It’s New Zealand, but forget The Lord of the Rings: We came for the sauvignon blanc.
One-upmanship about travel: It’s a staple of the Aspen dinner party. Perhaps you’re conquering space, the final frontier, on Richard Branson’s Galactic journey to the moon, or you’re headed off for a week in the Virgins because, sigh, you overbid on the trip at a nonprofit benefit auction. Or—don’t even think about topping this one—you were invited to stay at the private guesthouse at Cloudy Bay Vineyards (cloudybay.co.nz).
To stay right in a vineyard imparts a certain charm, especially during the harvest. A glass of Pelorus, a sparkling wine available in New Zealand (and a few other countries—like Australia and Japan—but not in the U.S. or Canada), is the first thing in our hand when we arrive at the Cloudy Bay guesthouse, called The Shack. On this site once stood an old A-frame that was home to winery founder David Hohnen. Ian Morden, the estate director, whom I had met in New York at a Cloudy Bay dinner last September, was on the job only four months when the old shack burned to the ground in 2009. He commissioned noted New Zealand architects Tim Greer and Paul Rolfe to design a new structure, endearingly called The Shack, though it’s hip and cool, and hardly a shack.
And what would one expect from a brand now owned by Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton? The vineyard retreat is a verandalike space on the ground floor that slowly draws the eye outside, in an act of discovery, to the Richmond Ranges and receding rows of vines. Its iron exterior references local rusted steel sheds and weathered timber, and the interior is clad in earthy plywood and has granite walls. The design is understated in that informal New Zealand kind of way; every touch is stylish, but also so laid-back. The Marlborough landscape—all blues and greens, fog and misty light—influences the motifs of the bedrooms. Mine, the River Room, is serene with stony-gray tones and an eastern exposure. From the bedrooms upstairs, one descends to the open space living/dining area. An eccentric looking Gyrofocus revolving fireplace hangs from the ceiling. The furniture is very retro: leather sofas beg to be plopped into; a bold dining table shimmers in a recycled pearly green copper; and, overhead, hang witty lamps in white, brown and clear glass that look like pill capsules. On the back wall, a painting commissioned for the launch of Cloudy Bay’s Sauvignon Blanc 2011 anchors the room.
Cloudy Bay has been called groundbreaking and revolutionary for the first sauvignon blanc that it produced in 1985 in New Zealand’s Marlborough region. Wine critic Oz Clarke described how Marlborough’s sauvignon blanc shook up the wine world when it was first introduced: “No previous wine had shocked, thrilled, entranced the world before with such brash, unexpected flavors of gooseberries, passionfruit and lime, or crunchy green asparagus spears… an entirely new, brilliantly successful wine style that the rest of the world has been attempting to copy ever since.”
Up until the 1980s the sauvignon blanc that most wine-lovers drank came from France’s Loire Valley; New Zealand offered something quite different. Cloudy Bay, one of the oldest names in sunny Marlborough on the South Island, turned the attention of the global wine community to New Zealand. It’s a celebrity, in part, because it is a brand; it brought a distinct taste profile onto the international scene. Hohnen was not the first to recognize the potential of the grape in what is now arguably the country’s most important appellation for quality wine, but, when he founded the winery, it was one of only a handful of small producers.
I had my first glass of Cloudy Bay a couple years ago with yellowtail jalapeno sashimi at Aspen’s Matsuhisa (matsuhisaaspen.com), which continues to serve it by the glass. Another day, I found myself choosing it over a Chablis at Ajax Tavern (ajaxtavernaspen.com). It’s a coup for a winery to make it to a top restaurant’s list of wines by the glass, so I asked highly respected Master Sommelier Sabato Sagaria, who oversees Ajax Tavern’s and The Little Nell’s (thelittlenell.com) prestigious lists, how he made his choice: “For me, Cloudy Bay is the quintessential New Zealand sauvignon blanc. It is delicious on its own, as well as with food. We serve a lot of oysters at Ajax. It is the ultimate oyster wine, with all those bright, zippy, lime characteristics, which is why it has been a staple on Ajax Tavern’s by-the-glass menu.”
Our first evening in New Zealand, I enjoy a knockout dish that embodies the South Island experience: local and seasonal products, cooked simply. A paella—with big green-lipped mussels, clams, scallops and a kick from wild boar sausage—is paired with both a sauvignon blanc (2012) and a pinot noir (2010); they both make for perfect drinking with the flavors. Then comes the luscious late harvest 2007 riesling, served with a light lemon posset with local figs. I am happy to discover that a few bottles of this delicious dessert wine are available back home.
At dinner that night, discussion centers on the weather and what grapes will get picked when. Winemakers, it seems, are like “grape whisperers,” with an uncanny sense of just the right time to pick each grape. And, lo and behold, we finish dinner when we get the call. With a glint in his eye, Morden announces, “Time to pick the sauvignon blanc grapes.” We pile into an SUV with Morden and Senior Winemaker Tim Heath.
Around 11pm, we pull into the vineyards. The air is filled with the fragrance of grapes. From pickup trucks that have rushed to the scene, men emerge in shorts, boots and headlamps, and mill about. Grapes are picked in the cool of night to preserve their freshness and bright acidity. I climb a steep ladder up into the cabin of the harvester. A young man named Sam is intensely focused as he precisely steers the big machine up and down the precious rows. The harvester shakes the vines briskly to throw the ripe fruits into a collection vat, while the entire stem system, like a “grape bunch skeleton” stays attached to the vine. Shaking the grapes from the stems creates a small hole in each grape where it was once attached to the bunch. In the collection vat, a drop of juice seeps out of this hole in each grape to create a slush. Here, I learn, the juices start to ferment, interacting with the skin on the outside of the grape and gaining complexity. While there are reasons to handpick some grapes, and the idea of handpicking has cachet, this interaction, I learn from Heath, would not happen if the grapes were picked off in whole bunches. “In this case, machines are better than hands,” says Heath. The machine method, he explains, is a vital part of the signature flavor of a premium Marlborough sauvignon blanc.
The day after our evening adventure, we head to the wine-tasting rooms—here called cellar doors—to do a sniff, sip and spit with Heath. We start with Cloudy Bay’s current-release 2012 Sauvignon Blanc. The wine has a lovely focus, with subdued grapefruit and tropical fruit notes with a balanced acidity. “It was the coldest harvest on record, so it was a low-yielding harvest, down by about 25 percent,” says Heath. “But it was a blessing in disguise. The fruit that did flower and survive the cold conditions was incredibly high-quality and concentrated.”
For me, the standout is the Te Koko Sauvignon Blanc. When first released in 1996, it was a statement wine, complex and distinct, fermented in oak instead of the usual stainless steel. The 2010 is elegant; the 2009 rich and ripe. “We’ve decreased the amount of new oak from 10 percent to 8 percent,” said Heath, “which has been quite positive.” Another happy discovery is the new Te Wahi Pinot Noir 2010, sourced with grapes from three vineyards (one of which is organic) in the warm and dry Otago area south of here near Queenstown. The Otago Pinot is aromatically different from its Marlborough counterparts, with a darker fruit expression. Pinot noir says so much about place, and the Otago definitely has its own delicious story to tell.
After a stay in what feels like your own private vineyard, the return to normal life is, alas, a sad letdown, especially leaving the hippest, coolest, most unshacklike Shack on the planet.
Another Kiwi Adventure
First of all, this farm is not just a farm, any more than The Shack at Cloudy Bay is an actual shack. But, best of all, wine aficionados don’t need a special invitation to stay here, and stay here you should.
The twisty road up to The Farm at Cape Kidnappers (capekidnappers.com) winds past pine-forested hills. Along the way we pass caution signs with an unexpected graphic: Watch out for kiwi crossings. Until now, we joke, we thought a kiwi was either a handsome ski instructor on Aspen Mountain or a fruit, forgetting about the endangered kiwi birds, the national symbol of New Zealand. The forest is filled with hidden wildlife, we learn.
The Farm is part of a portfolio of top-end luxury lodges, including Kauri Cliffs (kauricliffs.com) and Matakauri Lodge (matakauri.co.nz), owned by Wall Street hedge fund magnate Julian Robertson. It’s located in Hawke’s Bay—one of New Zealand’s oldest winemaking regions—on the East Coast of the North Island, and just a short flight from Auckland.
The Farm stands in splendid solitude on 6,000 acres—a former sheep and cattle farm. The modern building is all weathered wood and stone.
The grounds may be filled with wildlife, but the hotel is refined in a comfortable, low-key way. Inside, the feeling is a pure escape-to-the-country getaway, with interiors by none other than Aspen-based designer Linda Bedell. The main lodge has soaring ceilings and walls of glass windows. There are roaring fireplaces surrounded by leather chairs and comfy couches to sink into while sipping a glass of the area’s wines from outstanding labels, like Craggy Range and Te Awa. Once inside your room (there are several attached to the lodge, plus 18 sweet suites dotted around the grounds), it’s pure bliss. As you flop out, you have a sense that the whole property is all yours, thanks to private balconies that overlook the rolling grounds and the Pacific Ocean beyond. Nice little touches, like complimentary minibars, and homemade brownies and chocolate chip cookies every day, warm the traveler’s heart.
We eat remarkably well here. The dishes show the chef’s range, especially with Asian tilts inspired by his stints in Japan. We love the amuse-bouches, especially a perfect tempura spinach and a bite of sliced duck with banana relish. We feast on fresh catches: local snapper, grouper and turbot, all washed down with good local wines from The Farm’s endless wine list. In the daytime, the glass-lined dining room is perfect for a leisurely breakfast or lunch.
Most of the guests, it seems, are golf cognoscenti; the 18-hole course is reputed to be challenging and exciting for the Gulfstream and Learjet sets. But for those not on the links, the grounds are also wonderful for walking and mountain biking.
The Farm is nestled within the Cape Sanctuary wildlife preserve, where naturalists restore and conserve endangered sea and land birds, and reptiles. The Farm has its own programs for re-establishing endangered wildlife, and guests can enjoy fascinating birding tours.
One day we go with a naturalist in pursuit of the elusive kiwi, known for its tricks of camouflage. The birds are hatched in captivity, then released here. Since the kiwi is flightless and often killed by predators when young, the sanctuary, we learn, has an aggressive predator control program. We follow the beeps from a radio transmitter—first strong, then fading away. As it beeps again, we walk down a hillside and see a plant-covered hole. Our guide puts his hand in the dark space and pulls out this brown furry wonder with a long beige beak. All of a sudden I find myself holding it, my hand firmly gripping its sharp-clawed feet. We take iPhone photos, of course, amazed at the creature’s calm. The moment doesn’t last long, but the memory will. The guide places the vulnerable kiwi back in its burrow, throwing in a handful of grubs as a thank-you.
Another morning, we don helmets and meander on ATV quad bikes over a hilly, narrow dirt track across the farm. Sheep and cattle dot the landscape. As we roll to a stop, we find ourselves at the headlands of the southeasterly end of Hawke’s Bay. Steep white cliffs drop dramatically into the Pacific below. Captain James Cook discovered the area in 1769, and it’s stunning. We head down a steep path to the Black Reef Gannet Colony. Awaiting us is an eye-popping breeding site that looks like a blizzard of white feathers. The birds extend all the way out to large rocks in the ocean below. We are in awe.
Then it’s back on the bikes to the farm, hungry for a feast of local duck and lamb, paired with one of the area’s delicious reds. With days like this, one gets the sense that life is indeed good, or, as the New Zealanders say, “she’ll be right.”