Costco Corner: The Journey to Mordor Passes Through Wine Country

This week we are back in Costco Corner, expanded edition, searching for those paradoxical low-cost, high-quality wines that occupy the crowded Costco aisles. My faithful tasting team endeavors on an expedition south to New Zealand, the land of Kiwis (fowl, fruit, and human), rugby and well-crafted vinous beverages.

Bibles and grapevines were traveling companions to New Zealand, brought in the suitcases of European missionaries in the early Nineteenth Century. Where there are missionaries, there is wine. Early local wines were a cheap proletarian drink that possessed few ardent admirers. Inebriation sufficient; craft not necessary. The fledgling industry was later disrupted by the Prohibition movement at the end of World War I, when temperance advocates denounced the inexpensive intoxicant as “vile Australian wine” and “Dally plonk,” pejoratively referring to the winemakers’ Croatian descent. Racism, patriotism, and temperance bundled into a short, succinct phrase. Well played, temperance movement.

Fortunately, the industry survived its early challenges, and has matured to become, in my opinion, one of the preeminent value wine regions in the world. With a re-focused strategy on quality rather than quantity, it is no longer difficult to procure well-crafted, high-quality vino in the Land of the Long White Cloud.

Best of all? New Zealand wines do not break the bank. Costco makes certain of it. So pour yourself a glass of plonk (overt racism omitted) and let the Fellowship of the Vine set its course due south. The journey to Mordor must inevitably pass through wine country. As it should.

All wines from Costco Corner are available at Costco while supplies last (which can be alarmingly brief, so best not to dawdle). Disclaimer (you know, because I am a lawyer and all): unfortunately, I cannot guarantee that the wines we review will be stocked at any particular Costco location, or at any particular price.

Aotearoa: The Land of the Long White Cloud

New Zealand, home to the southernmost vineyards in the world, is breathtaking in its natural beauty. Dense tropical and temperate forests, majestic mountain ranges, imposing volcanoes, and a craggy coastline constantly battered by the Pacific Ocean produce endless picturesque landscapes. It is naturally divided into two regions, the North and South Islands, each unique in culture, climate, and winemaking.

The North Island is warmer and more humid than its southern counterpart, with the Long White Cloud blanketing the land and moderating otherwise excessive sunshine. Premiere wine regions on the North Island, such as Auckland and Hawke’s Bay, excel in red wine blends showcasing Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon grape varietals.

The South Island is a cool, maritime climate that benefits from extended, sunny summer days due to cloud dissipation and the earth’s axial tilt. Obliquity lends a helping hand. Regions on the South Island, such as Marlborough, Central Otago and Canterbury, specialize in fast-ripening grape varietals, such as Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir.

The two islands do share a few common characteristics of terroir.

First, rainfall. The majority of New Zealand vineyards are located on the eastern coastline of the islands, in areas with low-to-moderate rainfall. In the south, the Southern Alps, the tallest mountain range in the Southern Hemisphere, cause a rain shadow effect that shelters the vineyards from the prevailing westerlies generated in the Pacific Ocean. Although not possessing the grandeur of the Southern Alps, the North Island experiences a similar mountainous rain shadow effect. Thus, vineyards find a weathered safe harbor in the east.

Second, soils. New Zealand vineyards are planted primarily in shallow alluvial topsoil consisting of sand, greywacke, schist and loam, overlaying deep free-draining glacial gravels. These soils possess low-to-moderate fertility and absorb heat during the day that is slowly released throughout the chilly nights. Vine roots’ rocky heat regulators. These fast-draining, low-fertility soils reduce the vine’s natural vigorous tendencies and helps to produce a balanced, aromatic wine with optimal phenolic compounds.

Marlborough: The Quintessence of New Zealand Winemaking

Marlborough, located on the northern coast of the South Island, is the largest wine appellation in the country, and epitomizes wine culture and winemaking in New Zealand. It combines a cool temperate, maritime climate and abundant sunshine to produce intensely flavored Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir. Marlborough enjoys an advantageous combination of long days, cold nights, bright sunshine and relatively dry autumns. This diurnal temperature variation, ample sunshine and dry conditions allow grapes to remain on the vine longer and ripen more slowly, without sacrificing the bright acidity famous to New Zealand wines.

New Zealand’s three most important grapes are Sauvignon blanc, Chardonnay, and Pinot Noir. As one might expect, Costco carries an exemplary representative for them all.

1. Sauvignon Blanc

The flagship varietal of New Zealand, Sauvignon Blanc, is generally characterized by a flavor and aroma profile of grass, bell pepper, grapefruit and tropical fruit, with bright, zesty acidity. Sauvignon Blanc in Marlborough (and elsewhere) is frequently aged in stainless steel tanks, rather than oak barrels, to preserve its delicate and fresh fruit characteristics.

Kirkland Signature 2016 Ti Point Sauvignon Blanc, Marlborough, New Zealand ($7)

When at Costco, commence with Kirkland. On the nose, the wine expressed subtle floral elements with grass, bell pepper and citrus (grapefruit and lemon peel). The palate enjoyed ripe citrus and bell pepper, with grapefruit becoming more pronounced as the wine warmed. Overall, the wine was light-to-medium bodied, very well-balanced, and did not contain the overbearingly bracing acidity that can be present in New Zealand Sauvignon Blancs.

I have mentioned previously that Kirkland wines do not customarily bestow significant depth or complexity, nor is that their primary intention. At the price they are offered, that would indeed be a lofty expectation. While the occasional Kirkland label can come with surprising quality, these wines are better understood as providing an affordable entry to many classic wine regions around the world.

While this is a generalization of the Kirkland label, this particular wine is a notable exception. The Ti Point Sauvignon Blanc is a fine expression of New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, and at $7, the price is unmatched. It is as close to pilfering as one could hope to (legally) achieve. The evening’s wine champion. Buy, drink, enjoy.

2. Chardonnay

Chardonnay styles run the spectrum in New Zealand, from vibrant, dry and crisp to creamy, oaked and full of buttery flavor. Chardonnay can be grown in many different climates and soil types, making it one of the best-traveled grapes in the world. In New Zealand, it is grown in many regions on both islands, but arguably none more successfully than Marlborough.

2013 Greywacke Chardonnay, Marlborough, New Zealand ($32)

Does Greywacke sound familiar? It should; it was mentioned above as a rocky fixture of New Zealand’s terroir. Kevin Judd, the owner and winemaker, named the winery after the rounded greywacke stones commonly found in the soils of the vineyards. Refreshing to find a fellow science nerd. He would certainly support my supposition that rocks matter.

This wine was heavily oaked, with aromas of vanilla, butter, cedar, baked apple pie and nutmeg.

I must confess that this is not my preferred style of Chardonnay. Judging by the faces of my tasting companions, it wasn’t theirs, either. I customarily purchase Chardonnay that is minimally oaked (if at all), with crisp, vibrant characteristics. While oaked Chardonnay can be finely produced and expertly crafted, it is simply not to my liking.

As Kyle so eloquently surmised, “it is like drinking butter from a masu.” Naturally, our resident Japanese expert would harken back to sake terminology. Nonetheless, he had a point. Significant oaking made the palate overwhelmed with butter, oak and cedar. However, if you can look past the butter (admittedly, not a simple task), there was some excellent fruit. In particular, the lemon citrus on the finish was long and pleasant. As the wine warmed, the fruit opened and the oak and butter characteristics softened to become more balanced. Ultimately, it is a wine more memorable for the furrowed expressions it provoked on our panelists rather than its drinkability.

If, however, you prefer heavily oaked Chardonnay that proffers strong aromas and the taste of butter, vanilla, and oak, you would unequivocally love this wine. The wine is well-crafted, and the vinter undoubtedly has talent in extracting a desired flavor profile. Unfortunately for this group, it does not pair with our proclivities. Notwithstanding the Chardonnay (at least, for this crew), Kevin Judd is an esteemed and skillful winemaker, and I thoroughly enjoy Greywacke’s Pinot Noir and Sauvignon Blanc. If you favor oaked Chardonnay, this wine is prone to satisfy.

3. Pinot Noir

A varietal that is notoriously difficult to cultivate, Pinot Noir has thrived in New Zealand’s climate and terroir to become the most widely-grown red grape varietal in the country. With similar gravel terroir to its New World comrades (particularly North America), the Pinot Noir from New Zealand is fruit forward, exhibiting bright red fruit characteristics with subtle earth tones. Top appellations for Pinot Noir are Central Otago and Marlborough.

2014 Peter Yealands Pinot Noir, Marlborough, New Zealand ($17)

The wine is a beautiful, bright ruby red color and possesses smokey aromas of red cherry, plum, and raspberry with subtle cedar and spice. On the palate, the wine really brings the fruit, with fresh red fruit flavors, subtle earth and floral elements, soft tannins and long, lingering finish.

At $17, this is an extraordinary value for a Pinot Noir that has great depth and complexity, ageing potential, and provides a classic example of New Zealand Pinot Noir. I reckon you should secure a few bottles on your next Costco trip.

We would judge this tasting a success. The Greywacke wasn’t our preferred style of Chardonnay, and at $32 is creeping outside the range of everyday value wines, but for those who fancy creamy, oaked Chardonnay, this is a solid purchase. The Pinot Noir and Sauvignon Blanc are brilliant representations of New Zealand’s style and quality, and at their price, there is no excuse to remain a passerby.  Cheers!

What value wines have your recently found at Costco? Were any of them from New Zealand? Let me know in the comments below!