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Paradise of the Pacific

New Zealand’s wines come into their own, with The Crossings leading the way
wineIn wine-making years, New Zealand is a mere youngster. It wasn’t until the 1990s that the picturesque, sheep-saturated country (sheep outnumber humans tenfold) received worldwide acclaim for its distinctive sauvignon blanc. Today, the Pacific Rim nation boasts 10 major wine-growing regions and more than 500 wineries. While the number one varietal remains sauvignon blanc, and the grape with which New Zealand is most strongly identified, there are fine examples of chardonnay, pinot noir and riesling being produced as well.
I recently attended an intriguing tasting, one that paired a variety of wines from New Zealand’s The Crossings and California’s Geyser Peak with an interesting and tasty selection of raw oysters from around the U.S. In addition to experiencing some truly succulent bivalves and discovering that New Zealand pinot noir is a great match with certain types of oysters, I had the chance to chat with Matt Mitchell, the winemaker for The Crossings, which is located in the famous Marlborough region. He talked about his winemaking philosophy, the 2010 vintage and the wine glory in which his homeland is currently basking.
When did you decide to become a winemaker?
I was pretty young, about 16 or 17, and I sat down not knowing what I really wanted to do. I did some research and the technology thing really stood out. Then once I targeted on that, the concept of making wine appealed to me. It wasn’t out of any kind of fabulous tasting experience. I think for me it is about the process. The wine part I’ve learned to love and appreciate, but I really get the whole process and that’s what excites me. If you taste a grape, there is really not much flavor, but once you add the oak and other elements, then it all comes to life. There’s a tactile sensation that comes into play and that’s the magic of what we do.
What excites you about making wine in New Zealand?
One of the things I particularly love about making wine, especially New Zealand wine, is that no two vintages are alike, so there are always new challenges. The wines are enormously different from year to year, but my responsibility is to embrace that and not to denigrate the differences. New Zealand wines seem to have come into their own within the last 10 or 15 years, and they have certainly gown in popularity.
To what do you attribute the country’s wine-making success?
It started with sauvignon blanc, so the “why” is really the amazing distinctiveness of what we do in New Zealand. To establish a worldwide benchmark for a variety is truly astonishing. I guess we were both clever and fortunate that the sauvignon blanc that came out of Marlborough was so distinctive. I think with regard to bringing new wine consumers into the mix, having something so recognizable from a varietal and origin point of view made it a relatively easy sell. Part of the appeal is that it’s quite memorable as well, so it made consumers feel savvy. You know if you taste a Marlborough sauvignon blanc once, you’ve pretty much got it locked in your head what it is and what to expect.
You make a fantastic un-oaked chardonnay. What made you go in that direction and sort of buck the overly oaky trend?

Within our portfolio, it did not make sense to go out and do the big, heavily manipulated oakychardonnay thing. I think because selling New Zealand wines started with the sauvignon blanc foundation, so to go so extremely away from what encapsulates that style also did not make much sense. Again, the ABC movement [anything but chardonnay] and the canning that chardonnay has
come under seems to be more profound here, but we’re seeing it everywhere, so I guess in part, this is our response to that. I guess the serendipity factor is that the Marlborough fruit, even the chardonnay, has such a distinctive character, a sort of vibrancy of fruit that lends itself to the style, so to mask that with wine-making techniques and a whole bunch of French oak just didn’t make sense.
What varietals do you make at The Crossings?
We make sauvignon blanc, un-oaked chardonnay and pinot noir. We have about seven acres of riesling, but the vines have really struggled there, and we’ve only made two vintages.

So you’ll be picking soon in New Zealand I understand.
Absolutely. Traditionally about the 28th of March, but the season is pretty late this year, so I’m not sure if we’ll kick off on time. It could even be as late as the 1st of April, which would be the first in a good long while. The growing season has been incredibly cool, but when I left home for this trip, things had really cranked up. We had a very hot Christmas and New Year’s, and the place is as dry as I’ve ever seen it, so that droughty state is quite positive for the grapes. We’re quite excited! I think crops will be a little light, so there will be less to pick, but the quality should be exceptional.
What is your favorite varietal to make and to drink?
This may sound contradictory given everything we’ve said, but I still like the traditional oaked chardonnay. It’s something we drink a lot of at home. They don’t tend to be from Marlborough, but from some of the warmer climates in New Zealand. It’s also a fun wine to make since chardonnay is the one varietal that really takes on the qualities imparted upon it. Sauvignon blanc is not heavily winemaker derived; the grapes do the work and we’re just here to make it harmonious. With chardonnay it goes from barrel to malolactic fermentation and lots of lees stirring, so there is much more winemaker input. That’s kind of fun. It does give you more opportunity to leave your thumbprint on the wine and maybe that sounds sort of egomaniac, but I really like making and drinking that style
of wine.
Sauvignon blanc is such a great food wine. Do you make wine with food in mind?
To be honest, probably not. It’s something that concerns me because I like to cook and that’s how we most often consume wine at home, with a meal. But I don’t think we’ve been doing this long enough and our understanding is not mature enough to get to that level of sophistication. It would be very easy to say, “Yes, of course, I think about it all the time,” but that would be far from the truth. We’re quite a young industry, and the Crossings program is still in its infancy. We’re very happy how quickly we’ve gotten where we are, but I don’t think we’ve approached that sort of sophistication yet.
No corkscrews were used in the tasting today. Do you think people are finally embracing screw caps?
I’ve been traveling now with The Crossings for about five years, and before that with other New Zealand brands, and we’ve been doing this screw-cap thing since 2002 at the Crossings. I rarely meet anybody now that makes negative comments about it at all. In fact, most people go out of their way to applaud the whole screw-cap initiative that was really fostered by the Australian wine industry. Even some of the French are starting to jump on board. What’s the saying? Imitation is the best form of flattery!
What sets The Crossings wines apart from other New Zealand wines?
I think for us it’s as simple as the Awatere Valley. There are many wines that come out of the Marlborough region, but a relatively small number of brands that really focus on the sole Awatere story. In fact, there are really just three or four wineries that can lay that claim. We have three fully estate-grown vineyards and what we do is tailored around the expression of place, and that definitely has a huge effect on the style of the wine, the quality of the wine.
Is this your first visit to New Orleans?
I was actually here about six months ago and that was our first time. This city is a blast! And I must admit refreshingly easy because it’s a rather food-obsessed–if I can say that–place, and people like to have a drink when they eat. The Southern cuisine is quirky and interesting and different from anything I’ve experienced before. And I love the oldschool jazz. It’s a terrific city, and I’m always happy to visit.