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By Charles Olken

You may have noticed that Mrs. Olken and I wandered off to New Zealand recently. And while we expected the great beauty of the place and some pretty good Sauvignon Blanc, we were pleasantly surprised by the diversity of wine experiences that we fell into.

But, first things first. New Zealand is a small country in population with only about 4.5 million people to call its own. That’s not much. Really. There are 31 cities in the world with populations over ten million. None of them is in New Zealand. That is a disadvantage is you want to adjourn to London or New York or places of that ilk.

New Zealand’s biggest city is Auckland with about 1.5 million population. It has just enough culture, beauty and energy to make visiting for three or four days into a nice treat—sort of like Copenhagen or Edinburgh—which is to say, not big but wonderfully engaging nonetheless. The tour books can explain it all to you, and I will mention just this. There is a native culture in New Zealand, The Maori, and it is significant, fun and very much part of the experience. Go to the War Memorial Museum in Auckland to see Maori history, artifact and live exhibition.

A quick word about food in New Zealand. New Zealand consists of long, skinny islands with coast lines almost always part of the scene. Seafood is abundant, and there is nothing more exciting, if you an oyster lover like I am, than the Bluff Oysters that combine the tight structure of the best cold water oysters with a mouthfilling size. We went in search of those oysters, and here is one bit of advice on that score. The season starts on March 1, and unless you are going all the way to the south end of the South Island to taste them on that date, you will have to wait a few days until the locals have their fill before Bluff Oysters appear on the menu elsewhere. Oh, and one other thing, the Asian fusion cuisine is top-notch. In Auckland we ate at the sort of fancy Ebisu and the less fancy but no less enjoyable Café Hanoi, which, despite its name, is not a Vietnamese restaurant.

Not all of New Zealand is suited to the growing of quality wine, but like so many coastal locations with moderate climates, most of it is. In that regard, I am reminded of the Left Coast of our own country with vineyards popping up from Washington’s Columbia Valley all the way south to San Diego.

We planned two wine visits while in Auckland, and they were both worth the time spent, but for very different reasons. Our visit to the Kumeu River winery north of Auckland was pretty much mandatory as we have been drinking their Chardonnay, arguably one of the best from New Zealand, for years now. What was once a winery with lots of products has morphed over the years into its focus on Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. There is good Pinot Noir in most places in New Zealand, and while we liked the mid-weighted, nicely focused bottling at Kumeu River, the real reason to go is for the Chardonnay that is offered at several prices levels, each of which is spot on for value. What we had not expected, because we have not seen it in this country, was the Mate’s Chardonnay, named after the founder (the winery is run by his children). Mate’s Chardonnay is grown in a new vineyard near the winery and because it has the advantage of years of experience in growing the variety, it was designed to for it. The result is a classy, rich, balanced effort that was the single best Chardonnay we tasted in New Zealand.

And then there is Waiheke Island. If New Zealand friends had not turned us on to this paradise in the bay just a thirty-minute catamaran ride from Auckland, we would have missed it. If you go, be forewarned. Its combination of beauty and interesting wines turned what we thought would be a casual day in the country into an event. And while there are several dozen wineries to visit and a plethora of galleries featuring the works of local artists, it is the Man O’ War winery ( on Waiheke’s eastern shore that not only made us converts but has us raring to go back. It is mostly red wine country to my taste with a real favorite being the winery’s Cabernet Franc blend entitled Warspite that had us going back for seconds. Do click on the link above. The setting of the winery is even more gorgeous and inviting than the pictures show. Very few wineries anywhere can match it for its combination of location and wine quality.

OK, I get it. New Zealand is a long ways away, and I will admit that it took me decades of being in the wine biz before I got there, but, like Tuscany and Provence, New Zealand is magic and if you like to travel, going to New Zealand for its accessible mix of natural beauty, of culture and wine, that is far more broadly interesting beyond the Sauvignon Blanc for which the country is best known, will be a treat.

In upcoming articles, I will discuss a vineyard that is destined to join the list of places in the world where top-class wine is grown and will dig into Marlborough which is about far more than that crisp, lovely Sauvignon Blanc for which it is so rightfully famous.


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