Wine Lovers — Go Down Under for some of the best wines!

Wine Lovers Must Go “Down Under”
(no not under the table)!

Well, not exactly “Down Under,” — that’s the term more reserved for Australia.  Actually go to Aotearoa, that’s the native peoples (the Maoris’) name for New Zealand.

If you are a wine lover, and you haven’t yet become a fan of New Zealand wine, you might want to try a bottle.  Soon.  As soon as possible, in fact.  Because this Southern Hemisphere’s fruit of the vine is as fine as any fine wine can be.

My husband and I love a good wine, a wine with a hearty smooth flavour, great on the nose, and with a pleasing aftertaste.  We recently visited New Zealand and Australia, but as we are very familiar with Australian wines (Peter Lehman’s Barossa Shiraz is one of our regular favorites) we decided to concentrate on New Zealand wineries.  We are very glad we did.

New Zealand is the youngest country in the world, so it would naturally follow that it is also has the youngest vineyards.  And the newest wines.  But only a real snob would turn up his or her nose at the remarkable flavours this infant country has produced.

We visited wineries along the eastern coast of New Zealand (both the north and the south islands), in the area of Tauranga, Rotorua, Napier, Wellington, and Dunedin, to be exact.  We had every intention of bringing wine back in our suitcases, but there are baggage weight restrictions, so we wanted to be very selective.  Tasting was a must!

Our first stop was Mills Reef Winery, a father and son operation (the Prestons) located in Bethlehem, Tauranga, on the Bay of Plenty.  It was fairly early in the day so we had the sommelier all to ourselves; the barrage of cruise ship passengers who had paid for the winery shore excursion was yet to arrive.  So, we took advantage of this two-time winner of the title of New Zealand Winemaker of the Year.

Begun in 1989, Mills Reef (named for the owner’s sea captain great grandfather) specializes in Bordeaux Red and Syrah wines, but the winery produces many other varietals, too.  The winemaking team has won over 500 awards for the wine produced here. Mills Reef vineyards are actually farther south down the coast at Hawke’s Bay, but the grapes are shipped up to Tauranga for processing. 

We sampled a number of whites and reds.  And we tasted some of the most delicious ice wine and fortified wine here, too.  Since taste is a very personal issue, I won’t describe any of the wines, but suffice it to say we eagerly bought a few bottles.  We settled on a 2004 Riesling Ice Wine (Reserve), a 2002 Vintage Port (it’s suggested that you let this one age, but in my opinion, it’s too delicious to leave sitting on a shelf), a 2005 Malbec (this one has been given the thumbs-up by Winestate Magazine), a 2005 Merlot Malbec, and a 2006 Chardonnay (Reserve).

A day later, following a day at sea, we nabbed a cab in the Napier area; it’s a little further south than Tauranga, but still on Hawke’s Bay. The area is a favorite among cyclists and backpackers who make their way along pretty country back roads, sampling fine wines as they go.  Our cabbie quipped, “Yea, by the afternoon, they forget where they left their bikes.”

These wineries were no disappointment either, except for one of the largest, Craggy Range Winery, which struck us as too cold, too institutional, and far too commercial. At least for our tastes.  We visit wineries, not only to sample their wine, but to enjoy their atmospheres; Craggy Range was like visiting a big box store.  We were asked to pony up a $5 sampling fee here, but as soon as we did, the sommelier decided we weren’t riffraff and refused the money.  Do check out this winery’s web site – it is very nice.

Our cabbie (Splinter is his nickname) then took us to Mission Estate Winery, a large vineyard with a picture-perfect estate, and charming old seminary building, dated back to the mid 1800s.  As New Zealand’s oldest winery, Mission Estate is not to be missed. 

Many weddings are held in its huge backyard overlooking the vineyards below which stretch away into the horizon.  This is where we found one of the finest ice wines we have ever tasted — unbelievably smooth, fresh, exotically sweet, and oh, so drinkable.  I made a joke of not getting enough of a taste just so the sommelier would pour me another sample.  He knew I was kidding, but he kindly obliged. 

A trio of very reasonably priced bottles left with us: a 2005 Noble Semillon (Reserve), a bottle of the outstanding 2007 Estate Ice Wine, and an expensive 2005 Jewelstone Chardonnay (unfortunately, we never got to drink this wine.  Our bags were opened for a security inspection in San Francisco, and this bottle went mysteriously missing.)

Brookfields Winery New Zealand by Sheree ZielkeFrom here we moved on down the road to a smaller winery, Brookfields Vineyards.  There was nothing small about the wine we tasted here, however.  Rich and satisfying, we chose a 2006 Burnfoot Merlot, and an unfamiliar 2007 Viognier.  Brookfields, begun in 1937, has a Tuscany feel about it, very pleasant and homey.  We loved our very personal visit here.

We picked up a final bottle from a farmer’s market in Dunedin, from Black Ridge Vineyard, the southernmost vineyard/winery in the world.  It’s located on the outskirts of Alexandra. We chose a 2006 Gewurztraminer (the winery’s “flagship for many years”) on the say-so of the booth attendant.  Since there was no opportunity to taste this wine, we are looking forward to the adventure.  I doubt we will be disappointed as the winery’s Pinot Noir won a gold medal in both 1997 and 1998.

Advisory:  If you are a cruise ship passenger and you are visiting local wineries on your own, be prepared for officials on your ship to confiscate your wine, returning it to you on your last evening of sailing.  This is common practice. But if you have visited the wineries as part of a ship excursion then management may allow you to keep your wine (this happened on the Mercury). In addition, some ships, like the Grand Princess, tended to turn a blind eye to a bottle or two.  But if you board with boxes in hand, the way we did, expect your wine to be taken away.  We never had any problem getting on with single bottles though. 

As to whether or not you can drink the wine in your cabin, it’s best to review your individual ship’s policies first.  Did we drink any wine in our cabin?  My lips are sealed.

If you are wondering about importing wine for transit, please see my future blog with tips for secure packing of wines destined for the airline conveyor belt and airline luggage wranglers.  But beware, you risk losing a bottle or two to unscrupulous security bag checkers.  Next time, I think I will put a note on a bottle advising them that this was purchased especially for them.  A cheaper bottle, of course.

Sheree Zielke

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