Oyster Bay’s new winery is just visible – photo by Tim Pawsey

Why Kiwis are closer to home than you think …

With the Vancouver Playhouse International Wine Festival upon us, the city’s wine focus will be firmly on New Zealand (along with co-theme region Argentina).

Vancouverites might ponder a few salient facts and similarities that make this far-flung friendly neighbour much closer than you might at first think.

About one third the size of BC, with 4.3 million people, New Zealand’s population is just below our own 4.4 million, with much of the settlement in maritime regions ringed by significant mountain ranges.

Like the Okanagan Valley (except on a far larger scale) the country’s wine regions are aligned longitudinally over 1,500 km., providing a diversity of growing conditions and a range of contrasting terroirs.

Similar to BC, Kiwis enjoy a multi-cultural society, which also respects its indigenous Maori native peoples (who are, however, far more embraced and active within the society than are our own).

Allan Scott pepperonata - Tim Pawsey photo

New Zealand’s sophisticated culinary scene revolves (not surprisingly) around lamb, as well as celebrating an abundance of fresh seafood, including the ubiquitous Green Lip mussel, prepared any number of ways.  Marlborough’s Allan Scott features the mollusks ‘pepperonata’ style, in a tasty tangle of chorizo, shallots, garlic, chilli and figs—which just happens to match perfectly the winery’s gently leesy, citrus toned sparkling Blanc de Blancs.

Regardless of varietal, Kiwi wines are defined by their clean, fruit-forward style, often underpinned by a juicy acidity that without exception makes them ideal food partners.

While Sauvignon Blanc—57% of the 2009 vintage (that generally shows better than 08)—continues to be a powerhouse, especially from Marlborough, it’s far from monolithic: Pinot Gris is on the rise, as is Pinot Noir, both especially in the inland South Island Central Otago Valley.

Central Otago bears a striking similarity to BC's Okanagan Valley - Tim Pawsey photo

Here, in parts, the landscape bears striking resemblance to the Okanagan and Similkameen Valleys. Riesling plantings are showing great potential (as well as in Marlborough and Nelson), here often with zingy mineral streaks.

Chardonnay too is widely explored, expressing crisper, flintier styles in the south, to more tropical, stone fruit notes in the warmer north.

On the North Island, Hawke’s Bay Syrah is on the rise and no surprise: it’s a more food friendly, less extracted style of New World Shiraz that often shows up with a peppery streak and stony hint of its often gravelly terroir, that’s fast becoming a worldbeater.

One more New Zealand vital statistic: the number of vines planted in the ground has now surpassed the number of sheep on the ground—an impressive figure, even more so if you’re a fan of New Zealand lamb and Pinot Noir.

New Zealand is more than set to make its mark.

Meanwhile, a few easy to find wines to get you in the mood…

• Jackson Estate Sauvignon Blanc (Marlborough) 2009. Lively and fresh lifted tropical and citrus notes combine for intense, focused fruit on the palate, with a lingering, zesty close. Match it with sautéed scallops with beurre blanc. BCLS/EW $19.99

• Crossroads Sauvignon Blanc (Marlborough) 2009.  Classic gooseberry and tropical notes on top with a palate of grapefruit and citrus notes, juicy, racy acidity and good length to a clean close. Think halibut with lemon caper sauce. BCLS $19.99

• Allan Scott Chardonnay (Marlborough) 2008.  Vanilla and buttery oak notes on the nose, with a palate of ripe stonefruit and creaminess, good mouthfeel and acidity with hints of oak to close. Everything Wine $25.99

• Mount Riley Pinot Noir (Marlborough) 2008. Medium bodied, fresh, red berry and cherry top, with good varietal profile, approachable silky tannins, some earthy and spice notes to close. Try it with barbecued lamb chops or pasta.  BCLS $24.99

(Edited from previously published material)