Croatians Make Wine in New Zealand
The following is a long article on wine made in New Zealand which
appeared in the January 14, 2004 edition of the NY Times. It mentions
the key role played by our immigrants in the development of the wine
industry there. John Kraljic
January 14, 2004
The Other Down Under
By R. W. APPLE Jr.
MARTINBOROUGH, New Zealand
FOR generations," said Nigel Elder, a former paratrooper in the British
Army who now tends the vines at Martinborough Vineyard, "we exported our
best produce. We didn't taste it, so we didn't know how good it was."
Well, that's not true anymore, and the evidence was there on the table:
sweet, sensual scallops from Whitianga, a little fishing port on the
Coromandel peninsula, so fresh they threatened to jump off the plate,
showered with basil, coriander and lemon grass; unashamedly wild-tasting
rack of lamb from Hawkes Bay, tender and rosy-red; three New Zealand
cheeses, including Waimata Farmhouse Blue, a tangy, buttery delicacy
that could readily stand comparison with Roquefort or Maytag; and
luscious fig and Arataki honey ice cream.
The setting was an open-fronted cafe called the French Bistro, a
strictly mom and pop operation in this little North Island market town,
where my wife, Betsey, and I were eating lunch with a crowd of wine
people. Wendy Campbell cooks, alone, and her husband, Jim, serves. Yet
everything was based wholly or largely on regional ingredients of the
first order, and the drink was just as local and just as good as the
Such wine-and-food epiphanies are becoming more and more commonplace in
fast-changing present-day New Zealand.
Along with other former British colonies like Canada, Australia and
South Africa, this heart-stoppingly beautiful island nation tolerated
indifferent if not actually inedible cooking for most of the last
century. Many of the half-million people who entered New Zealand between
1861 and 1881 were laborers accustomed to empty bellies in their
European homelands. ("Hunger, the never-ending hunger," one of them
recalled in his journal.) When they had the chance for the first time in
their lives to eat as much as they wanted, they ate roast meat. A great
deal of it.
Old habits do, indeed, die hard. In the year ended in March 2003, the
Meat and Wool Innovation Economic Service estimates, New Zealanders ate
217 pounds of meat apiece. But the gastronomic revolution that
transformed eating in other English-speaking countries in the 1980's and
90's, propelling London, Sydney and Vancouver into the ranks of the
world's most celebrated restaurant cities, has reached far-off New
Zealand at last, and roast mutton no longer rules here.
"The food and wine explosion in this country in the last few years has
been astounding," an accomplished young chef named Alister Brown told
me. "It's amazing how quickly we are catching up with the rest of the
Like most younger Kiwis, Mr. Brown has been shaped by what his
generation calls "the big O. E." - the big Overseas Experience, a
sojourn of a year or more abroad. For him, it included stints of
culinary work or study in Montreal, Vermont, San Diego, Maine and
"We all travel," said Mr. Brown, whose restaurant, Logan Brown, is one
of the pace-setters in Wellington, the capital, which reminded us of
Seattle with its blustery, rainy climate; hilly, waterside location; and
well-developed cafe culture. "What we see and taste, we want to emulate
or improve on when we come back home. We are a very young country, not
stuck in tradition."
(Some wanderers never do come home, like Peter Gordon, who pioneered
Pacific Rim cooking in London while chef at the Sugar Club, and Joel
Kissin, Sir Terence Conran's partner in Guastavino's in New York.)
Whole new industries have sprung up to cater to new tastes. Twenty years
ago, olive trees were all but unknown in New Zealand; now there are 800
olive oil bottlers. Innovators like Rick and Carol Thorpe, who produce
the Waimata blue cheese we admired, have created a cheese-making
tradition almost overnight. Fruit growers have introduced unfamiliar
species - pepino dulce from Chile, for example, with a refreshing,
melony flavor; tart, torpedo-shaped, ruby-colored tamarillos; and
yellow-fleshed Zespri Gold kiwis, a welcome, zingy change from the
overexposed green variety.
Grass-fed beef vies with lamb on restaurant menus, along with gifts from
the seas that gird the country: enormous spiny lobsters from Kaikoura,
whose very name means "food lobster" in the Maori language; meaty paua,
or blackfoot abalone, which graze on seaweed in icy southern waters;
richly flavored green-lipped mussels, now widely farmed; and fat turbot
caught off Milford Sound.
All of this is chronicled for New Zealand food lovers by Cuisine, a
glossy and well-edited magazine that goes to almost 80,000 subscribers
every other month.
THE New Zealand wine revolution started in Marlborough, at the northern
tip of the South Island, in the 1980's. Cloudy Bay sauvignon blanc
stunned the wine world with an unprecedented style - irresistible aroma,
lush mouth-feel, plenty of acidity but suggestions of passion fruit and
litchis rather than the herbaceous flavors more common in sauvignon
blanc produced in other nations.
Less noticed at the time, growers across the Cook Strait in
Martinborough, near the southern tip of the North Island, were
pioneering the cultivation of pinot noir. Their early efforts produced
mostly simple and shallow-flavored vintages, but as the years passed the
wines grew complex, powerful and beautifully perfumed.
Clive Paton of Ata Rangi, whose pinot vines are 24 years old, older than
any others in Martinborough, conceded that years of experimentation lie
ahead for him and his wine-making colleagues. "There's a big learning
curve with this grape," Mr. Paton said as we tasted his wine, which at
its best is ethereal and muscular at the same time.
Yet today New Zealand is gripped by pinot fever. Much of it is too soft
and sweet for my taste, but established winners like Martinborough
Vineyard, Dry River and Ata Rangi, as well as Felton Road Block 3 and
Block 5, have exciting new rivals, among them Mount Edward, Fromm
Clayvin Vineyard and now Escarpment, which is produced by Larry McKenna,
the winemaker responsible for bringing international attention to
One of the finest pinots, reminiscent of great Burgundy, is Dry River,
made in Martinborough by Dr. Neil McCallum, a meticulous,
Oxford-educated chemist who quotes Marx, Hegel and Karl Popper in
tasting notes. He tends his 24 acres like a garden and handcrafts his
concentrated, slow-maturing wine in a winery no bigger than a one-car
garage. It emerges in a mere trickle, however, and only the lucky few on
the allocation list taste it regularly.
That will change. Dry River was bought last year by Julian Robertson,
the New York billionaire, and Reg Oliver, the owner of El Molino, a
pinot producer in the Napa Valley. Besotted with New Zealand, Mr.
Robertson, who formerly ran Tiger Management, a leading hedge fund, has
invested heavily in luxury resorts as well as vineyards here.
Mr. Robertson and Mr. Oliver are not alone. Since 1995, according to one
tabulation, 39 New Zealand wineries have been acquired by Americans.
When I went to see Dr. McCallum last August, he said he would remain as
winemaker under the new ownership, "with everyone dedicated to making
the best wine we can." The injection of new money, he said, would enable
him to buy better winery equipment and put an extra 1.5 to 2 acres into
pinot production. A substantial part of the additional wine, he told me,
would be exported to the United States.
Dr. McCallum believes that getting the maximum amount of sunlight onto
his grapes is one key to the success of his pinot. To that end he uses a
special trellising system to open up the top of the vines and a patented
reflective mulch to bounce light onto the bottoms of the grape clusters.
Martinborough is a curious town, where the streets, seen from above,
form the outline of a Union Jack. It was laid out by John Martin, the
immigrant owner of a sheep station, who named its streets for exotic
places he had enjoyed on his travels - Suez, Strasbourg, Venice, Ohio.
(Ohio? Must have liked football.) The top vineyards are clustered within
walking distance of one another, beneath the "rain shadow" caused by
mountains to the west, which guarantees cool summers and long, dry
ANOTHER influence on Martinborough wines is the cooling winds from
nearby Cape Palliser. This is an area of scenic grandeur as well as
agricultural bounty, a clean, green and serene slice of New Zealand. We
stayed during our Martinborough visit at Wharekauhau, a fabulous (and
fabulously expensive) inn 45 minutes away. Under pink clouds at dusk, it
made an unforgettable impression, sheltering under mist-clad triple
headlands, with huge, roly-poly sheep and shaggy cows munching on lush
grass in the foreground and black sand beaches and pale blue sea just
"It feels like springtime every day of your life," a young waiter said.
The inn fed us well, notably an unctuous risotto with rabbit, wild
mushrooms and marjoram, and sorely tempted us with an 800-bin wine
cellar. But the best food in the region lay down the road in Wellington.
Logan Brown, under Mr. Brown and his partner, Stephen Logan, occupies a
converted 1920's banking chamber with giant Corinthian pilasters,
polished wooden floors and dark green banquettes, improbably located in
a Southern Hemisphere red-light district. Mr. Brown fashions flavors
untroubled by shyness in his roasted garlic and thyme custard, Stilton
and pumpkin dumplings, and plenty-spicy grilled squid and chorizo. He
makes delectable ravioli with paua and spikes them with a lime beurre
blanc. The quality is as dependable as the tides.
Most Kiwi chefs steer clear of the kind of overexcited eclecticism that
some Australian chefs favor - fusion cooking that can be sublime or
silly, most often the latter. (Even Neil Perry, the genius at Rockpool
in Sydney, sometimes crosses the line and serves a dish made up, for
example, of Korean, Cantonese, French and Malaysian elements.) Mr. Brown
makes a dandy Keralan fish stew with grouper and citrus juice, but
that's as close as he sails to Asia.
His first love is game. The night we stopped for dinner, with former
Prime Minister James Bolger and two young New Zealand friends of his and
ours, Mr. Brown was featuring loins of farmed Cervena deer,
porcini-rubbed fillets of wild hare (shot by government-licensed hunters
as part of a campaign to reduce overpopulation) and a deep-flavored wild
boar pie with cranberry relish, which thrilled me, a pig-fancier from
way back, every bit as much as a hot fudge sundae thrills a 7-year-old.
It was ideal food for a cold night and an ideal match with the feral
flavors of a good, mature New Zealand pinot noir.
The next morning, we made straight for Te Papa Tongarewa, the
glistening, ultramodern national museum (its name means "place where
treasured things are kept"). Our target was the Maori exhibits, but the
museum plugged holes in our food and wine knowledge as well.We learned
of the key role Croatian immigrants have played in the wine industry
here; the Brajkovich clan has made top-quality wines near Auckland since
1944, under the name Kumeu River, and the matriarch of the Babich
family, a competitor, was named Mara Grgic - a relative, no doubt, of
Napa's Mike Grgich. We also learned that kumara, the ubiquitous New
Zealand yam, was brought in open boats by the ancient, intrepid
Polynesian settlers from South America.
More good luck: the museum's restaurant, Icon, with 30-foot windows
overlooking the harbor, capped our morning with the most tempting lunch
we could have asked for, including steely, ice-cold Clevedon oysters,
needing nothing but a turn of pepper, and a close-grained rump of baby
lamb with a flavor full of bass notes, wrapped in pandanus leaf and
roasted over thyme.
ON the way to Auckland, in the northern part of the South Island, we
stopped to see Napier, a seaside city flattened by an earthquake in 1931
and completely rebuilt in an Art Deco style. It is as architecturally
homogeneous, in its way, as Georgian Bath.
Napier's hinterland, which goes by the name Hawkes Bay, is another of
New Zealand's wine hot spots, specializing not in pinot noir but in
other red and white wines. We were late for lunch (bull blocking
highway, unplanned pit stop, poor road signs) at Craggy Range, a
gorgeous spread owned by an Australia-based American tycoon, Terry
Peabody. But the vineyard restaurant, Terrôir, with David Griffiths in
the kitchen and Prue Barton in the drum-shaped dining room, reprising
their success at Vinnies in Auckland, welcomed us anyway.
Memories of our fraught arrival faded quickly after wood-roasted garlic
spread on house-baked sourdough bread, garlicky fish soup, and chicken
cooked in the open fireplace, with a glass of sunny Te Muna block
sauvignon blanc and another of the Quarry, a well-stuffed Bordeaux-style
blend. All of Craggy Range's bottlings are the products of single
vineyards, made under the watchful eye of Steve Smith, one of the
country's premier authorities on wine.
Craggy Range is the new kid on the block; Te Mata, just up the road,
opened in 1896 and gained a new lease on life starting in 1978 under
John Buck, its jolly chairman. Its Coleraine cabernet/merlot, a subtle,
nutty, spicy and always harmonious blend, has a reputation unequaled in
In a single decade, Mr. Buck said, he has watched his country's wine
industry grow from 100 to 350 producers, most of them making less than
10,000 cases a year (his own makes 25,000). Size constraints, he added,
mean New Zealand will "never be a major world player," but prices for
vineyard land keep climbing, propelled mainly by a tidal wave of
"It's going to have to hit the wall sometime," he said, "and I suspect
that the time may come soon."
And so up the Esk Valley, past rhododendrons the size of Mount Rushmore,
and on to Auckland, a city arrayed above a harbor (home port to the
America's Cup fleet in 1999 and 2003) as lovely as Sydney's far
better-known one. Home to more than 1.2 million people, a third of the
national total, greater Auckland is fast developing a broad range of
restaurants. Few are fancy - "New Zealand doesn't do posh," someone told
me - but some of them are memorable.
Who could forget the snazzy Auckland Hilton, jutting into the harbor
like a cruise ship, and its restaurant, White? Launched by Luke Mangan,
the Sydney superchef, it now showcases the cosmopolitan cooking of Geoff
Scott. We liked his tempura-fried oysters; his locally grown white
asparagus, with fat, pink finials, dusted with parmesan; his al dente
pasta with cockles and pipis, a local mollusk, in a sage-infused broth;
and his orange tartlet with confit oranges and tamarillos and crčme
fraîche. Too bad about the service.
The food at the French Cafe, a favorite hangout of our luncheon
companion, Lauraine Jacobs, and other members of the Cuisine staff,
spoke more Italian than French. Its best idea, I thought, was English -
another game pie, this one made with duck, spinach and mushrooms. The
food at Soul, overlooking the yacht basin, ranges beguilingly across the
Middle East, from Turkish phyllo packets, or burek, to quails stuffed
with Moroccan sausage and roasted in vine leaves. But langoustines are
Soul's crown jewels. Judith Tabron, the savvy owner, sources them from a
fisherman friend who pulls them from the frigid seas around the Chatham
Islands. Cooked briefly and served with lemon for squeezing, they look
stunning and taste sublime.
If we could have stuffed the O'Connell Street Bistro into our luggage
and brought it back to the States, we would have. You start smiling the
instant you sit down. The floors are bare, the menu is plain and the 12
tables are covered with paper. The effort goes into dishes like fried
squid, as crisp as cornflakes; mussels in their pearly shells, steamed
in white wine with plump caperberries; and prime lamb and beef from the
Cambrian stud near the Bay of Plenty.
A delight to eat, every single dish, as were guiltily satisfying
versions of sticky toffee pudding and St. Emilion au chocolat, a pair of
great English desserts developed by a pair of great English chefs of the
1970's, George Perry-Smith and Francis Coulson.
As a final flourish, we took a boat ride out to Waiheke Island, just
beyond the harbor in Hauraki Gulf, where several of New Zealand's cult
reds are produced, including a Bordeaux-style blend from Tony Forsyth's
Te Whau vineyard. Atop Te Whau's steep, north-facing grape slopes is
perched an award-winning restaurant of Corbusier-inspired design. It
serves mouth-watering hot-smoked salmon, among other items, and offers
more than 600 wines, including every big New Zealand name and multiple
vintages of the French first growths.
As the shadows lengthened, we ate some oysters with the hospitable Mr.
Forsyth, a former management consultant, tasted a lot of wines and gazed
back at the towers of Auckland, shimmering in the distance like a
mirage. Then, to our surprise, he announced that he had a helicopter
waiting. It whisked us across the waves, over islets and bridges and
back to Xanadu in 10 minutes.