When I dropped everything before senior year of college and flew halfway across the world to finish school in New Zealand, I knew I’d love it (after all, with my Lord of the Rings obsession, Middle Earth had been number one on my travel list since the ripe age of 10) — but I didn’t know I’d adopt it as a second home. I graduated in late 2013 with a double major in film and English (two real gold mines in the degree world) and returned to the States in early 2014 to pursue a career in film, and since then I’ve revisited my personal paradise four separate times.
The view at New Zealand's Wither Hills
I worked two jobs in Hollywood before deciding that the film world’s just not for me at this point. And then, by a stroke of massively good fortune, I found myself getting paid to do what I’ve always wanted to do: write. That the writing gig came with drinking wine and quadrupling my knowledge of the gargantuan wine world (whattup, strange words like Blaufränkisch and fancy techniques like carbonic maceration)? Just added bonuses.
What I never would’ve expected, though, is the ways in which my transition to wine would enrich my already-blissful time in one of the most beautiful places on Earth.
Enjoying a classic representation of New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc at Cloudy Bay
During our three-week-long trip to New Zealand back in January, my boyfriend (a Kiwi) and I decided to hop down to the South Island (Marlborough in particular) for a few days of wine tasting, beer tasting, and apricot picking — and it was then I realized what everyone’s missing when they relegate New Zealand to the realm of “does Sauvignon Blanc and nothing else.”
First stop on the wine tour: Seresin. Tucked amid the rolling hills of Marlborough, perhaps New Zealand’s most famous winemaking region, sits this biodynamic winery owned by acclaimed cinematographer Michael Seresin (who’s worked as director of photography on productions such as Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes).
The Seresin tasting room
A self-styled “New World winery with an Old World approach,” Seresin focuses on biodynamic practices and natural winemaking. Their charming tasting room, small and utterly devoid of pretension, overlooks the sprawling land and highlights the bounty of the vines with displays of their most prized bottles — and their crazy-good range of biodynamic olive oils.
The proprietor poured us four tasters: a 2009 dry Riesling, a 2014 Sauvignon Blanc, the 2013 Leah Pinot Noir, and the 2012 Rachel Pinot Noir. The Riesling and Leah Pinot were delicious (Seresin recommends drinking the latter immediately), but the Sauvignon Blanc and Rachel Pinot have stuck with me since the tasting — and they’re prime examples of some of the unexpected wines New Zealand has to offer.
Bottles on the table in the Seresin tasting room
The Sauv — referred to as “Savv” (like “halve”) by pretty much the entire country — was unlike any of its brethren I’ve ever tasted. Blended with 5% Sémillon and aged in oak rather than the stainless steel typical of its variety, it tasted heavy and rich, with warm notes of honey and ripe tropical fruit. The Sauvs New Zealand is famous for typify the green, herbal side of the grape, and let me tell you — when you’re expecting that, and you get what Seresin created, it’s a hell of a surprise. The wine’s weighty palate and hints of oak reveal a completely different side of Sauvignon Blanc.
As for the Rachel Pinot — since I started to sort of know what I’m talking about when it comes to wine (at least academically), it’s dawned on me that New Zealand Pinot Noir, especially from Central Otago, is exceptional. I don’t personally like traditional Pinots (light and subtle), so every time I taste the powerful, bold versions I’ve come to expect from New Zealand, I thank the wine gods. Rachel’s dense, concentrated dark fruit notes and viscous texture knocked me on my ass — so we bought two bottles on the spot, which Seresin recommends cellaring for eight to 10 years.
The entrance to Cloudy Bay's tasting room
After leaving Seresin, we headed to what’s arguably New Zealand’s most famous winery: Cloudy Bay. (In our recent interview, Sarah Michelle Gellar called their Sauvignon Blanc one of her go-to bottles.) Beautifully constructed and landscaped but a touch crowded for my taste, it’s only a few short minutes from Seresin — but it feels a world away.
Cloudy Bay calls themselves the “leader in forging New Zealand’s Sauvignon Blanc international reputation and defining the distinct style,” and it certainly shows. We tasted five wines (including two lighter, more traditional Pinots that weren’t really my style and an oaky Chardonnay my boyfriend likened to “licking a tree”), but the 2015 Sauvignon Blanc was the standout. About as classic-NZ-Sauv as it gets, the crisp, bright, citrusy wine aged for six months in stainless steel and drank like the polar opposite of the one we tasted at Seresin. I remember taking a sip and immediately thinking, “This is what New Zealand is famous for.”
Also of note at Cloudy Bay? The NV Pelorus Blanc de Noirs — a 60/40 Chardonnay and Pinot Noir blend with spritzy, refreshing bubbles and a welcome savory undertone — and the hedgehog I met in the winery’s outdoor area.
The hedgehog I befriended
The last stop on our wine journey was another relatively well-known spot: Wither Hills. Enormous wooden doors on the ground floor lead to the cellar, and the tasting room that sits atop it rests under the shadow of a viewing tower, from which you can see for what felt like days.
Wither Hills on a gorgeous New Zealand summer day
Wither Hills is another of those New Zealand wineries that’s best-associated with its traditionally Kiwi style of Sauv — but the big winner, for me, was their rosé. A 2014 rosé made from Pinot Noir, it was crisp, dry, and utterly refreshing. The only thing that stopped me from buying a case was that I couldn’t take it on the plane with me the next day.
So next time you have a glass of New Zealand wine (which will in all likelihood be a Sauv), think about what you’re missing — and then hop on a plane to Middle Earth to taste for yourself.
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