Kiwis and Grapes

Paul Blow

I arrived at the Seattle Amtrak station bleary-eyed after four days of heavy tasting at the International Pinot Noir Celebration in Oregon’s Willamette Valley. The wine madness was to continue, as I had left for Washington to attend the international Riesling Rendezvous convention. When I got to the venue, the Chateau Ste. Michelle winery outside of Seattle, I saw several familiar bodies from the week before, and it was no surprise that they all carried New Zealand passports.

While it’s most common to find U.S. wineries that specialize in both Pinot Noir and Chardonnay—Hanzell, Calera, and Au Bon Climat, for instance—in New Zealand it’s just as common to find top Pinot producers who skip Chardonnay in favor of Riesling. When you consider that Pinot and Riesling are the hottest red and white varieties in the U.S. market these days, it shows how cutting-edge these Kiwis are. If you haven’t tried good New Zealand Pinot or Riesling in a while, I recommend you get to it.

Over a glass of his “classic” Riesling (which indicates that it’s made in the off-dry style of Germany), I chatted with Matt Donaldson of the Pegasus Bay winery in New Zealand’s Waipara region. The Pegasus Riesling is irresistible. Juicy and quaffable with lime and pear flavors, it has a mineral edge that balances its hedonistic appeal with a cerebral touch. Donaldson’s wife, Lynette Hudson, makes the winery’s Pinot Noir, which is one of the most complex and delicious examples from this region (and, to be fair, she’s also responsible for its one Chardonnay).

I asked him about the Kiwi affinity for Pinot Noir and Reisling. “For one thing, we have an extremely cool climate,” he told me, “and both varieties thrive in those conditions. But, more than that, I think it’s that these are the two most transparent and terroir-oriented varieties. A few of us New Zealanders aren’t just interested in making wine for the sake of the varietal. We want to go deeper than that and explore the specific nature of our dirt.”

That dirt tends to be mostly on New Zealand’s South Island. Marlborough, at the north end, pumps out the famous Sauvignon Blanc, while the Pinot and Reisling tends to come from the regions of Waipara and Central Otago farther south where it’s cooler and drier.

In the Central Otago area, the charge is led by two outstanding producers, Felton Road and Rippon. Blair Walter, winemaker for the former, followed me to both conferences. I was equally impressed by his red and white wines. The Pinots are rich and fully fruited though still fine-boned and elegant as they glide through the mouth, while the flavors of his Dry Riesling seem to last interminably on the tongue.

Rippon’s winemaker, Nick Mills, didn’t make the trip to the States, but his wines are worth seeking out. He ripped out his Chardonnay vines in 2005 so he could devote himself more wholeheartedly to Riesling. Mills also makes a truly glorious Pinot Noir that’s unmistakable in a blind tasting. It has a light, roselike color but manages to deliver powerfully concentrated flavors. (Rippon’s vineyards on the banks of Lake Wanaka, by the way, are some of the most photographed and photogenic in New Zealand.)

Near Pegasus Bay is Pyramid Valley Vineyards. Owner-winemaker Mike Weersing has one of the most impressive winemaking résumés around, having worked for top producers in France, Germany, and Spain. After traveling the world, he and his wife, Claudia—who were both with me in Washington—ultimately chose limestone-based soils near Waipara to plant their own vines.

Weersing, who makes Pinot and Riesling from several different vineyards, is as terroir-obsessed as they come. For example, he only ferments with wild yeasts. But to ensure that those yeasts come from the same vineyard as the grapes (instead of from strains that live permanently in his winery), he starts each fermentation with a small batch of grapes in the vineyard itself and then uses that starter to inoculate the larger tank in the winery. Many winemakers claim their wines are “made in the vineyard,” but Weersing’s literally are.

And they show it. His Eaton and Calvert Pinots, made from vineyards he doesn’t own, are a diverse pair, the former being fruity and lush, while the latter is earthy and savory. Next month he will release the first small batch of wines from his home vineyards. Watch out for the Pinot called Earth Smoke: It is one of the most stunning examples of new-world Pinot Noir I have ever tasted.

Jordan Mackay is a San Francisco–based wine and spirits specialist whose work has appeared in publications such as Gourmet, the Los Angeles Times, Food & Wine, and Decanter. Follow him on Twitter. Follow CHOW too, and become a fan on Facebook.