By Rose Murray Brown MW    Published in The Scotsman 14 March 2015

On a small island in the Hauraki Gulf off New Zealand’s North Island, a new winery is pushing the boundaries of the current Kiwi wine frontier. 

This is Ponui Island, a neighbour to the idyllic popular wine island of Waiheke (pictured above), a ferry trip from Auckland harbour.  Ponui is home to just eight people, two sheep farms, 14 acres of vineyards and a resident popular of Jerusalem donkeys.  This is where Man O War Vineyards, owned by the Spencer family, grow their Pinot Gris grapes on vineyards right next to the ocean.  The grapes once picked are then floated on barges across to their winery at the far east end of Waiheke Island.

Man O War Vineyards New Zealand Rose Murray Brown“We like the saline quality – we try to make the most of the sea breezes across our 76 vineyard sites on both of these islands”, says winemaker Duncan McTavish (pictured right), a third generation descendant from Scottish immigrants, who makes Man O War’s unusual off-dry smoky delicately fresh Exiled Pinot Gris.

This is just one example of the lengths Kiwis are now going to experiment and explore their terroir’s potential with other white grapes, than the usual Sauvignon Blanc.  They made their name with Sauvignon Blanc in the late 1980’s and 1990’s across the world – and it is still today very much the ‘cash cow’ grape dominating plantings with 72% of New Zealand’s vineyard area.  But on my recent trip around its ten wine regions, I was keen to discover life beyond ‘sav blanc’, as the Kiwis love to call it.

Esk Valley Vineyards image from Rose Murray BrownAnother North Island winemaker who has had great success with lesser known white grapes is Gordon Russell (pictured) of Esk Valley winery in Hawkes Bay, near Napier on North Island.  Russell works in New Zealand’s oldest cellars still in operation – and he revels in the old open top concrete fermenters which he believes helps him make interesting wines.  His current two stand-out grapes are Verdelho and Chenin Blanc, currently my best value picks from New Zealand.

“In the 1970’s Chenin Blanc was everywhere here, but far too much planted on fertile soils”, says Russell, who focuses on restricting yields on less fertile soils.  Esk Valley Chenin Blanc is deliciously aromatic with zesty juicy Kiwi fruits with a creamy honeyed character.  However, Russell’s current trailblazer is unusual Verdelho.  Pioneer cuttings from Australia were planted in the 1990’s on Hawkes Bay’s Gimblett Gravels.  “It is a poor flowerer and fruit yielder, but blessed with acidity”, says Russell.  His Esk Valley Verdelho has delicious orange citrus and peachy notes: always popular at my own New Zealand tastings and good value too.

In South Island in Marlborough, Nelson, Canterbury and Otago, winemakers are also frantically trying to find the ‘next’ big thing.  Riesling, Gewurztraminer and Gruner Veltliner seem most likely contenders.

Jane Hunter of Hunters Wines by Rose Murray Brown MWJane Hunter (pictured) of Hunters winery in Marlborough, the first to plant Sauvignon Blanc here, now makes one of New Zealand’s best Gewurztraminer.  Her winemaker (nephew Jamie Macdonald) grows this grape in Marlborough in South Island and also in North Island’s easterly Gisborne region. “You need to keep checking Gewurztraminer daily, pick it just as flavour develops and keep the juice clean”, says Macdonald.  Another winery making interesting off-dry Gewurztraminer is Austrian-owned Seifried in Nelson region in the northwest corner of South Island.

During my tour across South Island, I tasted many different styles of Riesling from dry, off dry to sweet.  Best of the off dry Riesling styles came from Kevin Judd of Greywacke and the Donaldson family of Pegasus Bay.  The best sweet dessert style Riesling I tasted was Seifried’s Nelson Sweet Agnes Riesling with its luscious mandarin and apricot flavours.

Kevin Judd of Greywacke“It’s all about chasing ripeness”, says Kevin Judd of Greywacke (pictured) in Marlborough.  “Keep crop levels down, keep acid down and be non-aggressive in the winemaking process”, he says.  His beautifully balanced Greywacke Dry Riesling is deliciously rich rounded juicy with a crisp acid bite in youth, it needs 2 years bottle age to develop succulent honeyed notes.

Of all the white grapes in New Zealand, it was Chardonnay that really impressed me most.  I found four outstanding Chardonnays which would stand scrutiny against many Cote d’Or white burgundies.  The best from North Island were Te Mata Elston Chardonnay from Hawkes Bay and Ata Rangi Craighall Chardonnay from Martinborough.  The best Chardonnays from South Island were Greywacke Chardonnay in Marlborough and Neudorf Moutere Chardonnay from Nelson. 

Of all the regions I visited across North and South Island, it was perhaps Nelson in the northwest corner of South Island that interested me.  It is so overshadowed by its giant neighbour Marlborough, two hours drive to the east, but Nelson really deserves to be far better known for its Chardonnay, Pinot Gris, Gewurztraminer and Rieslings. 


Ponui Island: Man O War Exiled Pinot Gris 2014 (£20.50 New Generation Wines, Oddbins;

Hawkes Bay: Esk Valley Chenin Blanc 2012 (£11-£12 Luvians, Vino, Woodwinters,;

Hawkes Bay: Esk Valley Verdelho 2014 (£11-£12 Luvians, Vino, Woodwinters;;

Greywacke wine tasting with Rose Murray Brown MWGEWURZTRAMINER
Marlborough: Hunters Gewurztraminer 2014 (£15;;; Wine Importers Edinburgh)
Nelson: Seifried Gewurztraminer 2014 (£13

Marlborough: Greywacke Dry Riesling 2013 (£19.99 Drinkmonger, Edinburgh; Exel Wines, Perth; Lockett Bros, N Berwick; Fine Wine Co, Edinburgh)
Canterbury: Pegasus Bay Dry Riesling 2012 (£16.99;
Nelson: Seifried ‘Sweet Agnes’ Riesling 2012 (£16.99 hf bt Waitrose)

Ata Rangi Craighall Chardonnay tasting Rose Murray Brown MWCHARDONNAY
Hawkes Bay: Te Mata Elston Chardonnay 2013 (£22+ Berry Bros & Rudd;
Martinborough: Ata Rangi Craighall Chardonnay 2012 (£30/£35 Majestic Wine;;
Nelson: Neudorf Moutere Chardonnay 2011 (£22-£35 Majestic Wine; Berry Bros & Rudd;
Marlborough: Greywacke Chardonnay 2012 (£29 Exel Wines, Perth; Luvians; Fine Wine Company, Edinburgh)


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