Taste: Heaven by the Glass


God got it right in New Zealand. Not only did he create a stunning high-country valley between the Wairau and Awatere rivers, this vine-covered Marlborough land gently rolls down to the craggy Marlborough Sounds, where sheltered coves are home to greenshell mussels. And what goes better with plump, jade-colored shellfish than a Marlborough sauvignon blanc? The green, fruit-and-herb-flavored wine -- with hints of lemon-lime, bell pepper and spears of asparagus -- is a liquid version of the summer air coming soon to New Zealand.

This little northeastern corner of the country's South Island truly is heaven to an aromatic-wine geek like me. And St. Peter at the Gate is David Morgan. David is a Marlborough wine guide. He knows everybody around here and has the sort of gregarious Kiwi personality that allows him to ring up a winery owner on his cell phone and announce that he's going to stop by in a few minutes -- with a guest. It's exactly what he did to Kathy Lynskey, whose self-named winery sits in the middle of the Wairau Valley. Fortunately, Kathy, who co-owns the winery with Kent Casto, lives in a little cottage in the vineyard.

Like all Marlborough wineries, Kathy Lynskey Wines is the antithesis of the large-scale tourist facilities in places like Napa and Sonoma. The boutique tasting room, where Kent usually presides, is just large enough to accommodate a half-dozen or so visitors, which is three or four more than you're likely to find there at any one time. Kent poured a couple of glasses of a creamy apple-and-pear pinot gris for David and me. This wine evokes ripe-peach aromas with a touch of orange-blossom bouquet and a creamy, rich, oily mouth feel while not being the least bit cloying. Kent had told us while pouring that it would make our mouths water -- and make us want a second glass. He was right. Pouring us just a touch more, he noticed Kathy -- winemaker, owner and gardener -- out in the English garden, deadheading roses.

Kathy, with clippers in one hand and a wine glass in the other, asked us what we thought of her pinot gris. I told her I was getting a lot of floral notes -- or maybe that was just the garden.

Kathy's first wine was only released a decade ago. The year before, another Marlborough couple, Christine and Dave Macdonald, started putting out aromatic wines under the Bladen label (named after the couple's two children, Blair and Deni). This has to be one of the quirkiest, friendliest wineries in the world. The tiny tasting room, not much bigger than a garden shed, looks like a kid's clubhouse. When I told Dave what a big fan I am of aromatics, he said I'd come to the right place.

"I don't think any place in the world makes as many fantastic aromatics as Marlborough," he said. "You don't see a lot of it in overseas markets. Pity, really."

What makes Marlborough the perfect location for aromatics is a combination of lots of sunshine (supposedly the most in New Zealand), very cool nights and free-draining alluvial loam in the Wairau and Awatere river valleys.

Our last stop before lunch was at Cloudy Bay Vineyards, one of the places that put Marlborough sauvignon blanc on the map. The winery, situated in a grove of eucalyptus gum trees, is ringed by hills on three sides. It's shaped like a horseshoe, with the northeast opening facing Queen Charlotte Sound, a source of cool maritime breezes. Winemaker Kevin Judd gave us a good pour of his pale, strawgreen wine. It has all the elements of a summer fruit salsa -- peach, passion fruit, mango -- with a sprinkling of fresh ginger and a dash of pastis. Smiling as I take a second sip, Kevin told me someone once said that drinking one's first New Zealand sauvignon blanc was like having sex for the first time. "Of course," he added, "I think that's taking it a bit too far." I'm not so sure. The wine is the perfect expression of a benchmark New Zealand sauvignon blanc -- clean, lively, with bushels of citrus fruit and loads of minerality. A summer party in a bottle.

It's the wine we took with us on the MV Odyssea, the 60-foot power catamaran David pilots. Off we go out into the Marlborough Sounds to the greenshell mussel farms just off the heavily wooded shores lining St. Omer Bay. While I was admiring the crystal-clear, turquoise-colored water inhabited by thousands of thriving greenshell mussels tethered to long lines beneath black floats, David popped open a fresh bottle of Cloudy Bay as his mate, Fay, steamed us up a pot of greenshells fresh from the bay.

Sprawled out on the back of the boat, those long white clouds floating overhead, the three of us wolfed down three or four dozen mussels in nothing flat. Like I always say: Food tastes better when you're on the water. And wine does, too. So while David and I debated whether it was the concentration of fruit and the slight minerality of the sauvignon blanc that brought out the salty sweetness of the mussels or vice versa, Fay, to help settle the discussion, put another pot of mussels on to steam and opened another bottle of Cloudy Bay. And so it went all afternoon long. As I said: This little corner of South Island, New Zealand, has to be heaven.

To see a guide to New Zealand wineries, click here.