25 Not-to-be-missed New Zealand Wines

To help celebrate the milestone 25th edition of the Buyer’s Guide, here are 25 labels that all lovers of New Zealand wine should taste from time to time. Regardless of whether your interest is in the country’s greatest wines, or those that offer the greatest value, the 25 featured here all make a huge contribution.

Don’t treat this list too seriously, but simply as a starting point for discussion. I could easily compile a second list of 25 completely different, highly important wines, and other critics would come up with yet another selection. (The wines have been listed alphabetically, so don’t read anything into their order.)

Akarua Rua Central Otago Pinot Noir

As an introduction to the drink-young charm of Central Otago’s reds, this is hard to beat. Packed with vibrant, plummy, spicy flavour, smooth and lingering, it can be remarkably good for a third-tier label, and irresistible value.

Ata Rangi Martinborough Pinot Noir

This benchmark Pinot Noir is the region’s greatest, with a superb string of vintages back to 1984. Rich, complex and age-worthy, it’s produced in reasonable volumes, but is still a magical mix of power and finesse.

Bilancia La Collina Syrah

This is arguably New Zealand’s greatest Syrah, although less hyped than others. From a stunning terraced vineyard, la collina (Italian for ‘the hill’) on the north and north-west flanks of Roys Hill, overlooking the Gimblett Gravels, it is a majestic Hawke’s Bay red, dark, beautifully fragrant and weighty, with dense plum, spice, nut and slight liquorice flavours, complex and built for the long haul.

Brancott Estate Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc

This huge-selling wine is ‘the original Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc,’ says its producer, Pernod Ricard NZ, because it is descended directly from the pioneering label, Montana Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc, launched in 1979. The Brancott Estate brand replaced Montana in the company’s export markets several years ago, due to its obvious unsuitability for the full-of-potential US market. Invitingly aromatic, with penetrating melon, lime and green-capsicum flavours, it’s typically an intensely varietal wine with lots of youthful impact.

Church Road Hawke’s Bay Chardonnay

This is the best-value Chardonnay on the market, especially on special – as it often is – at under $15. Since the first vintage in 1990, it has evolved from an emphasis on fresh fruit flavours seasoned with obvious toasty oak to a more subtle and harmonious style, fleshy and rounded, with citrusy, peachy, slightly buttery and mealy flavours, showing very good depth and complexity.

Church Road Hawke’s Bay Merlot/Cabernet/Malbec

If there is a better value, claret-style red made in New Zealand than this reliable performer, I haven’t tasted it. From one vintage to the next, this Merlot-based, barrel-matured blend is sturdy and full-flavoured, offering unusual richness and complexity for a wine often on special at under $15. (And don’t miss its big brother, the powerful, deliciously rich and smooth Church Road McDonald Series Merlot, a classy, refined, five-star wine at a four-star price.)

Clos de Ste Anne Chardonnay Naboth’s Vineyard

From mature vines on a steep, north-east-facing hill at Manutuke, with a commanding view over the Poverty Bay flats to the coast, this is a powerful, exceptionally rich, multi-faceted wine with tight, citrusy, minerally flavours. A wine of great personality, it typically drinks superbly at three to five years old, but matures very gracefully for a decade, becoming softer, more toasty and honeyed with age.

Cloudy Bay Sauvignon Blanc

On sale around the world, New Zealand’s most internationally acclaimed wine is produced in greater volumes than the total output of many of this country’s middle-sized wineries. Cloudy Bay, established in Marlborough in 1985, is now part of the Louis Vuitton Moët-Hennessy luxury goods empire. A refined, weighty wine with deep, ripely herbaceous flavours, it’s a more subtle and sophisticated, less aggressive style than most of its competitors, showing impressive complexity, texture and length. For downright drinkability, it’s hard to beat.

Craggy Range Le Sol

Le Sol is an exceptional Syrah. A compelling Gimblett Gravels, Hawke’s Bay red, launched from the 2001 vintage, it was soon after described by the Hawke’s Bay winery as ‘a cross-dresser between the lushness and ripeness of Australia, and the poise, balance and elegance of the northern Rhone’. Dense but not tough, with concentrated plum and black-pepper flavours, it impresses with its plushness, complexity and lovely fragrance.

Dry River Martinborough Pinot Gris

For many years after its debut in 1986, this famous, small-volume wine towered above New Zealand’s other Pinot Gris, by virtue of its exceptional body, richness and longevity. A seductively scented, sturdy wine that overflows with peachy, spicy flavour, gently sweet and smooth, it is typically delicious in its youth and develops great subtlety and richness with maturity, drinking superbly at five years old.

Esk Valley The Terraces

Grown on steep, north-facing terraces at Bay View, this excitingly bold, dark Hawke’s Bay red is muscular, with bottomless depth of firm, blackcurrant-like, plummy, distinctly spicy flavour. Based principally on Malbec and Merlot, and matured for at least 18 months in all-new French oak barriques, it is not produced in lesser vintages or entered in competitions. One of the most expensive wines from the Villa Maria group, it is ‘a symbol of what we can do’.

Felton Road Bannockburn Central Otago Pinot Noir

Since the debut 1997 vintage, Felton Road has taken the international wine world by storm. Deliciously perfumed and supple, with a strong surge of ripe plum, spice and nut flavours, this estate-grown red, blended from three sites at Bannockburn, is a major flagship for the region.

Kumeu River Estate Chardonnay

It would be hard to exaggerate the importance of this famous wine. After the first vintage in 1985, it played a pivotal role in the renaissance of winemaking in the Auckland region, stirred the interest of many other New Zealand winemakers in the traditional white-wine production methods of Burgundy, and played a key role in alerting the American market to the white-wine revolution Down Under. Citrusy, mealy and slightly biscuity, with good acid spine, it is typically savoury and seamless, and a delight to drink at three to five years old.

Nautilus Cuvée Marlborough

Refined and intense, this highly acclaimed, non-vintage sparkling is a Pinot Noir-dominant style, with reserve wines from previous vintages, held in old oak casks, included in the blend. Disgorged after a minimum of three years on its yeast lees, it is one of New Zealand’s most Champagne-like sparklings, finely scented, crisp and vivacious, with notable complexity and harmony.

Neudorf Moutere Chardonnay

The undisputed heavyweight of Nelson wines and arguably the finest Chardonnay to flow from the South Island, Neudorf Moutere Chardonnay ranks among New Zealand’s greatest wines of all. Weighty and rich, but not overblown, it is tightly structured, with searching, citrusy, mealy, minerally flavours that need about four years to reveal their full glory.

Oyster Bay Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc

Jim Delegat, the driving force behind this hugely popular (think 20 million bottles per year) wine, believes ‘Oyster Bay is an aspirer’s brand and it appeals to those kinds of people who can afford to have wine as an everyday affordable luxury’. Ranked consistently among the top-selling, mid-priced Sauvignon Blancs in New Zealand, Australia, the UK and the US, it is full-bodied and dry, with strong, vibrant tropical-fruit and herbaceous aromas and flavours, crisp and punchy.

Pegasus Bay Riesling

Waipara’s cold nights are a critical factor in the arresting quality of this Riesling. Low night temperatures extend the ripening period, enhancing flavour development, while preserving the grapes’ natural acidity. A regional classic, garden-fresh, scented and zingy in its youth, it is a gently sweet, appetisingly crisp style, shot through with citrusy, limey flavours. It breaks into full stride at about three years old, acquiring luscious toast, honey and marmalade characters, and matures well for up to a decade.

Sacred Hill Riflemans Chardonnay

On a spectacular inland, elevated site in the Dartmoor Valley, overlooking white papa rock cliffs carved by the Tutaekuri River, the cool Riflemans Terrace vineyard is planted wholly in Chardonnay. This Hawke’s Bay regional classic combines great power and elegance, with citrusy, mealy, minerally flavours, tightly structured, poised and intense, and a resounding finish.

Saint Clair Wairau Reserve Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc

From Marlborough’s largest family-owned producer, this is an exciting mouthful, winner of countless gold medals and trophies since the first 2001 vintage. A high-impact style with a soaring bouquet, it overflows with pure, ripely herbaceous flavours, but is also smooth and user-friendly. Enjoy it in its exuberant youth, while it is pungent and zingy.

Seresin Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc

Given its certified organic status, wide international distribution and consistently top-flight quality, this is one of the region’s most important wines. A sophisticated dry wine, full of individuality and interest, it is subtle and deeply satisfying, with indigenous yeasts, barrel fermentation and lees-aging adding richness and complexity, without swamping its pure, penetrating fruit flavours.

Stonyridge Larose

Dark and perfumed, with smashing fruit flavours of blackcurrants, plums and spices, Larose is a magnificently concentrated, claret-style red from Waiheke Island. Launched from the 1985 vintage, it is now one of the most celebrated, expensive wines in the land (although much cheaper if you buy on an en primeur basis). It matures superbly for a decade and longer, acquiring great overall complexity and harmony.

Te Mata Coleraine

With a string of notably elegant, rich and complex wines since its memorable 1982 debut, this blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc has carved out a reputation second to none among Hawke’s Bay reds. Pronounced Cole-raine (rather than Coler-aine), in most vintages it shows the depth and subtlety of a top Bordeaux, and flourishes in the cellar for 10 to 20 years.

Villa Maria Cellar Selection Hawke’s Bay Syrah

Villa Maria’s middle-tier Cellar Selection wines (positioned above Private Bin and below the Reserve and Single Vineyard ranges) typically offer wonderful value. This is a perfect introduction to the Hawke’s Bay region’s hottest red-wine variety. Densely coloured, floral and highly concentrated, it is weighty, with deep, ripe blackcurrant, plum and black-pepper flavours, finely balanced tannins, real power through the palate and a long, spicy finish.

Villa Maria Private Bin Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc

While attending the giant Frankfurt Book Fair in 2012, I spotted an extremely familiar label in several wine stores and restaurants. Sold in over 50 countries, this huge seller accounts for much of the production of New Zealand’s largest, completely family-owned winery. Buoyantly fruity, ripely herbaceous and punchy, it offers consistently good quality, and terrific value when on special at around $12.

Yealands Estate Single Vineyard Awatere Valley Marlborough Grüner Veltliner

Here’s a taste of the future! Rare in New Zealand, but spreading steadily, Grüner Veltliner (often called ‘Grü-Vee’) is Austria’s favourite white-wine variety. It was first produced here in 2008 and most of the vines are now in Marlborough, where Yealands is proving just how good the wine can be – fragrant, fleshy and finely textured, with strong, peachy, slightly spicy flavours, dry and delicious.