Published by kind permission of Martin von Wyss of Australian Wine Maps
Swan Valley, Perth Hills, Peel
Our tour of Australia begins in the west and works its way around this great continent. With a superb climate, somewhat cooler than the rest of Australia, but warm in European terms, Western Australia is a wine drinker's paradise, and a very important region to follow. Split into four main regions, the hottest and driest is the Swan Valley/Perth Hills/Peel area. Situated above, below and inland of Perth, several wineries make good value wines here, with Houghton's being our favourite.
Drive 150 kilometres south from Perth and you'll reach a relatively new region, Geographe, which sits atop its more famous neighbour, Margaret River. Home to a handful of wineries, this region is centred on Bunbury, with Shiraz and Semillon being our picks of the grapes planted.
World class wines rear their heads in Margaret River, (300 kilometres south of Perth, abutting Geographe). With a unique climate on account of its curious oblong shape which juts out into the ocean, this is the place to be in WA. With bodies of water on three sides, the microclimates here range from positively hot in the north to chilly and windy in the south. This supposedly cool region is warm enough to make some of the nicest Cabernet Sauvignons in Australia. With over 100 wineries in Margaret River, it still only makes up less than 1% of Australia's wine production. Having said that, in quality terms this is up there with some of the finest and most beautiful wine regions in the entire wine world. First planted in the early 1970s, most of the wineries are situated within 8 kilometres of the coast, around the various brooks that flow into the sea.
As far as whites are concerned, Semillon (and Sem/Sauv blends) and Chardonnay do extremely well. Pierro, Cullen and Leeuwin make some of Australia's top Chardonnays and in world terms these are fantastic value wines. Cabernet is the main red focus in Margaret River and these wines are very highly sought after, The flavours cover all of the bases that Bordeaux manages, but with the warmer climate the vintages tend to be more reliable and, accordingly, the wines are more approachable in their youth. Dripping in class, the top few estates make Cab that stands shoulder to shoulder with anything the New World can offer and all but the very top echelon of red Bordeaux. Merlot and Cabernet Franc appear as well, but in much smaller quantities and only really serve to offer some variety, while Shiraz is showing some promise in good sites.
The Great Southern area of WA encompasses five particularly interesting sub-regions: Mount Barker, Frankland River Porongurup, Denmark and Albany. With around fifty wineries, this is a busy part of WA, and while there has been very little volume here in the past, increased plantings look set to ramp up production for this region into the future. We have tasted some very impressive Riesling and Chardonnay from this area, and Cabernet and Shiraz are also performing well in some parts. Sauvignon Blanc is looking good, too.
Manjimup & Pemberton
There are two other regions of note on the south-western tip of Australia. Manjimup has a slightly more continental climate than Margaret River and it is also a little higher. Chardonnay, Cabernet and Merlot all perform well but perhaps with less overt quality and vintage reliability than, say, Margaret River. Recent years have been more stable, with 2005, 2004, 2002 and 2001 the vintages to look out for.
Pemberton, nestled within the great Karri forest south of Manjimup, is cooler and has more rainfall than its neighbour and is better suited to Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, as well as the everpresent Bordeaux varieties. Treated with care, Shiraz can also shine here.
Nearly half of Australia's wine production comes from South Australia. The headquarters of most of Australia's largest wineries are based here as well. The climate varies from region to region, with Riverland being at the hot end of the scale and Coonawarra and Adelaide Hills, among others, being much cooler.
The Clare Valley (120 kilometres north of Adelaide), is our starting point. With over 150 years of continuous vine growing, Clare has a warm, sunny climate and refreshingly cool afternoon breezes. This, coupled with good altitude (around the 400m-520m mark) and cold nights, makes Clare home to some of the finest wines in Australia. Clare does not have the starry profile and glitzy tourist allure of the Barossa Valley or the Mediterranean, hippy chic of McLaren Vale, and being a bit of a hike from Adelaide it doesn't have the footfall of visitors either. In essence, Clare has an agricultural feel, with only a handful of hotels and restaurants. Having said this, it is a wonderful wine region where the people are close to the soil and work extremely hard at what they do. Cellar Door tastings are, more often than not, hosted by family members and not corporate employees and this authenticity, commitment and skill shows in the wines. Home to Australia's most famous and awesome value dry Rieslings, Clare wines are a cornerstone in our wine diets. Magnificently balanced and ageworthy and crackling with limejuice and verve, they drink beautifully in their youth, but run and run if you let them: ten years is a doddle for these stunning wines. We also adore Clare Shiraz (and Cabernet for that matter) as it shows control, balance and complexity -- this can't be said for your average Aussie Shiraz! This may be a region that flies under the radar, but is an integral and essential part of any serious wine list or collection. Clare wines are fantastic value for money, exceptionally age-worthy and totally and utterly unique in the world of wine.
The Barossa Valley is one of the most famous wine regions in Australia. It's a warm region that produces powerful, spicy red wines with a good capacity for ageing. The favoured grapes here are the meaty trio of Shiraz, Grenache and Mourvèdre. Ancient bush vines (many are well over 100 years old and unirrigated) abound in Barossa and it is these grandfathers of the wine world that have made these wines so intense and sought offer. Cabernet Sauvignon is also widely planted and while the spotlight is on the Shiraz wines and its SGM blends, Cabernet is responsible for some stellar wines too. Most estates make a Riesling and Semillon as well, so it is not all blockbuster reds, and these can be either sourced from the Valley itself or, more often than not, from the neighbouring, high altitude region of Eden Valley. The inky, rich, high alcohol Barossan reds, typified by the wines from Penfolds, Peter Lehmann and Yalumba, are legendary, but things are changing. There is a move to lower alcohol levels, by judicious viticulture; taking the foot off the oak a little to allow the fruit to be heard; and there is more blending - after all, Shiraz loves the company of Grenache, Mourvèdre and Cabernet! This all looks good for the future, and with a run of cracking vintages so far in the 21st Century, the Barossa Valley is set to continue in its position as King of Oz.
The Eden Valley, which rubs shoulders with the Barossa and actually falls under its jurisdiction, is geographically a completely different proposition. Much cooler than the Barossa on account of its altitude (380m at the warmer north end and 500m at the southern cooler end) Eden is, as the name suggests, a lovely place to grow grapes. Riesling (running a close second to Clare's supremacy with this variety) favours the higher ground and its cooler evenings. The reds (mainly Shiraz and Cabernet) are grown further north in the warmer areas around Keyneton, where Henschke's Hill of Grace vineyard resides. The big names in this pretty part of SA making stellar reds are Henschke, Irvine and Yalumba. Yalumba's own labels Heggies and Pewsey Vale are both top Rieslings along with Barossa-based Orlando's epic Steingarten and Penfolds' heavenly Leo Buring Leonay.
There are very few wine regions in the world as beautiful as the Adelaide Hills. Only twenty minutes out of downtown Adelaide, climbing up to a height of between 400m and 500m, with vines clinging to some of the steepest slopes in the country, this is cool climate viticulture at its sexiest. Adjoining Eden Valley to the north and running into the northern tip of McLaren Vale in the south, and with views of the ocean and/or rolling hills from every vantage point, this is heaven.
The difference in temperature between downtown and the 'Hills' can be over 10°C! This means that more sensitive varieties can be grown up here (Sauvignon, Chardonnay, aromatic varieties, like Riesling and Pinot Gris, and Pinot Noir) are the prime candidates. Warmer vineyard sites can handle Shiraz and even Cabernet, and they result in wines with elegance, herbal lift and definition. These are European-shaped wines with fine, minerally acidity, and they inevitably find their way onto the smartest wine lists in the country. With Chardonnay and Pinot Noir in the ground, it is no surprise that fizz is made up here, too. With over fifty small operations crammed into the folds in the Hills, and only a short hop from the vibrant city of Adelaide, this is a wonderful place for a wine tasting holiday.
North-west of the Hills, heading toward the Gulf of St Vincent, are the Adelaide Plains. Home to a handful of lesser-known estates, this is a hot temperature, low rainfall region which generally makes rather ordinary wine. Primo moved to McLaren Vale this year.
Like Clare, McLaren Vale, keeps a relatively low profile considering its awesome quality wines. Half an hour south of Adelaide city and bounded on the east by the Adelaide Hills, McLaren Vale has a wonderful, moderating maritime climate (and some of the most beautiful beaches in South Australia). Shiraz, Cabernet and Grenache are responsible for the best reds, and this is very much a premium red wine region. Sauvignon, Semillon, Chardonnay, Riesling and Viognier (in the coolest sites) do quite well, too. With wonderful balance and less heat and power than most Barossa reds, McLaren Vale's finest really register on our Richter scale. The chassis is more European and the fruit more New Worldly and it is this wicked balance which ensures that we drink a load of these reds over the course of the year. Still underrated (price-wise), follow our list of estates below and you will be in for a real treat.
Langhorne Creek, Southern Fleuieu, Mount Benson & Kangaroo Island
Heading further down the Fleurieu Zone (60km from Adelaide), you come across four more wine sub-regions: Langhorne Creek, Currency Creek, Southern Fleurieu and Kangaroo Island. Langhorne is stuffed with big company money grinding out Shiraz and Cabernet to blend into varietal wines. There are also a few smaller operations making quality wines, with the highlights being intense, concentrated Shiraz and Cabernet Sauvignon. Currency Creek, surrounding the holiday destinations of Goolwa and Port Elliot, is a mini version of Langhorne. The Southern Fleurieu, Kangaroo Island and Wrattonbully are relatively new wine-producing areas which are still defining their specialties, with SF Shiraz and KI Cabernet showing promise.
Further afield, some 370 kilometres south of Adelaide, you'll find Coonawarra -- the founding father (and big daddy) of the group of Limestone Coast regions. Famous for its "terra rossa" (red earth) soils and its terrific Cabernet Sauvignons, Coonawarra is a must if you are a fan of this noble red grape. Intense blackcurrant flavours and a eucalyptus and mint nose are the hallmarks of Coonawarra Cab. Shiraz is also grown to a very high standard in Coonawarra and there are even a few worthy whites down here as well. Padthaway, Mount Benson, Robe and Wrattonbully are the names of four other regions down here and each of them is championed, in some way, by a large company (Lindeman's, Stonehaven - Hardys, Yalumba etc) and a handful of smaller ones. There are only a few wines worth tracking down from these regions to date as a lot of the fruit goes into multi-regional blends.
Riverland is worthy of a short mention as the baking hot region on the banks of the Murray River, 230 kilometres inland from Adelaide. This is the workhorse of the Australian wine industry where tons of bulk wines are made, accounting for a phenomenal 30% of the country's production. Angoves, Banrock Station and McPherson are here, among others, and it's no surprise that Chardonnay, Shiraz and Cabernet are the most planted varieties.
Extraordinarily complicated and with more wineries than South Australia, Victoria takes a while to get your head around. To add to the confusion, its wine-growing regions cover most of the diverse and exciting pockets of the state, from cool coastal hills and baking inland plains to the extremes of its upper Alpine reaches. The list of our favourite wineries tacked onto each of these regions should ease the pain. This is the best way to discover the joys of this wonderful state!
Starting in the Yarra Valley, just 40 kilometres from Melbourne, where Pinot Noir and Chardonnay are king and queen, the Yarra is a very popular tourist destination for city daytrips. With a climate somewhere between France's Burgundy and Bordeaux, this is regarded as a cool climate region. The variation in altitude and microclimate between the hills and the valleys provides opportunity for success with Shiraz and Cabernet as well. The Yarra also makes some great fizz and a wide range of other varieties (Roussanne, Marsanne etc), usually championed by artisanal, perfectionist wineries.
Mornington Peninsula is a very chichi region, packed with massive houses and helicopter landing pads. This is where loaded Melbournites head for the weekend: being a peninsula it is very pretty. Once again, this is a cool climate region and so Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Pinot Gris all do very well here. There is a slight element of Emperor's New Clothes about Mornington, as there are more than seventy producers packed into this small region, but only a short list make our top selection.
It's just a short ferry ride across the water from the Mornington Peninsula to the Bellarine Peninsula and the Geelong wine region. This region is the other 'jaw bone' that makes up Melbourne's mouth - Port Philip Bay. On a clear day you can see the city glinting in the distance. Not surprisingly, this is another windy, maritime-influenced wine region. Once again, being cooler, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir are the grapes of choice. Shiraz (and even Cabernet) does much better here than in Mornington, particularly in sheltered vineyards and warmer vintages.
Fifty kilometres northwest of Melbourne and you find the Macedon Ranges. Famed for Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, and in particular for its sparkling wine production, this is a hilly, relatively high altitude region and it is peppered with interesting, small, boutique wineries. As always, Shiraz pops up and this time makes a Rhoney, peppery style.
The tiny region of Sunbury is about fifteen minutes past the airport (Tullamarine) on the way out of Melbourne - it is the closest wine region to the city centre. There is only one winery here that has rocked our world - Craiglee. With a superb Chardonnay and a stunning Shiraz, Pat Carmody leads the pack, showing that fully ripe, totally complex, age-worthy wines can be made at moderate alcohol levels.
In the Western Victoria Zone, Grampians is the new name for Great Western. This is a beautiful region with three amazing wineries. Shiraz is the main deal here, but not big bold Shiraz, rather peppery, herbal, black fruit soaked wines. Best's, set up in 1867, is one of Australia's iconic wineries. The original plantings still produce wine today and we're amazed at the ancient cellar, where the wines still age today like they did back then.
Just to the east of the Grampians is the Pyrenees region. Small, perfectly formed and blessed with some star estates, this is a cool, but sunny red wine region, focusing on Shiraz, Cabernet Sauvignon/Merlot and Pinot Noir. For the record, Dalwhinnie ranks among our favourite estates in the world - small, dramatic amphitheatre-shaped vineyard, an awesome, one room, spaceage winery and sensational wines!
Henty is a region we have not yet visited, but tune in for an update soon because this region is one of the most impressive quiet achievers in this country today. In the far south-western corner of Victoria, with Coonawarra over the border in SA not that far away, the plantings are tiny, but it is clear that the potential is enormous. If Crawford River's dry and sweet Rieslings, Tarrington's Pinot Noir and a number of whites from the Seppelt stable are anything to go by, we have only just seen the beginning of what this region can do at the very top end.
Bendigo & Heathcote
Bendigo is situated to the east of Pyrenees and it has in the past happily surfed along nurturing a growing reputation for fine wines. That was until Heathcote was granted its own autonomy and a few of the star estates were lost. Balgownie, Passing Clouds, Pondalowie and Water Wheel remain, holding the fort, and making Shiraz, Cabernet, Chardonnay and Riesling to a high standard. Next door, stand alone Heathcote has been the proud owner of some serious street cred since 2003, when it broke away from Bendigo, and a few very smart wineries now carry the banner for this region by making wondrous, peppery, moreish styles of Shiraz.
The Goulburn Valley and its Nagambie Lakes sub-region are home to some superstar estates. Here Tahbilk has its world famous 1860 vineyard, which looks in great nick to us -- and the wine is phenomenal, too. Shiraz, Cabernet, Chardonnay, Riesling and the Rhoney white varieties Marsanne, Roussanne and Viognier are all thriving here. The vast majority of these wines also remain very good value as they haven't attracted the label hunters as much as the likes of the wines from Heathcote.
Rutherglen & Glenrowan
Rutherglen is a north-eastern Victorian wine region that gives us goosebumps just thinking about it! It is home to the most hypnotic of after dinner tipples: Liqueur Muscats and Tokays. There are four levels of fortified wine in Rutherglen: Rutherglen Muscat/Tokay, Classic, Grand and Rare. You simply must taste these wines. They make port, sherry and Madeira look positively sheepish. With phenomenal power and length on the palate and very good value for money, bearing in mind just how old some of these wines are, this is a name to remember. Glenrowan is a separate region to Rutherglen but it does exactly the same thing (all bar the obvious one below are from Rutherglen).
Just a quick drive up the range from Rutherglen, the historic township of Beechworth is another world away. Up here, the temperature has dropped significantly from the hot plain below, and a dramatic variation in altitude across the region from cool, high slopes to warmer sun-drenched valleys makes it friendly to almost every grape that its dynamic band of producers cares to throw at it. The superstar estate Giaconda first put it on the map with one of Australia's finest Chardonnays. They also make a stellar Pinot, an awesome Cab, a frightening good Shiraz and a very sexy Roussanne! Just up the road, Sorrenberg makes excellent Chardonnay, too, and one of Australia's funkiest Gamays. Battely's and Castagna's Shirazes and Savaterre's Chardonnay and Pinot Noir are another four great Beechworth wines which we can heartily recommend. Oh, by the way, all of these are at the expensive end of town!
The King and Alpine Valleys to the west of Beechworth in northeast Victoria are home to one very famous name, Brown Brothers. These areas are also a great source of fruit for sparkling wines by virtue of the altitude of some of the vineyards.
We have almost completed our clockwise (albeit disjointed; circuit around Victoria, and the giant area of Gippsland is the last of the main regions worthy of a mention. It is here that the delightful Phillip Jones, of Bass Phillip, fashions the most extraordinary and collectable Pinot Noirs.
The only other region is way up in the north west corner of Victoria, straddling the state boundary with New South Wales Murray Darling, centred on Mildura, is another huge area, and combined with Swan Hill to the east, makes up nearly 40% of the country's crush. Names like Andrew Peace, Deakin Estate, Hardys, Lindemans' Karadoc winery, McWilliams, Mildara Blass, Simeon, Trentham and Zilzie are all up here. This might not be a beautiful part of the world, but it is a very important one.
Split into two distinct regions - Northern Tassy around the delightful town of Launceston and Southern Tassy surrounding the main city of Hobart.
Chardonnay and Pinot Noir are the stars here, with Riesling, Pinot Gris and Gewürz also doing a good job. Tasmanian sparkling wines are doing extremely well in the world market: clean, dry, complex and very affordable. The big companies know it, and a good percentage of each of the top sparkling wines made in Australia come out of Tassie. Impressive though they may be, it is the Pinots that we are obsessed with. Victoria does a good job with this variety and so do a handful of winemakers in the Adelaide Hills, but with the chilly Tasmanian climate, ample rainfall and fleeting moments of sunshine, Pinot must think it's back home in Burgundy, it is performing so well! For every rule there is an exception raring to be set free. The Coal River area in the south is home to Domaine A and they make awesome Cabernet and Merlot - just to prove you can do anything if you select the correct site and work like a demon!
The Hunter Valley, 130 kilometres north of Sydney is NSW's most famous region. For decades, the Hunter has been a massive tourist destination and New South Wales' more important wine producer. But there are a few other very smart areas that are rapidly challenging Hunter's divine right for the limelight. But before we tell you about these, let's get stuck into the venerable old dear herself.
Lower Hunter Valley
The Lower Hunter is a bizarre place. It is a very marginal wine region - bloody awful weather more often than not! But with a string of great vintages in recent years, it appears that climate change might be a blessing! This region is responsible for one of Australia's most famous and multi-award-winning wine styles - dry Semillon. There is some useful Shiraz here, particularly when the rain holds off at harvest time, as it has done recently. A few other grapes (Chard and Cab) are planted, too, with varying success. Now golf courses, hotels, restaurants, some of the world's most important studs (horses!), and a mandatory weekend onslaught of Sydneysiders all rub shoulders with acre upon acre of picturesque vineyards. Rise above the hype: Hunter Semillon is a must in you wine diet. It is more often than not unoaked, a delight in its youth and eminently age-worthy. Think nothing of opening up a ten year old wine!
Upper Hunter Valley
The Upper Hunter Valley is famous for one winery only, and it is a biggy - Rosemount. We could not believe the size of the tank farm at Denman when we first visited Rosemount - they took us for a tour by car!
In Mudgee, where Rosemount also sources grapes (actually they take them from all over Oz), there are a load of smaller wineries. Not surprisingly Chardonnay, Semillon, Shiraz and Cabernet are responsible for the main action, with the reds receiving the most attention. Huntington Estate and Simon Gilbert are our two picks from this 'nest in the hills' - the aborigine translation of Mudgee. High in the hills south-east of Mudgee, producers in the vicinity of the historic township of Rylstone are beginning to come up with some enticing cool-climate styles. Louee sources Riesling, Pinot Gris and Pinot Noir from the highest vineyard in Australia (1100m), as well as a refined, spicy Shiraz from a lower site.
We will rather rudely jump over Cowra as we have never been particularly wowed by any of the wines from this region, but if you're keen to give them a go, stick with 2005, 2003 and 2002.
One region which is causing a huge stir is Orange. This is high altitude winemaking - between 600m and 1000m. As the expression goes, 'Orange starts where Adelaide Hills stops'. This is what the orange dwellers are singing, anyway - insinuating more than just the idea that the region is closer to God. Chardonnay, Sauv Blanc, Shiraz, Cabernet and Merlot are all looking smart up here. The higher you go the less likely the reds will ripen, but if you push the vines and have a magical touch, the resulting wines will be more edgy and elegant. This is a beguiling region which we are following closely. Certainly, top end restaurants in Sydney are snapping up small estate wines like smarties. Our favourite producers really impress our palates, and represent good value.
Riverina, also known as Griffith and the Murrumbidgee Irrigation Area (MIA), is 600 kilometres southwest of Sydney, 300 kilometres west of Canberra and 500 kilometres north of Melbourne (i.e. it's in the middle of nowhere!) and this is where a load of the big companies make some of their largest volume wines. Casella, McWilliam's and Orlando all hang out here. There are only two smaller companies to send a search party out for - Lillypilly Estate, and their superb Tramillon (a Traminer/Semillon blend) and De Bortoli's sensational, Sauternes-style, botrytised Semillon - Noble One. This is one of Australia's most celebrated and finest sweeties.
The Canberra District follows the pretty, rolling hills from the Outskirts of the nation's capital and into the hills of surrounding New South Wales. This is a cool district, with the upper reaches producing tight, defined Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Riesling and the lower, warmer stretches better suited to Shiraz. Three stunning estates in particular are making sensational wines - Clonakilla (Shiraz and Viognier experts), Brindabella Hills (Riesling) and Lark Hill (Pinot and Chardonnay).
Heading toward Victoria from Canberra, the region of Tumbarumba is nestled in the foothills of Mount Kosciusko. It goes without saying that this is a cool place, and as such it produces some of the best Chardonnay in Australia. Most of it is snaffled away by the big companies for sparkling wine base, but some of it also makes its way into their super-cuvee Chardonnays. There aren't any small producers here that have hit our list yet, but watch this space as we have seen some samples in the pipeline which point to great things to come.
Granite Belt & South Burnett
The Queensland wine industry is growing at pace, with production increasing ten-fold in five years from some 180 producers distributed across the Granite Belt, South Burnett and Queensland Coastal regions. Almost all of these are small and boutique and rely on the thriving wine tourism industry from the burgeoning populations of Brisbane and the Gold Coast to keep their small estates alive. The vast majority have no need to promote their wares beyond their cellar doors and mailing lists.
Regrettably, vine age and winemaking expertise have not always kept pace with the rapid growth in the Queensland industry, and we look forward to the quality of these wines continuing to rise as experience reveals the varieties that are best suited to each of the regions. Verdelho appears to be showing some promise.
We are not finished yet, but in a way we have already covered the bases, because Gundagai, Hastings River, Hilltops, Perricoota, Shoalhaven Coast and Southern Highlands are all up and running, but they don't trouble the scorers, at the moment. There are murmurings that the next big thing is around the corner, and who are we to say no to that? This country is moving at such a pace that we are blown away at every turn. This is what makes Australia such a wondrous wine producer and vital player in the international market.
The South Island
Nelson, on the northwest tip of the South Island, is where Neudorf Vineyards makes fabulous Pinot Gris and stunning Chardonnay. It is cooler and wetter here than around the corner in Marlborough. Marlborough is situated on the north-eastern tip of the South Island, and this region is the Sauv Blanc capital of the southern hemisphere! Centred around Blenheim, Marlborough is split into two main areas. The Wairau Valley is by far the biggest of the two and all of the famous names are based here. The main style is what we would call 'classic Kiwi Sauvignon', as demonstrated by icon estates such as Hunter's, Jackson and Cloudy Bay.
The other main region is the Awatere Valley (pronounced Awatree). This is a smaller, cooler region and its Sauvignons tend to be more linear and racy. These wines often taste tighter and more youthful than the neighbouring Wairau styles. Many estates blend the two area's harvests in order to build complexity in their wines.
The other main varieties grown in Marlborough are Chardonnay (very good from the top estates), Riesling (usually forward in style and showing promise) and Pinot Noir just starting to rival Martinborough on the north island at the top end). Gewürztraminer and Pinot Gris are both made in fresh, forward, lighter styles (which we adore) and some very good sparklers are made, too. There is a new fashion for hillside plantings and some Pinots and other reds look pretty good. We suspect this movement will gather momentum. There is, not surprisingly, a large roll call of recommended estates here.
Canterbury & Waipara
Canterbury and Waipara, on the eastern side of the South Island, are cooler and dryer, with Pinot Noir and Chardonnay the most planted varieties. Sadly, very few of these wines are exported, but of the few, Mountford Estate and Pegasus Bay are our clear favourites. Just when we thought that every great wine region had already been identified, a brand new one comes along. Waitaki, situated north of Dunedin and some 65k inland on the banks of the great river of the same name, is just such a place. With only 400 or so hectares of vineyard-suitable land this is only ever going to be a boutique region. Having said that, the examples of Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris that we have tasted (admittedly off only four- and two-year-old vines respectively) were very impressive indeed. Stay ahead of the pack and hunt down some bottles from wineries such as Craggy Range, Forrest, Lake Hayes, Valli and Waitaki Whitestone, who all source fruit here.
The last main NZ region is in the south of the south island (two hours drive from Waitaki), and it is one of the very best - Central Otago. Home to the world's most southerly grapevines, this is where Pinot Noir, and to a lesser extent Chardonnay, Pinot Gris and Riesling,are really setting people's palates alight. There are a handful of cracking wineries here and a load of Johnny Come Latelys trying to cash in on this stunning viticultural landscape. Winemaking is often seen as a wonderful lifestyle option for wealthy businessmen as they wind down their careers. This could not be further from the truth. As one famous Otago personality put it, downscaling into winemaking is as ridiculous as downscaling into helicopter design! The result is a load of Pinots which imitate the brilliance of the wines made by the following list of overachievers. This is one of the most exciting wine regions in the world, not least because we are Pinot freaks, but we must admit that we really don't want to see it dragged down by halfhearted attempts to tackle the world's most beguiling grape variety. In the year 2000 there were around fifteen different recognised wine producers in Central Otago. There are now over one hundred, and while they have, on average, lifted the bar this year, there is still work to be done! This is one reason for The Great New Zealand Pinot Noir Classification.
The North Island
Matakana, north of Auckland, is a well-trodden tourist route, with a handful of small, boutique wineries - Ascension Vineyard and Matakana Estate (great Pinot Gris) are our two picks here. Auckland and its environs, just below Matakana, is still a little too cool for full-on reds, but aromatic white varieties and Chardonnay work very well. Syrah (as the Kiwis call Shiraz) is also creeping into vineyards, making cooler, peppery styles of wine.
Take a forty minute ferry ride from downtown Auckland and you arrive at Waiheke Island, a stunningly beautiful ex-hippy colony, which is now one of the most chic addresses to holiday on (and grow vines). Interestingly, the Cabernet Sauvignons, Merlots and even Malbecs look good here, as do the classy Chardonnays.
Waikato and the Bay of Plenty have very few wineries but a special mention must go to the exceptional Mills Reef. Gisborne, on the east coast, is Chardonnay territory and here it picks up a creamy, tropical fruit texture and flavour, with a luscious character that is almost uniquely Gisborne's own. Montana has a large outfit here, and there are loads of smaller producers, Hawke's Bay is next on the list and it is from here that, in recent years, some of the meatiest Kiwi reds come - Gimblett Gravels is the name of a new appellation where Cabernet, Merlot and increasingly Syrah is planted to great effect.
Sauv Blanc here has a fatter, fleshier feel than the more classic areas like Marlborough, and Chardonnays often lack the richness of Gisborne and come in a leaner shape.
Wairarapa and its most famous sub region Martinborough sit at the southern end of the North Island, near Wellington. Fantastic Chardonnay, Riesling, Sauvignon and, most importantly, Pinot Noir is made here. Ata Rangi's Pinot Noir is one of New Zealand's finest.