There is no more sublime way to travel than in a hot-air balloon, I thought, as we drifted towards the town of Martinborough, on New Zealand's North Island. But to the sheep munching weeds in the vineyard below, the appearance of this monster was the signal to scatter in panic.
A decade or two ago, there would have been no vines in view, only sheep, but the arrival of New Zealand wines on the world stage has transformed the district. As we glided above the town, laid out in the shape of a Union Jack by Sir John Martin in Victorian times, we skimmed the roof of the Martinborough Hotel, where we had eaten sumptuously and tasted one fine local wine after another the night before.
"This hotel was nothing but a boozer for sheep shearers not so long ago," one of our hosts told me. "There was a fight every Saturday night." Not any more. After the stunning international success of sauvignon blanc wines from Marlborough, at the northern end of the South Island, the search was on for the next perfect blend of climate, soil and grape variety.
Here in the Wairarapa district, with Martinborough at its heart, they believe they have found the ideal home for pinot noir, the grape that makes all Burgundy's finest wines. Further north in Hawkes Bay, New Zealand's oldest wine region, they are even more presumptuous: they reckon they can produce blends of cabernet sauvignon and merlot to rival the best from Bordeaux.
French winemakers might not need to worry were it not for global warming, which could in a decade or two make Bordeaux and Burgundy too hot for their classic grape varieties, according to some experts. They add that New Zealand, surrounded by cooling ocean, will escape the worst effects. Having been knocked sideways by my first bottle of New Zealand pinot noir, I decided to investigate.
So many foreign pilgrims are coming in search of the source of their favourite wines that a "wine trail" has been created. It begins in Napier, the Art Deco capital of the Hawkes Bay region, and passes through Martinborough to Wellington, where you take a plane or ferry across the Cook
Strait to finish up in Blenheim, the main town in the Marlborough area. Last April, the day after flying in from the other side of the world, my wife and I were on bicycles, exploring the Gimblett Gravels, an area of Hawkes Bay whose terroir is considered particularly conducive to producing the best wines.
The roads were as ruler straight as the rows of vines on either side, but there seemed to be a war going on, judging by the constant crackle of what sounded like small-arms fire. It was only when we stopped at our first winery, Ngatarawa, that we discovered the reason: with the harvest imminent, all the noise was needed to keep the local birdlife away from the grapes. That also explained the nets shrouding many of the rows, but why were there giant propellers looming over so many vineyards? In winter, it turned out, they stir the air to prevent frost damage.
It was already becoming clear that in New Zealand, unlike some other wine-producing countries, there is no preciousness about how the stuff is produced. What counts is how it tastes, and if that requires techniques such as irrigation – anathema to the French appellation producer – so be it. There is a refreshing informality at the vineyard tasting and sales outlets, known here as "cellar doors". Joyce Ver-hoeven of Alpha Domus invited us to try their 2002 sémillon, and asked what we made of its bouquet. "I call it 'teenage boy's bedroom'," she said – and she was right.
Jenny Dobson, the winemaker at Te Awa, worked for 13 years in Bordeaux before returning in 1996. She seemed to be the ideal person to comment on the global warming theory. "A bit more heat could only benefit the Bordeaux varieties in Hawkes Bay," she said, "but the weather is getting more extreme here as well, with frosts, droughts, and rain when you don't expect it." Outside, though, her grapes were warming in benign autumn sunshine. It looked as if the 2008 vintage was coming along nicely.
Te Awa is American owned and the constant jet-setting of investors and winemakers around the world has brought an aura of international sophistication to New Zealand's wine-growing areas. Next to the Martinborough Hotel, which has been restored to its Victorian splendour, are smart restaurants serving Pacific fusion cuisine and cafés which can satisfy the most neurotic New York moccachino addict, but the town is still small enough to have vineyards within its boundaries, and the bottling plant is on the central square.
When we reached Marlborough, the powerhouse of the New Zealand wine industry, our guide was Peter Blackmore, a down-to-earth former tomato grower with no time for any pretensions about the noble grape. "Grapes are a weed," he told us as we looked at some of the vines destined to produce Montana wine. "It's virtually impossible to kill the plant." As we explored leading vineyards such as the all-organic Seresin and neighbouring Highfield, where the farm buildings are modelled on a Tuscan village, we learnt a great deal more about the transition from vine to bottle.
The paradoxical thing about winemaking, it seems, is that the harder you make the vines work, the better the result. Plant them in rich soil and a mild climate, and the wine will be one-dimensional and overpoweringly fruity – "jammy", in the terminology of the trade. Plant your vines in the gravel of an old riverbed, where water drains away so fast that the plant has to send down roots 30 feet or more to find moisture, subject them to scorching days and chilly nights in the ripening season, and you could have a classic. Some of New Zealand's best wines, Peter told us, came from waste ground previously considered "no good even for sheep".
The wine trail misses out most of the spectacular scenery that draws many visitors to the country, but on our final day we cruised the beautiful Queen Charlotte Sound at the top of the South Island, stopping for lunch at the self-explanatory Bay of Many Coves Resort. The memory of sipping Cloudy Bay sauvignon blanc by the pristine water's edge sustained us through the long journey home.
We returned with a wealth of oenological knowledge, and expensive tastes. Sadly, New Zealand wine will never be cheap, due to the distance it has to travel, and the scarcity of labour on the far side of the world. But such is the country's reputation for quality that new wine-growing areas are being opened up. Vineyards on an island near Auckland are getting rave reviews, and the regions inland from Christchurch are demonstrating their potential. Some day I hope to hit the wine trail again, only this time I would want to start much further north, and finish way down south.
TOP 10 TASTES
1. Schubert Cabernet Sauvignon/Merlot 2003, Martinborough.
Bordeaux-style blend to match best from Médoc.
2. Murdoch James Blue Rock Pinot Noir 2004, Martinborough.
Could rival all but best Burgundy wines.
3. Te Awa Zone 6 Gimblett Gravels Merlot Cabernet 2003, Hawkes Bay.
Muscular blend with a tiny bit of cabernet franc.
4. Allan Scott Chardonnay 2007, Marlborough.
Oaked "but not church pew", says the maker.
5. Gladstone Pinot Noir 2006, Wairarapa.
I'd like to see this in a blind tasting with the best of Burgundy.
6. Grove Mill Pinot Gris 2006, Marlborough.
A fine example of what's seen as the coming grape.
7. Martinborough Vineyard Pinot Noir 2004, Martinborough.
Cool year, late harvest. Very French in style.
8. Martinborough Vineyard Te Tera Pinot Noir, 2006, Martinborough.
Te Tera means "the other", and this is spicier and less fruity than its stablemate.
9. Trinity Hill Gimblett Gravels Merlot 2004, Hawkes Bay.
All the fruit, all the tannin, even a hint of slate.
10. Cloudy Bay Sauvignon Blanc 2006, Marlborough.
New Zealand's breakthrough wine, still hard to beat. RW
In no particular ranking. Sadly, not all available here
How to get there
Raymond Whitaker was a guest of Tourism New Zealand ( newzealand.com ). He flew with Air New Zealand (0800 028 4149; airnewzealand.com ), which flies twice daily from London Heathrow via Los Angeles or Hong Kong to New Zealand from £878 return until 30 November.
Esther’s Place, Napier ( esthersplace.co.nz ) costs from NZ$500 (£187) a night.
Parehua Country Estate, Martinborough ( parehua.co.nz ) offers suites from NZ$320 a night.
Maison Grange, Blenheim, Marlborough ( maisongrange.co.nz ) costs from NZ$500 a night.
The Classic New Zealand Wine Trail (http:// bit.ly/FhbH ) is a self-drive route linking the wine-growing areas of Hawkes Bay, Wairarapa and Marlborough. Car rental was arranged by Budget Rent a Car (00 64 9 529 7784; budget.co.nz ), starting at NZ$66 per day.
Cycle round the vineyards of the Ngatarawa area onyerbikehb.co.nz
Learn about Maori history and culture at Waimarama maoricultureandheritage.co.nz
Mission Estate is New Zealand’s oldest winery missionestate.co.nz /
Other Hawkes Bay wineries:
The Martinborough Hotel, pure Victoriana on the central square www.martinboroughhotel.co.nz/
Wendy Campbell’s French Bistro is an award-winner www.wairarapanz.com/?q=node/577
Peter Blackmore runs deVine Tours, combining vineyard visits and his irreverent commentary www.devinetoursmarlborough.co.nz
Cougar Line www.cougarline.co.nz cruises the Marlborough Sounds, stopping at the Bay of Many Coves Resort
Allan Scott’s winery and restaurant is across the road from the legendary Cloudy Bay vineyard www.allanscott.com
Other Marlborough wineries: