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May 22, 2011

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Remote but rising regions

In past columns I've written about the amazing rise to prominence of New Zealand's most famous wine region Marlborough. Been there, done that and because I love Marlborough wines I'll certainly do it again. But this week I introduce some Kiwi regions you may not know, including New Zealand's oldest and youngest regions as well as a hot new star for Pinot Noirs that also happens to be the world's southernmost wine region.

Hawke's Bay

Located on the North Island about 360 kilometers south of Auckland is the wine region of Hawke's Bay. Amateur British oenologist James Busby first planted vines in Hawke's Bay in 1836. By the mid 19th century there were a handful of winemakers including the Roman Catholic Church. The region has the distinction of having several wineries with more than a century of history including Mission Estate and Te Mata.

History is nice but what about the wines? Hawke's Bay is best known for Bordeaux blend wines, specifically Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Merlot blends that offer luscious ripe fruit with good complexity and roundness. These blends along with those from Napa Valley California are among the most elegant New World Bordeaux-style blended wines. Compared to many of their Napa counterparts they are also quite reasonably priced. Featuring 25 different soil types from clay to limestone, Hawke's Bay also produces the widest range of different style wines in New Zealand. In addition to the Bordeaux blends the region makes very good Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Syrah wines. The Syrah wines in particular are gaining attention in the wine world.


In contrast, with only five years of history and one producer, Ohau is surely New Zealand's newest wine region. In 2005, property developers had an inkling that this may be an ideal place to make wines so they asked renowned viticulturist Kate Gibbs to visit the region and give an assessment. She quickly confirmed their suspicions that the area had superior winemaking potential with some similarities to the Marlborough region. What's stunning is how quickly Ohau Vineyards Holdings has been able to make very fine wines. With only three vintages on the books they are already winning awards. Their Sauvignon Blanc wines share the exciting passion fruit and mineral flavors of Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc and also have intriguing notes of herbs. But the real star at Ohau is Pinot Gris. This slightly sweet, very richly flavored Pinot Gris has already won prestigious awards and it will be exciting to see how the wine evolves as the young vines get older.

Central Otago

Despite more than 130 years of winemaking experience, until recently precious few people, including wine experts, outside of New Zealand had ever heard of Central Otago. Now the wine world is laying lofty accolades on the Pinot Noirs from this region with some connoisseurs going as far as to say this may become the first wine region in the world to approach Burgundy-level Pinot Noir quality.

The magic of the wines stems from the cool climate and the sloped and elevated vineyards. Central Otago is the most southern wine region in the world with challenging conditions that test the nerves of even the most brave and skilled winemakers, but when the gods are with them and all goes well they can make stunning wines.

The Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Gris and Gewurztraminer whites of this region are all noteworthy but it's the Pinot Noir reds that have demanded the world's attention. This variety accounts for 70 percent of all wine production in Central Otago.

The extreme climate conditions with great day and night time temperature differentials result in Pinot Noirs with excellent balance and complexity. These are among the most intensely flavored Pinots in the world.


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