Have you ever been to New Zealand? Me, neither. When we lived in Shanghai, China, my husband tried to convince me to visit the Land of Kiwis. A lovely vacation could be had, rife with lush landscape, magical mountains and charming burgs. No way, I said. Sound strange? I agree. Perhaps it was the intoxicating draw of nearby South East Asia (Burma! Thailand! Vietnam! Laos!) or the brain-bending effect of babies and toddlers in my life (those would be my children) but my personal goal, in our five years of “R & R” vacations from Shanghai, was to avoid English-speaking nations. So no Australia, no New Zealand.
I regret that, now. Because I missed out on the wines.
Ignorance is bliss, right? Let me put that in a gentler way, via my favorite line from a Famous French Philosopher called Henri Bergson who once wrote: “The eyes only see what the mind is prepared to understand.” A good paraphrase, in my wine situation, would be, “the tongue only tastes what the mind is ready to understand.”
So until very recently, when some fine New Zealand wines, along with their winemakers, came to me in the form of a master class tasting right here in Chicago, I had no idea what I was missing and I didn’t care, either.
Blame it on France. I love French wines. When I sip that nectar, it’s like mainlining Gallic sophistication. And I’ve certainly gone beyond the call of duty to get that glow. Like moving my husband and two somewhat recalcitrant teens for one whole year to the town of Bordeaux where I studied at (and miraculously graduated from) a prestigious French wine school at the university there. More on those wine-soaked adventures soon but let me just put it this way, for now: A year in Bordeaux, plus a loving passion for France (see my first post for more on that amour) had clasped my taste buds firmly in golden handcuffs.
I’ve tried to loosen the French grip with California wines to no avail, because most of the good stuff is beyond my budget and I haven’t found any value wines I like (yet). The Kiwis, though, had better luck.
Flowered shirts, faded jeans, fuzzy hair and baby blues. Those are the first things my eyes noticed about the Kiwi winemakers at the recent New Zealand wine tasting in Chicago. The casually dressed, sky-eyed winemakers were friendly and hale, with the tempered patience of those used to explaining that their country, from the top of the North Island to the bottom of the South Island, is as long as from Manhattan to Miami. That New Zealand’s Marlborough region is perfect for growing Sauvignon Blanc grapes and the Central Otago region (aka Hobbit country) for Pinot Noir. That the country’s modern fine wine industry first blossomed in the 1980s, just over 30 years ago. (There’s good Kiwi wine info on this website, if you care to delve in.)
I was surprised to learn New Zealand’s fine winemaking tradition is so young. By contrast, California wines were already winning gold medals at the 1890 Paris Exhibition. And although the modern era of California winemaking began in the 1950s, California wines have gained world renown since the Judgment of Paris in 1976, where the American wines beat the French at a famous blind tasting.
This wasn’t the Judgment of Paris, but it was a real awakening for my taste buds. I won’t go into detail here, but as I look at my wrinkled scribbles next to the list of white wines we tasted, I see words like this: “so different,” “exotic,” “mango, lychee,” “wow,” “not too oaky,” “full, amazing.” The Pinot Noir reds, I wrote, were full of taste (“hair on their chest,” I noted) yet well balanced. In sum: “Delicious. Not California, not France.”
Indeed, after tasting some very, very fine wines, my biggest takeaway was this: given New Zealand’s combination of good terrain, experienced winemaking and grapes from aging vines (good terrain + more experience + older vines = better wine, in general) are Kiwi winemakers positioned to occupy that sweet middle ground between stuffy, hidebound Old World and brash, braggy New World? Between France and California? Are they building a better wine business on the lessons of their predecessors?
If only I had a crystal ball. In the meantime, I thought I’d continue my research for you by purchasing a couple bottles of New Zealand wine at Walgreens.
Yes, you read correctly. Walgreens. Where our parents would go for a coke or a milkshake or a grilled cheese sandwich at the soda fountain. Where we go today to fill our prescriptions or buy a gallon of milk. If you live in Chicago, the home of Walgreen’s, you may have noticed your local store has gotten a spiffy makeover in recent years. In my town, we even have a L.E.E.D-certified “green” Walgreens (no pun intended) with two real windmills in the parking lot.
Unfortunately, my suburban Walgreen’s hasn’t beefed up its wine selection like the downtown Chicago stores have. So I headed to the flagship store on State and Randolph in the Chicago Loop, where I learned the New Zealand winemakers had made a splash with an in-store tasting while they were in town.
And there, among the “Cupcake Chardonnays” and Franzia boxed wine, I found a whole case of New Zealand bottles (Sauvignon Blanc whites and Pinot Noir reds, mostly) going for just north of $20 each.
Not only did I find the wines, but I had, in marketing speak, a fantastic wine buying experience. The store is airy, modern, sleek. I found the wine section immediately, thanks to nice signage. Jermaine, casually stationed in front of the deli-like wine area (they even sell good cheese), greeted me with a huge smile. With his bow tie and J Crew-ish button-down shirt, Jermaine could be France’s coolest black dude, if he spoke French. Instead, he showed me right to the New Zealand wine section, where I bought a bottle of Sauvignon Blanc white and a bottle of Pinot Noir red made by the winemakers I’d met at the Chicago tasting. See my tasting notes, below.
Kiwis. Wine. Walgreen’s. Imagine that.
A red and a white from Marlborough, New Zealand
Purchased at Walgreen’s on Randolph and State in Chicago
Vavasour Pinot Noir 2011
$19.99 (on sale from $23.49)
I could tell this Pinot Noir was going to have flavor, because it had a limpid, garnet hue. (If Pinot Noirs are pale, they usually taste bad.) The scent reminded me of juicy cherries and it was fresh and lively on the tongue, with a touch of bitterness giving way to mild licorice. This is an honest wine, but not fine like the Vavasour Felix Pinot Noir 2010 I loved at the wine tasting. (The price isn’t the same either; the Felix is over $30.) I’m hopeful for future vintages, though, as the wine I purchased is perhaps from younger vines. However, at around $20, I think this Vavasour is overpriced in its category for now.
Cloudy Bay Sauvignon Blanc 2013
A pale pear hue with slight fizz around the edges hints of a lively taste in this Sauvignon Blanc. The nose is huge, juicy grapefruit and the taste is really dry, with a nice acidity that makes your mouth water. I wouldn’t drink this one alone, but it would be terrific with a creamy fish dish. There’s a long finish turning to peach. I totally enjoyed the Cloudy Bay 2000 vintage at the wine tasting and so I’m guessing this wine will become softer around the edges as it matures. But if you’re going to open this 2013 now, I think you could find an easier drinking Sauvignon Blanc elsewhere that would be lighter on your wallet.