Earlier this year, Huia Vineyards invited me to travel around the world to New Zealand. I prepared for a trip of formal tastings, walks through the vines, conversations about the technical aspects of wine and maybe a little bit of sightseeing.
What I didn’t plan for was a full-immersion experience taking in the beauty and uniqueness of this magical country.
As the plane descended into Auckland following 35 hours of travel, I scanned my jet-lagged brain for what I knew about the islands. Admittedly, my knowledge was limited—mostly it related to hobbits, sheep, extreme sports, Sauvignon Blanc and the country’s proximity to Australia. While these are important cultural references, I quickly realized there’s much more that defines Kiwis and the nation they call home.
The beauty of dramatic mountains, cliff-lined coastlines and green fields dotted with livestock is palpable. But, when you delve into the culture, here’s what you learn:
Everyone (and I mean EVERYONE) wants to know all they can about travelers. Taxi drivers asked where we came from and shared their favorite places to travel. Servers in restaurants wanted to know how we take our coffee at home before offering us their national favorite—a flat white, which I make now every morning. Tour guides let us in on “Lord of the Rings” filming locations and shared their knowledge of every species of plant and bird imaginable.
The town of Blenheim, located on the South Island, is the heart of the Marlborough region. Surrounded by a valley of vines and flanked by two mountain ranges, it’s here that Kiwis produce the crisp, refreshing, grapefruity Sauvignon Blanc we’ve come to know and love.
Just about every winery you encounter produces it and the wine remains the lifeblood of the country—it’s what put New Zealand on the international wine map. But the winemakers who live here, whether native or immigrants who settled after discovering the beauty of the region, know they have more to offer.
There’s a New World sensibility that infuses the wines Kiwis make. They plant Syrah and Pinot Noir, and graft Pinot Gris vines on top of Malbec route stock. They put Gruner Veltliner into oak barrels to age and make bubbles in the traditional champagne method. They experiment and play around and have fun while they do it.
This same element of joie de vivre is present in Kiwis’ everyday lives. They are kind and sharing, with a quirky sense of humor that will crack you up. What you see is what you get, and what you see is goodness and openness embodied in all they do.
So, while I now can speak to how special and rare a Noble Riesling is, I also can say firsthand how delicious it tastes when paired with hokey pokey ice cream, a national favorite: vanilla ice cream with bits of honeycomb toffee.
Kiwi music is fun to listen to but it’s even better when a winemaker is playing it on his guitar before challenging his guests to a game of snooker, cards or dice.
Swimming in a pool is great but it’s even better when it’s a swimming hole just steps from the vines that make the wines you’re going to drink with dinner that evening.
And, while I embarked on this adventure thinking I had to see it all because I would only have one chance to visit New Zealand, I got home and am already counting down the days until I can go back to this magical, beautiful country.
The author is the owner of Vita Vite.