'My kids are the first generation of Kiwis growing up with wine," says Steve Smith, co-founder of Craggy Range in Hawke's Bay, New Zealand, as he pours me a glass of his new rosé. "We've gone through an era of technical ability and now we're developing craftsmanship. Our wines are starting to show a sense of place."
Case in point: his 2013 Gimblett Gravels Vineyard Rosé, pale-salmon in my glass and refreshingly crisp under the unexpected heat of the spring sun. The years-long labour of love, launched the night before at the opening party of the Food and Wine Classic, was conceived in the context of what Smith calls the "serious rosés" from the south of France. It is made with merlot and syrah grapes that were planted specifically for the task, then hand picked and fermented with wild yeast in old French barrels. The finished product is a fine ambassador for Hawke's Bay, which Smith says is the only place warm enough for Kiwis to grow syrah.
I am here to start my journey along the Classic New Zealand Wine Trail, a route that leads from the North Island's Napier, the largest city in Hawke's Bay, to the South Island's Marlborough region, ground zero for sauvignon blanc. The hugely popular variety has been the country's calling card to the world's wine scene, but it often overshadows the fact that New Zealand has a huge diversity of grape-growing land: It can be as warm as Napa city or Bordeaux, and as cool as Champagne or Mosel – greater variation than found in either California or South Africa.
And now, 40 years into the story of modern New Zealand wine, the industry is keen to showcase its breadth, and to get the world's wine-lovers – and wine-buyers – hooked on its range of offerings.
It is a theme that comes up again and again as I make my way along the route. At Elephant Hill, for instance, also in Hawke's Bay, where I enjoy a late lunch of gnocchi with creamy cheese and pickled shredded pumpkin after a 26-kilometre bike ride from downtown Napier, the selection of single-estate wines available for tasting runs the gamut. I could try sauvignon blanc and pinot noir, of course, but also rosé, chardonnay, syrah, merlot and, my favourite of the day, the 2011 Le Phant Blanc, a floral, slightly spicy blend of pinos gris, viognier and gewurztraminer.
Farther south toward Wellington, I stop in at the little town of Martinborough, whose one-day Toast Martinborough event celebrates the release of the year's vintages and sees thousands of visitors enjoying live entertainment, food and wine at each participating winery, all of which are within easy walking distance. At Ata Rangi, whose founder, Clive Paton, planted his first vines in the region's dry, rocky soil in 1980, I learn that pinot noir is the area's shining star.
The winery has been racking up awards for its complex vintages for two decades, and is capitalizing on that fame with its more-accessible, fundraising Crimson label. Proceeds benefit Project Crimson, a conservation organization working to restore the country's dwindling stock of pohutukawa and rata trees, the red flowers of which are a beloved symbol of New Zealand summers.
After a quick flight to Blenheim from Wellington, I go for lunch at the hilltop Brancott Estate Heritage Centre, whose neutral decor seems designed to direct your eyes to the floor-to-ceiling windows that overlook endless vineyards and the mountains beyond.
It is here that the first sauvignon blanc vines were planted in 1975 – a prescient decision when common wisdom suggested that the region was too cold for grapes. Decades later, this grandparent of the Kiwi wine industry has refined its offerings to include pinot noir and pinot gris, and it's the latter that I sip on alongside my fresh spring salad of grilled potatoes, arugula, asparagus and cherry tomatoes tossed with Buffalo mozzarella and – a surprise – local pine nuts.
The next day, lunch is in the sunny backyard of the boutique Herzog Winery; in anticipation of tasting the small-batch natural wines later, I opt for a pilsner from Blenheim's award-winning Renaissance Brewing Co. to go with my meal.
While I wait for the food to arrive, I wander the garden – the white roses are in full bloom, and the olive trees are starting to bud – and gaze at the rows of grapes, an invisible patchwork of 22 varieties across just 11.5 hectares that are undergoing organic certification. Colourful wildflowers attracting beneficial insects fill the spaces between rows, and rose bushes stand at each end, the canaries in the coal mine that will show the first signs of disease.
Inside, I sample a series of wines and then the limited-edition grappa Herzog distills from the pomace – seeds, skins, pulp and stems – of its zweigelt and montepulciano plantings and sells for a robust $82 a bottle.
As I chat with the clearly knowledgeable and passionate staff, I recall the words of Steve Smith: "Terroir is more than just soil and climate. The third factor is the people."
Judging from what I've seen, New Zealand has an abundance of all three.
IF YOU GO
Air New Zealand flies direct to Auckland from Vancouver, Los Angeles and San Francisco, with frequent connections across the country to wine-route cities such as Napier, Wellington and Blenheim.
Summer peaks in January and February and sees vineyards at their greenest. The country's original wine event, the Marlborough Wine and Food Festival, welcomes more than 8,000 guests on the second Saturday in February. Harvest begins in March.
The winter series of Hawke's Bay's FAWC (Food and Wine Classic) runs over a weekend in June and features cozy, indoor events, lots of music and plenty of red wine.
Binging on strawberries and asparagus while Canada hunkers down for winter is just one of the many pleasures of a visit in November, technically late spring but often with more summery temperatures. Toast Martinborough will be held on Nov. 16, and the summer series of FAWC lasts for 10 days with a plethora of events for food and wine lovers (and even their beer-preferring friends).
Where to stay
Bookend your journey with stays at these two luxe properties, complete with excellent food and sommeliers who know their way around New Zealand wines.
In Napier, the gorgeous Farm at Cape Kidnappers encompasses acres of native bush and the rolling hills of a working farm. It offers a world-class golf course, hiking and biking trails, spa and infinity pool, and even a kiwi discovery walk, as well as comfortable rooms (be sure to try the cookies and brownies stocked next to the tea and coffee) and a cozy lodge with upscale farm-inspired decor. From $740 (New Zealand, about $670 Canadian) per person per night, which includes dinner and breakfast, predinner drinks and hors d'oeuvres, mini-bar including beer, and use of all facilities except spa and golf. (capekidnappers.com)
In Marlborough, take a scenic 30-minute water taxi ride from Picton (we saw little blue penguins swimming on our journey, and orca spottings aren't uncommon) to the secluded Bay of Many Coves Resort, where vistas of inky ocean and rugged forested hills make it hard to leave your room's couch and soft wool blanket – but kayaks, paddle boards and hikes to glowworm caves make venturing out worthwhile. From $450 (New Zealand) per night. (bayofmanycoves.co.nz)
Where to eat
A person can't live on wine alone – and in New Zealand, you definitely don't have to. These stops along the wine route are just a few highlights of the modern Kiwi food scene.
Schoc Chocolate, Greytown: Find inventive varieties of chocolate (surprising hits include geranium, lime-chili and curry-papadum) alongside classic bars and truffles infused with pinot noir and chardonnay. The sweet treats make fantastic gifts for friends back home – if you can manage not to eat them all yourself. 177 Main St., schoc.co.nz
Olivo, Martinborough: The Wairarapa region's oldest commercial olive grove hosts tastings and sells its distinctively floral (and beautifully packaged) plain and flavoured oils from a small shop next to 11 picturesque acres of trees. Hinakura Road, olivo.co.nz
The Malthouse, Wellington: Serving up the country's largest selection of the world's craft beer, this popular establishment boasts more than 150 different bottled brews and 29 on tap, featuring some of the best offerings from New Zealand's mostly family-run small breweries. 48 Courtenay Place, themalthouse.co.nz
CGR Merchant & Co., Wellington: House-infused gins and rums form the basis of the menu at this cozy upstairs bar, where big jars of the latest experiments line the shelves (I sampled a vivid pink beetroot-apple gin) and soaked fruit is repurposed into "drunken sundaes" and other delights. 46 Courtenay Place, facebook.com/cgrmerchants
Seafood Odyssea, Picton: Spend the afternoon cruising the Marlborough Sounds while sampling some of the region's renowned sauvignon blanc paired with local mussels, oysters and salmon. You'll visit a mussel farm and learn how these shellfish are bred and harvested (hint: it involved a very long sock) and even get a chance to hand-feed salmon. seafoododyssea.co.nz
[Editor's note: This online version of the story corrects the rate for the Farm at Cape Kidnappers in New Zealand.]