Some might think the first vines in New Zealand magically sprung from the pristine soils of the upper South Island fully laden with juice spirited on angel’s wings fully-fermented into a screwcapped bottle labelled ‘Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc’. The truth, surprisingly enough, involves a total lack of angels. New Zealand’s wine journey actually began in Northland, way back in 1819, when multiple varieties of both whites and reds were planted.
Said vines, carefully maintained on the long sea-journey, lovingly watered and sunned on transit from distant Europe - oh what stories they could tell - eaten by goats that had shared the voyage.
Not so great start.
Fast forward two centuries, and perhaps it wasn’t an ill-omen to be eaten by fellow passengers. Think of it like this. Those discerning vandals were way ahead of their time, and Kiwis need to trumpet what the goats clearly understood first chomp: New Zealand reds are as delectable as the whites.
To be fair, many in the wine world now acknowledge Kiwi Pinot Noir - from Central Otago, North Canterbury, and Martinborough in particular - but did you know that varieties associated with warmer climates are wowing judges and tasters the planet over?
Easy to talk it up, I hear you say. We want proof!
Cabernet Merlot. These blends alone can make the point that Aotearoa is capable of producing wines that stand shoulder to shoulder with the biggest names in the business.
Decanter Magazine Wine Legend.
Let’s face it, a wine must be exceptional if it was recognised as a ‘Legend’. Marques to achieve this status are familiar the world over, the names listed at the sharp end of a wine list, the prices comparable to those of new cars.
Domaine de la Romanée-Conte Richebourg 1959, Château Latour 1961, Château d’Yquem 1921, Te Mata Estate Coleraine 1998…
For those that don’t know, is located on the Eastern side of the North Island, benefiting from the steady sea breeze that flows straight off the Pacific. Home to Te Awanga, Gimblett Gravels, and Bridge Pa Triangle Sub-Regions (to name a few), a stone’s throw from the sleepy town of Havelock North you’ll find Te Mata Estate.
That’s right. A Cabernet blend from Hawkes Bay, that at the cellar door current vintage comes in just over ¥6000 per bottle, ranks side by side with labels that in many years are upwards of fifty times the price.
Sits in the Hauraki Gulf, a scenic thirty-five minute ferry from downtown Auckland. Visiting this subtropical paradise is the first thing I recommend to any visitor to New Zealand’s biggest city. Waiheke is one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been, great for bush walks (did you know that there are no snakes in Aotearoa?) and a perfect place for fish n’ chips on the beach.
Interesting enough, Waiheke also has a maritime climate that many compare with Bordeaux.
Te Motu 1998.
I was lucky enough to share a bottle with owner Paul Dunleavy, who is justifiably proud of this phenomenal wine. Te Motu means ‘The Island’ in Māori, a reference to Waiheke being surrounded by sea, but also a nod to the very special parcel of land where his vineyards are situated. An island within an island. It was Paul who let me know that I was in good company thinking it was one of the best wines I’ve tasted.
Te Motu was selected in the book ‘1001 Wines You Must Try Before You Die’. Not bad for a bottle that cost less than $50US at the time. And for their ‘Millennium Edition’, esteemed French magazine ‘La Bottin Gourmand’ compared new releases of the best Bordeaux styles they could find. Te Motu 1998 was the only wine from Australasia to make the list, and they ranked it 13th in the world.
Lastly, to round out a list that is limited by the size of this article and not a lack of candidates.
Destiny Bay Magna Praema 2013.
Margaret River in Western Australia is an insanely beautiful region clinging to the southwest of the continent. Here you’ll find some of the country’s best offerings (Chardonnay and Cabernet blends shine in particular) and Cape Mentelle is one of a legion of respected producers in the area. Every year they bring together wine luminaries (still waiting for my invite, fellas!) for a blind tasting of the world’s best Bordeaux blends.
In 2017 one of those invitees was none other than Joe Czerwinski, former Managing Editor of Wine Enthusiast and current Managing Editor of Robert Parker’s The Wine Advocate. When Joe came to Magna Praema his tasting notes read like this…
‘Toasty, cedary oak. Dark fruit. Plush and velvety, with chocolate and plum on the long finish. California?
He obviously thought it was a good example of California. From a flight which included First Growth Château Haut-Brion, a famous Californian, and four of Australia’s best, Joe ranked Magna Praema top.
Master of Wine and Master Sommelier, Gerard Basset, had this to say… “Could have identified Destiny Bay Magna Praema as an elegant Left Bank Bordeaux, or a fine First Growth Bordeaux, and as a top Super Tuscan in a blind tasting. The wines of Destiny Bay have great class and are delicious”
In my opinion, this view holds true for any of New Zealand’s top Cab Merlot blends. And if fish n’ chips on the beach and no snakes wasn’t enough to convince you to visit, Destiny Bay is also located on Waiheke Island.
Now to reiterate, the three wines that I chose to focus on are by no means the exception. They represent the rule. All the way from North Canterbury, where Pegasus Bay is pushing the boundaries of where these grapes can ripen, to the exclusive Providence Vineyards in Matakana an hour north of Auckland, and many more, New Zealand makes phenomenal Cabernet Merlot blends.
I’m telling you, those goats were VISIONARY.