You might find a nicer group of winemakers, but I doubt it. Walking into the bar of Brixen Ivy, a rooftop restaurant built specifically to watch the Chicago Cubs, we were approached immediately by the vintners, introductions soon followed by glasses of sparkling wine in our hands (yes, NZ has sparkling wine!). This was the beginning of two days spent in the company of the Kiwis, courtesy of Complexity, a group dedicated to getting the word out on how great New Zealand wines are:
"The idea was very simple; we composed a portfolio of our most impressive wines to showcase some of the best of what New Zealand can offer the USA."
After an introduction by Clive Weston of Nautilus, the 10 winemakers poured a representative wine, introduced themselves and their wineries, then let us know what to expect from what was in our glass. Limited time and many bottles meant a rapid pace, essentially speed-drinking with the Kiwis. Alongside the introductory wines were some real New Zealand snacks, brought over from the islands: meat pie and a crust covered sausage, both really tasty and a great complement to the wines.
The winemakers who made the trip, showcasing not only their own wines but those who did not travel, were: Matt Dicey (Mt Difficulty), Rudi Bauer (Quartz Reef), Blair Walter (Felton Road), Craig Erasmus (Amisfield), Blair Gibbs (Spy Valley), Clive Dougall (Seresin), George Geris (Villa Maria), Alistair Soper (Highfield), and Ben Glover (Mud House). Apart from some initial confusion, 2 Blairs!, 2 Clives!, their personalities came through and soon we were best mates.
Then it was on to food, baseball, and 30+ wines to taste alongside the grilled fare. Pinot Gris, Riesling, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Cabernet/Merlot blends strutted their stuff alongside the ubiquitous Sauvignon Blanc, New Zealand's primary grape and what they are most famous for. The weather was beautiful, the Cubs were playing well, food was copious and tasty, with more wine than one could reasonably drink. Truly a great afternoon. We further bonded with the winemakers and visiting NYC sommeliers by comparing and contrasting baseball and cricket, 2 sports with endless rules and unique appeal.
Monday we met up again in more formal circumstances, sitting down for a masterclass at Rebar, a beautiful bar overlooking the river in the Trump Chicago Hotel. The focus of the class was to demonstrate the ageability of New Zealand wines. Aging? New Zealand wines? I had honestly never considered it. As Blair (Gibbs) and Ben mentioned in their presentation, when people think of New Zealand, they usually picture "blue skies, green grass, clean water, and young soils." The point of these wines, all from private cellars and not available commercially, was to demonstrate how some of the younger wines we'd tasted on Sunday might present some years down the road.
Shockingly, the first wines poured were whites: Pinot Gris, Sauvignon Blanc, and Chardonnay. While all the wines were surprising for their respective ages, the 7-year old Highfield and 14-year old Cloudy Bay Sauvignon Blancs stole the group - who knew that Sauvignon Blanc could age so gracefully?
Then on to Pinot Noirs, which New Zealand is focusing on as their primary red grape for the near future. Turns out there is a wealth of variety stretching across the islands, with different styles based on the terroir and weather. We drank from 3 areas, Martinborough, Marlborough, and Central Otago. From North to South, the wines were a study in contrasts. My impressions:
- Martinborough: warmer climate, more austere and greener wines.
- Marlborough: north-facing and protected climate, more fruit-focused, with acidity and tannins.
- Central Otago: a drier, cooler climate, closed off initially, then opened up showcasing fruit, with less acidity and tannins than the other two.
Last up were a pair of Cabernet/Merlot blends (with some Malbec as well) from Hawkes Bay. Initially, I couldn't believe these were Cabernets, as they each had such a unique nose. At 10 and 12 years old, each wine had tannins left but were very approachable, showing these grapes also have potential for New Zealand.
A diverse lunch buffet allowed us to taste these wines with a wide range of food flavors, once again showcasing their ease with food. Attendees slowly finished and trickled out, a quiet ending to two days of education and fun.
These two days blew me away, first with how good the current wines are, but even more so by the fact that I had never considered New Zealand wines as age-worthy, yet they very clearly are. Having the tasting over two days and in very different circumstances also underscored how versatile the wines are. I will definitely not think about NZ wines the same - as Blair Walter said in closing, in New Zealand there is "an increasing complexity and sense of place." We concur and look forward to many more years of watching the wine regions there evolve and improve even more.
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