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Cloudy Bay vineyards set against the Richmond mountain range in New Zealand (Photograph courtesy Cloudy Bay)

High on Wine in New Zealand

I love New Zealand: small, manageable, mountainous, trout-dense, agricultural, hospitable.

I took part in an extraordinary blind tasting here of Pinot Noirs from four continents, and the good news for everybody (except maybe the Burgundians) is that New Zealand’s lot surpassed most of the other wines on offer and, at the very least, held its own with the fabled Clos de Vougeot.

If Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, filmed in New Zealand, were real it would still take place here because no other place has so much natural enchantment. But the ring wraiths would be searching for grape clones instead of the gold ring, and Frodo would be uncorking a 2010 vintage Pinot Noir and not sweating the small stuff.

Americans should know that Kiwi Pinot Noirs cost half as much, at most, as the French ones and are significantly more consistent. In short, you know what you’re getting with a Pinot, a notoriously tricky varietal, from New Zealand –and the one you choose is likely to be rich, nuanced, and lasting.

This wasn’t a competitive tasting, but inevitably comparisons were made–and the delight over down-under viticulture was discernible.

I was struck by the earthy power of the Te Wahi (“The Place” in Maori), a new release from Cloudy Bay Vineyards described on the company’s website as “deep color, closed nose but mouth-filling, with round dark fruit flavors.” It costs $75 a bottle, more than Cloudy Bay’s other excellent Pinot but half the cost of, say, the Chateau de la Tour Clos Vougeot, also a wonderful wine with great aromatics and a similarly bright finish.

Among the surprises in this tasting, the fifth such annual event held at Cloudy Bay Vineyards outside the town of Blenheim, were Pinots from fellow Kiwi producer Kusuda ($50), a luscious, mouth-filling wine with dark fruit flavors; a bricky, complex offering from Australian Bass Phillip (only $18); and Foxtrot ($70), a plummy offering from British Columbia that’s built to last.

The tasting concluded with a mere four-hour lunch overlooking Cloudy Bay’s vineyards and a smidgen of New Zealand’s Southern Alps among tablemates who included one of Cloudy Bay’s clearly talented winemakers, Nick Blampied-Lane. Lobster, lamb, a crisp blood pudding, fermented garlic sauce, and puree of spinach were all prepared by Des Harris of Clooney restaurant in Auckland, who is a great rarity–a fine and also modest chef.

All those bottles mentioned above were left open for our continued sampling while a band played and the concerns of the world hung far out there beyond snow-dusted peaks and white lambs contentedly nibbling weeds between the patient vines.

James Conaway is a featured contributor for Intelligent Travel and writes for other publications devoted to travel, history, and culture. Read more from James on his wine blog and check out his latest book, Nose.