As the days grow cold and the season's food gets hearty, many of us will be reaching for a warming glass of one of our local reds, which have been transformed in recent times into a wide range of styles that are exciting palates both at home and abroad.

Annoyingly herbaceous" and "atrociously vegetal" were the damning judgments passed on our cabernet sauvignon and merlot by influential US wine critic Robert Parker some years back.

"If you like wines that taste like liquefied asparagus, you will find some merit in them," he concluded.

Thankfully, liquefied asparagus is a character now rarely exhibited by our local reds, which have increasingly gained international attention for their merits rather than their shortcomings. A combination of selecting grape varieties that are better suited to our cooler climate and planting vineyards in warmer spots possessing the right conditions to ripen them has seen quality skyrocket in recent times.

Admittedly New Zealand did get off to something of an inauspicious start in its red wine making. Cabernet sauvignon was an early focus, which even in our warmer areas can struggle to ripen sufficiently, resulting in those tough and unpleasantly herbaceous examples once lambasted by Parker.


More appropriate to our chillier climes, merlot is now the mainstay of many of our red blends, the best of which tend to hail from the warmer and drier regions of the North Island.

And though the vineyard area devoted to cabernet sauvignon has been declining, since it has relocated to warmer sites, in hotter vintages in particular it's been producing some impressively rich and velvety examples.

Assisting the quality revolution in our fuller bodied reds has been the development of the Gimblett Gravels area.

In this stony sub-region of Hawkes Bay, the so-called Bordeaux varieties - which include cabernet sauvignon, merlot, cabernet franc and malbec - are given a warm boost by summer temperatures that can be 2C to 3C higher than elsewhere in the Bay.

Syrah from the Gravels, and the Hawke's Bay region more generally, has also been shining as it has on Waiheke Island. A relative newcomer to the country, it's shown itself to be a more reliable ripener than many reds and has a fragrant, peppery profile that's led it to be heralded as one of New Zealand's most exciting new varieties.

Then there's cool-climate loving pinot noir, which has gone from local zero to international hero in a matter of decades.

Since its early success in Martinborough in the late 1980s, it has become increasingly clear that New Zealand is one of the few winegrowing nations capable of making great pinot noir from not one, but a number of regions.

Central Otago has joined Martinborough in making pinot noir of international repute, hillside plantings are taking Marlborough's examples to new highs, and it's the most important red in both Waipara and the new super-cool Waitaki Valley region.

Though our climate may mean we have a wider variety of whites that work well for us, there is also a growing array of new red grapes starting to spring up in our vineyards.

Successful transplants include brightly fruited versions of Spain's tempranillo; rich and supple montepulciano from Italy, as well as a lesser known variety, Austria's St Laurent, which makes fresh, peppery examples on our soils.

So when selecting your local wines to pair with winter fare, the choice has never been better, those lean green specimens are a thing of the past.

Ripe, fresh and full of flavour, our cool climate reds can now rightfully be regarded as hot stuff.

Kidnapper Cliffs Hawke's Bay Ariki 2009 $55

Made in a partnership between Martinborough's revered Dry River and Hawke's Bay's, highly regarded Te Awa, this well-structured blend of merlot, cabernet franc and cabernet sauvignon displays dense, elegant blackcurrant fruit infused with notes of sandalwood and spice and shows how seriously good New Zealand's Bordeaux blends can be. (From Caro's, Glengarry, Fine Wine Delivery Company, Scenic Cellars.)

Craggy Range Te Kahu Gimblett Gravels Vineyard Hawke's Bay 2010 $26.95

A classy and consistently impressive merlot-dominant blend from the Gimblett Gravels, Craggy Range's Te Kahu combines supple, juicy black fruits with fragrant notes of exotic spice and rose-like florals. (From independent fine wine retailers and

Cable Bay Waiheke Island Syrah 2010 $45

There have been some wonderfully intense examples of syrah coming from Waiheke Island, such as this fine example from Cable Bay. In its weighty but satin-textured palate, rich notes of black plum, liqueur chocolate and roasted spices are underpinned by a fresh minerally undercurrent. (From Caro's, Point Wines, Wine Vault, The Waiheke Wine Centre.)

Mission Estate Vineyard Selection Hawke's Bay Syrah 2010 $22

For an affordable taste of the excitement of home-grown syrah, Mission Estate's Vineyard Selection is hard to beat, with its juicy notes of spiced plum and hint of florals. (From Mission Estate cellar door and selected fine wine retailers.)

Greywacke Marlborough Pinot Noir 2010 $47.95

Marlborough is proving it's not just a site of stellar sauvignon blanc, but can also make impressive pinot noir. This is illustrated in ex-Cloudy Bay winemaker Kevin Judd's latest release, which weaves enticing aromatics of spice, smoke and florals though its fresh and silky plum-fruited palate. (From Glengarry, Accent On Wine, Caro's, Fine Wine Delivery Company, First Glass, La Barrique, Point Wines, Hamilton Wine Company, Cambridge Fine Wine, Gambino's Fine Wines, Scenic Cellars.)

Julicher 99 Rows Martinborough Pinot Noir 2010 $32

A great second label from the region first to indicate the potential of pinot noir in our country. It's a savoury style with a core of juicy, supple plum fruit, around which is wrapped notes of forest floor and dried thyme. (From First Glass Wines & Spirits, Caro's, Scenic Cellars.)

Heron's Flight Reserve Matakana Sangiovese 2010 $55

David Hoskins at Heron's Flight was a local pioneer of Italian varieties, planting the country's flagship red, sangiovese in his vineyard back in the early nineties. With its concentrated dark fruit, food friendly tannins and attractive fragrant dimension, this vintage is another compelling example from a variety that's tended to be tricky when transplanted to foreign soils.