New Zealand is the epitome of ‘New World’ wine; innovative, eager, fresh and adventurous. Blazing new trails is nothing new in the world’s most southerly wine region.
‘Noble grapes’ (vitis vinefera) made their first appearance almost 100 years ago, in 1819, thanks to Church of England missionary Rev. Samuel Marsden, who planted vines on the North Island. The first wines, however, were created by James Busby, known as the ‘Father of Australian Wines’, thanks to his importation of vine cuttings from France and Spain. When he was posted to New Zealand in 1833, he brought a selection of the vines and produced his first vintage in 1836.
For decades, New Zealand’s most prevalent variety was an American grape, Isabella, that produced mostly sweet and fortified wines for local consumption. By the 1960’s and 70’s, vineyards began to expand to cooler regions and these obscure varieties were replaced with higher quality vinifera. One of the biggest influences occurred in the 1980’s, thanks to a young, government viticulturist by the name of Dr. Richard Smart. His bold, new ideas centered around ‘canopy management’ (the canopy being the leaves of the vine) and how it could be utilized to balance the growth of the plant and control yields. These ‘modern’ techniques are now commonly implemented around the wine-world.
Vineyard site selection became more important and many growers were drawn to the Southern Island with its cooler climate. New Zealand wines began to rise in quality and quantity, making export, especially of their trademark Sauvignon Blanc, a reality.
Today, vines are planted in 9 growing regions on both the North and South Islands. While officially in a temperate climate zone, the entire region is subject to huge maritime influences. The oceans moderate the temperatures, but also bring moisture, humidity and winds like the strong, westerly ‘Roaring 40’s’.
For this reason, the majority of the vineyards on the South Islands are planted on the gentle, undulating, western slopes of the Southern Alps, a chain of 18 high mountain peaks that form the ‘spine’ of the island. The mountains shield the vines from extreme winds, giving the area a long, dry growing season with plentiful sun.
The region of Canterbury/North Canterbury has been acclaimed by Decanter Magazine, as‘ the center of the finest Pinot Noir in the Southern hemisphere.’ yet it is still unknown by many wine lovers. Thanks to Mt. Beautiful Winery, that is all about to change.
In the early 2000s, New Zealand native and renowned economic scholar David Teece, went in search of an ‘off the radar’, unique spot where he could start a vineyard and return to his family farming roots. In true, pioneering spirit, he finally located four farms in North Canterbury. The land was a mix of soft slopes and steep hills, with gullies and flats and a myriad of soil types. The farms lay in the shadow of Mount Beautiful.
Vines, an array of 30 different clones matched to the individual terroir, were planted in 2003 through 2005. Sauvignon Blanc is the most prolific and planted in the cooler, northern blocks, while Pinot Gris enjoys the warmer, north facing hills of silt and clay. The first variety to be bottled was Riesling, also planted in the higher elevations and sheltered by neighboring pine forests. Chardonnay joined the portfolio in 2013, but it’s the Pinot Noir, nestled in the warmer, southern sections, that really embody what Mt Beautiful is all about..
At a recent event, I had a chance to sample some of the latest vintages and enjoy a few perfect food pairings.
2016 Mt Beautiful Sauvignon Blanc
Not your typical ‘grassy, kiwi’ New Zealand take, but a more sophisticated and elegant, Bordeaux style. A small portion was barrel fermented, lending a nice balance between soft mango and ripe, tropical nuances and the slightly zesty kumquat notes on the finish. The pairing was a blueberry, nectarine and cream cheese galette, which accentuated the fruit character of the wine.
2015 Mt Beautiful Pinot Gris
Classic stone fruit aromas of peach and pear met with fresh cut hay and white florals that lingered through to the surprisingly full finish. Seeded whole-wheat crackers topped with chèvre and apricot preserves were a pitch perfect pairing.
2015 Mt Beautiful Pinot Noir
More Old World than New, with raspberry and dark strawberry notes, tinged with fresh thyme, fresh forest floor and light toast notes. Very easy to drink as an ‘apéro’ wine but food friendly, too. Paired nicely with Sweet Peppers stuffed with a herbed cream cheese.
Disclaimer: Wines were provided for review by the producer but the reflections, observations and opinions are mine alone.
If you ask me, Lily Bollinger, doyen of the famed Champagne house, said it best. When she was asked ‘When do you drink champagne?” she replied:
“I only drink champagne when I'm happy, and when I'm sad.
Sometimes I drink it when I'm alone.
When I have company, I consider it obligatory.
I trifle with it if I am not hungry and drink it when I am.
Otherwise I never touch it - unless I'm thirsty.”
The one embellishment I could possibly make on that statement would be to add a variety of other quality bubbly beverages to the menu. One cannot live just by champagne alone. The world of wine is simply too big and too exciting.
A recent excursion to the well-stocked rooms of the Wine Exchange in Santa Ana CA confirmed my beliefs when I was treated to ‘flight’ prepared for a small group of Southern California writers from the International Food Wine & Travel Writers Association. Entitled “All That Sparkles”, our energetic and always wine-curious hosts, Kyle Meyer and Tristen Beamon, who continually seek out the interesting and exciting, proved yet again that Winex’s ‘open door policy’ when it comes to wine representatives and smaller producers, pays off. “You never know what’s out there” they told us as their faces lit up like little kids with a secret. “We like to ‘mix-it up and have fun. Be festive and bring on the fun stuff.”
And true to form, they kept their promise, taking us down an effervescent path covering sparkling wines from France, Spain, and California.
Domaine Rosier Cuvée Jean Phillippe Brut Blanquette de Limoux 2014 ($10)
There are many things I adore about bubblies from the Limoux region of the Languedoc in Southern France. One is that it’s a beautiful spot with the vineyards laid out on the higher elevation slopes of the majestic Pyrenees. Another is that the name is really fun to say: ‘Lee Moo’. But on a more serious note, when the label says ‘Blanquette de Limoux’ then you know you’re drinking history, as this is the oldest sparkling wine in the world. Rumor has it that Dom Perignon learned the secret to crafting sparkling wine (later to be known as the MethodeTraditionelle) from the monks at the Abbey of Saint Hilaire in Limoux!
This is a delightfully refreshing wine and a great way to kick off any party, evening or whenever! The main grape is a local one – Mauzac - and it lends an energizing note to the wine. White flowers, blanched almonds, lemon curd and red apple skin flavors abound, with a bevy of fine ‘bulles’ that just don’t quit. Blanquet is a style of wine meant to be drunk ‘young’ so pop those corks and enjoy!
Recaredo Brut Nature Gran Reserva Terrers 2009
OK, now it was time to get a little more serious. “What?” you say. “Serious? With a Spanish Cava? Surely, you jest?” Well, no, I don’t actually and here’s why.
It’s true that Cava, the traditional sparkling wine produced primarily in the Catalan region of Penedes, has long been misunderstood. Yes, there are mass produced versions of the wine. They are tasty, relatively inexpensive and many wine drinkers would most likely not include them in their ‘serious’ list. Yet, to do so, would be a huge mistake. There are many amazingly talented and dedicated Cava producers who are taking this regional specialty, created with the local grapes Xerel-lo (Chair-el-OH), Macabeu (Mac-ah-BAY-oh) and Parellada (Pair-ah-YAY-dah), to new and deliciously exciting heights.
Recaredo is a prime example of the trend, if you can call 90 years of craftsmanship a ‘trend’! Here in the heart of Cava country, the charming village of Sant-Sadurni d’Anoia, the Capallades family creates terroir driven cavas from their own biodynamic estate vineyards. Their motto is “There can be no wine without life in the vineyards’ and there is certainly life in their wines.
They still complete most every step in the winemaking process by hand and in a traditional manner, including using a cork closure on the bottle while it’s undergoing the secondary fermentation (the one that creates all those bubbles), hand ‘riddling’ or turning the bottles, a little bit every day so that the sediment (a result of that second fermentation) finds its way to the neck of the bottle for easy removal. This cava spends 65 months, on the lees, in the cool cellars under the streets of Sant-Sadurni, until it is finally disgorged by hand. The result is asparkling nectar worthy of its place on the wine menus of many Michelin starred restaurants.
Elegant and highly sippable, the bubbles form a long and persistent stream, with aromas of soft apple, lightly creamy crème brulée and ripe stone fruit. With its superb structure and enveloping flavors it’s a super choice to enjoy before and during any meal, or pair with a nice fire and a friend.
Cariaccioli Brut Cuvée 2009 ($40)
What do you get when you blend high quality, estate grown grapes from California with the expertise of a world class Champagne expert? Something splendid. And delicious.
Michael Salgues, has been the winemaker for Cariaccioli Cellars since its inception in 2006, Well known and highly respected, he was instrumental in the success of Roderer Estates, overseeing their California winery from 1985 – 2004. He brings a wealth of experience, combining many traditional French champagne and sparkling wine techniques with California character. “Smooth and Cultivated” is their goal and this they achieve – handily.
This 2009 vintage Brut is crafted from old-vine Chardonnay and Pinot Noir sourced from classic, cool, Santa Lucia Highlands vineyards where the fruit is allowed to mature to maximum ripeness. You can tell at first whiff that this is California wine – that voluptuous round, ripe and rotund nuance on the nose is the first giveaway – but the palate and finish are where the French influence comes into play. 40% of the wine is barrel fermented in older oak, lending a creamy touch without an overtly ‘oaky’ connotation. We’re talking ripe pear, apple, soft toasted brioche, tropical pineapple and nectarine freshness. It’s an ‘umphy’ sparkler, more akin to the Recorado Cava mentioned earlier. This winery is putting the “sizzle in California sparkling wine” shared our host Kyle and I must agree.
Marie Hanze Eaux Belle Brut ($28)
In my world there cannot be a bubbly buffet without something from Champagne. This little gem is what many would call a ‘Grower champagne’. The majority of the fruit is from the winemaker/producer’s own vineyards, rather than sourced from other growers, which is the common practice amongst many well-known houses.
Producer and winemaker Nicolas Maillart represents the 9th generation of his family to cultivate vineyards in the softly rolling ‘mountains’ of the eastern curve of the region known as the Montagne de Reims. Located just south of the famous city of Reims, Maillart practices sustainable viticulture, embracing the biodiversity of the land to create wines that speak of the terrior and the clay/limestone soils.
This non-vintage blend of 60% Chardonnay, 30% Pinot Muenier and 10% Pinot Noir, is mostly a product of the 2013 vintage and spends a minimum of 2 years aging in the bottle resulting in a constant and lively stream of small, dancing bubbles in the glass. This is the kind of champagne that can take you from that first, welcoming glass of the evening all the way through to cheese and conversation at the end of the meal. It’s fresh and bracing with just a whisper of light toasty. With crunchy apple, citrus and nectarine and a balanced, mineral-laden finish, this could possibly become your ‘house’ wine.
Soucherie Cremant de Loire Rosé 2014 ($20)
If you think ‘pink’ sparklers are sweet and sticky, here’s a little charmer from the incredibly beautiful Loire Valley of France that will do much to change your perceptions! This famous region is known for its fairy tale chateaux, verdant vineyards and wide variety of easy drinking wines
Château Soucherie is one such treasure, producing a variety of still, sweet and sparkling wines from the principal grapes of Chenin Blanc and Cabernet Franc that thrive in the clay and sandstone shale soils of the region.
When this stupendous little sparkler is poured into the glass, the soft strawberry pink hue (and corresponding rosy ’mousse) sets the mood. This is festive wine whether the occasion something special or just the fact you’ve made it through another day.
The aromas are all bouncy berries – ripe red strawberry, raspberry and cranberry with touches of refreshing watermelon. It’s round yet fresh at the same time with a clean, focused finish.
Apparently, this wine is made as a ‘side gig’ to the more serious offerings of the producer and they conjure up a mere 3,000 bottles each vintage. Luckily, Winex has scooped up 1200 of them. Drink now with all those holiday meals – rosé is the perfect foil for a wide variety of foods – and put a few away for February. This one has ‘Valentine’s Day’ written all over it.
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Hilarie Larson is a wine writer, and educator, who loves nothing more than traveling to vineyard and food destinations. Join her as she shares some of her experiences on the wine roads.