NZ Wine Navigator: Elevating the bar on New Zealand Wine

Cameron Douglas with New Zealand Wine
When we think of New Zealand wine most American’s are familiar with the big wineries that make their way to the United States, but many do not realize an effort is being made to bring notoriety to some small boutique wineries. One company forging the way to make these wineries known to us is NZ Wine Navigator.

It all started when NZ Wine Navigator, Graham Painter was in the United States visiting family and wanted to show off the wines from his country. He discovered while searching for the right bottle of wine that only the big names were available. To Graham, those big names do not represent the true essence of the wines produced in New Zealand. That quest started his business and the goal and mission of his new-found company to bring the small producers to places like the United States.

To help Graham achieve this goal he sought out the expertise of Sommelier Cameron Douglas. Cameron is a Master Sommelier from the Court of Masters and an educator at AUT University in Auckland. Cameron works with Graham to find the best small producers from the various wine regions New Zealand has to offer.

NZ Wine Navigator represents wineries in most of the New Zealand wine regions. From the North Island, they feature wineries in the Hawke’s Bay and Martinborough. On the South Island, they showcase wineries in Nelson, Marlborough, Waitaki Valley, and Central Otago.

New Zealand Wine
New Zealand Wine

Most of these eighteen niche wineries produce 1000 -2000 cases a year. Another commonality amongst these wineries is all their wines are sustainable.

On three occasions I have sampled the wines from NZ Wine Navigator. Here are some of my favorites.

Sparkling Wine

No 1 Family Estate specializes in Methode Traditionelle Sparkling wine. Owner Daniel Le Brun comes from Champagne and a 12th generation Champenois. Daniel discovered that central Marlborough looks like the Champagne region of France but unlike France has extra hours of sunshine during the growing season. For this reason, Daniel decided to set up roots in Marlborough in 1997. Today he has created what New Zealand calls the Marlborough Methode.

I sampled two sparkling wines from this winery. The first Cuveé Methode Traditionelle NV made from 100% Chardonnay. I found the wine refreshingly crisp with citrus flavors. The second sparkling wine Assemblé composed of 60% Chardonnay, 35% Pinot Noir and 5% Pinot Mineure displayed bright nuances with aromas of brioche and also citrus flavors. The wine has a lighter presence.


Sauvignon Blanc

We all know that Sauvignon Blanc is well known in New Zealand, but not all Sauvignon Blancs have that grassy and grapefruit character so often associated with New Zealand Wine. Several of the wines I sampled from NZ Wine Navigator had a different style.

Chris Darling’s Darling wines are the result of organic and biodynamic practices. He has certifications in both areas. Both The Darling 2017 and Little Darling 2018 showcase the Sauvignon Blanc from Marlborough and more specifically the Wairau Valley. A portion of the grapes come from the Rapaura region while the rest come from the Upper Wairau. In the 2017 the aromas display scents of grapefruit and tropical fruits. Favoring the 2018 Little Darling, the aromas presented grapefruit and white flower while on the palate. I found a fruity wine with flavors of stone fruit accented by some spice on the finish.

The Darling Sauvignon Blanc
The Darling Sauvignon Blanc

Pinot Gris

The Dicey brothers’ minimalist approach to winemaking pays off with the Ceres Swansong Pinot Gris 2015. Ceres is named after the Greek Goddess of Agriculture. The brothers are pioneers of Central Otago. The grapes see some oak, which gives the wine some of its body. The wine is fruity and minerally.


Brightwater Vineyards is located in the Nelson region, and their vineyards lie on an old apple orchard. Sophie’s Kiss, a Rosé of Pinot Noir is bright with flavors of strawberries.

Forrest Wines Dry Rosé 2018, a Pinot Noir based wine exhibits fruity nuances of strawberry.

Brightwater Sophia's Kiss Rose
Brightwater Sophia’s Kiss Rosé

Pinot Noir

Neudorf Tom’s Block Pinot Noir 2014 seemed the most elegant of all the Pinots I sampled from NZ Wine Navigator. A soft texture and flavors of cranberry give the wine a feminine quality.

The most complex of the Pinot Noirs I sampled was Ostler Caroline’s Pinot Noir 2016. The winery’s location in the Waitaki Valley of North Otago where the soil has a composition of underlying Limestone, and alluvial/greywacke sediments give the Pinot a unique structure.

Central Otago is the oldest wine region in New Zealand, dating back to 1860. I sampled one Pinot Noir from this region. Alexandra Wine Company Alex Gold Pinot Noir exhibits big fruity aromas, but on the palate, one finds a lighter wine with tart flavors of cranberry.

Big Sky Te Muna Pinot Noir 2014 from Martinborough displays earthy herbal aromas like wild thyme. On the palate, the wine also presents an earthy quality.


A portion of Hawks Bay is known for its Gimblett Gravels. These gravels came into being because of several changes in the course of the Ngaruroro River. The latest occurred when the river moved from the Omahu Channel to its present location. The Gimblett Gravels District is located in the Omahu Channel or just adjacent. The soil consists of alluvial deposits of greywacke, which moved down from the mountains via the Ngaruroro river. Currently, the varieties grown in this district are Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay and what is known as Gimblett Gravels Syrah.

Mills Reef Elspeth Syrah Gimblett Gravels Hawkes Bay
Mills Reef Elspeth Syrah Gimblett Gravels Hawkes Bay

With dark fruit flavors accented by pepper and spice, the MillsReef Elspeth Syrah represents an excellent example of Syrah from this region.

Finally, my favorite the Vidal El Legado Syrah exhibits a very fresh bright Syrah. This very drinkable wine displays subtle nuances with hints of white pepper.

Vidal El Legando Syrah
Vidal El Legando Syrah

Note: Common to the wine industry, this writer was hosted to the New Zealand wine sampled. While it has not influenced this review, the writer believes in full disclosure.