweet cherry fruit, oyster shell and the earthy-sweet seductiveness of sandalwood. The palate seems to be run be the Merlot at first, with flavors of sandalwood, rosemary flowers, vanilla and blackberry fruit all balanced on a frame that reminded me of a spider's web - seemingly delicate but unbelievably sturdy - and a finish that kept retracing its steps.
After the tasting, we moved into Providence's dining room, and were treated to four courses paired with verticals from Craggy Range's Prestige Collection, including the 2005, 2006 and 2008 "Les Beaux Cailloux" Chardonnay, the 2005, 2006 and 2008 "Sofia" Bordeaux Blend (Merlot and Cabernet Franc) and (my notes fail me here) three vintages, including the 2007, of the "Le Sol" Syrah.
The wines were indescribably New Zealand, not overtly fruity, with lower alcohols, persistent minerality and great freshness. They were exciting, food-friendly, complex and, most of all, interesting.