New Zealanders, despite coming from a couple of islands ridiculously far from practically anywhere, manage to get around the globe. And with a population of less than 5 million, they really have this tendency to exert dominance when they put their minds to it. For example: the first man to climb Mt. Everest, Sir Edmund Hillary, is a Kiwi; the All Blacks national rugby squad has literally pummelled all of their international rivals into 2nd rate status for decades; their most famous filmmaker, Peter Jackson, creates epic movies of the largest scale; and then of course there is The Flight of the Conchords. On top of this you have the somewhat unlikely global juggernaut that is New Zealand wine. In a stroke of genius, New Zealand winegrowers recognized the potential of their singular style of Sauvignon Blanc and basically created a definition of that variety that has dominated global markets for decades. Sauvignon Blanc was New Zealand’s break-out grape and its fame was deftly turned into a sort of trademark for the country’s wine. It was the door-opener or party invitation that allowed winemakers to demonstrate what they could do with other varieties, most notably Pinot Noir. Whether it is in the large-volume, price-driven market or in the niche high-end market, New Zealand has excelled.
As we all know, New Zealand is made up of two large islands imaginatively called The North Island and The South Island. Both islands have wine making regions that span almost their entire length and breadth although there are large areas too mountainous or too wet for vineyards. There is a wide range of topography, soils and climate and so there is lots of scope for different varieties to find their best expression. There are several very well known regions that take up most of the space on the wine store shelves: Marlborough, Hawke’s Bay, Waikato, Wellington and Central Otago. One region that is a bit lesser known but has made a name for itself based on its extraordinary wines is Nelson. The region, known as much for its beaches, national parks and wilderness activities as its wines, is a smaller cousin to neighbouring Marlborough. But with its own climate and location it has a personality all its own.
Why Nelson for Wine?
Nelson’s identity is about its “boutique” nature. It is a small producer (about 2% of New Zealand’s wine) in a small area overshadowed by its neighbour-with-the-oversized-reputation Marlborough. Some of its wineries like Seifried and Neudorf have established international reputations but the volume of wines and their penetration into the international market is still small. What Nelson has, to help embellish its boutique reputation, is the ability to make a variety of wines very well. The aromatic varieties like Riesling and Gewürtztraminer thrive and produce terrific examples based on the cool climate. Likewise Sauvignon Blanc excels of course. Chardonnay and Pinot Noir are real stars as well. There are around 40 wineries and they are almost all family owned. So if you like artisanal wines of character Nelson is a great place to explore. For some of us, the attraction of a region away from the madding crowds coming across the strait from Wellington, is another plus.
Where is Nelson?
Nelson sits at the northernmost tip of the South Island at the base of the big semi-circle that is the Tasman Bay. The location is striking for its dramatic coastline (a tangle of jagged islands and fjords interspersed with beaches backed up by lush forests) as well as the fact that the agricultural lowlands are surrounded by a series of national parks and protected forests. This is an important vacation destination and more people come for the wilderness than the wine. Set apart from Marlborough (and the ferry port for arrivals from Wellington at Picton) by a set of hills, it takes about 2 hours on the winding road to get from the ferry port to Nelson. Once there, the environment is full-on rural New Zealand charm. There are two separate sub-regions, the Waimea Plains and the Moutere Hills, and you should see them both. If your idea of a vacation includes hiking, beaches, kayaking, small seafood restaurants, wine touring and a bit of Lord of the Rings scenery then Nelson is for you. Did we mention how friendly the locals are?
Who Are The Winemakers?
The wineries tend to be small and family-run. The wine route is compact even if you are taking in both the Waimea Plains and the Moutere Hills subregions. It isn’t fair to single out specific wineries in such a close-knit and intimate wine community but here are a few to get you started. Suffice it to say that if you come to the region you can discover your own favourite – and if you are looking for a Nelson wine in your local shop… well, just buy whatever you can find. It will be great!
When Is the Best Time To Visit?
Anytime between October and May will do just fine. January and February are the summer months so there are more tourists. December and March provide magnificent weather (usually…).
Photo and map credits: www.nzwine.com; Flaxmore Vineyards; Neudorf Vineyards; Brightwater Vineyards; Seifried Family Winemakers