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Lord of the Wines

It may be in the southern hemisphere, but New Zealand reigns at the top of the wine world. With stellar wineries and breathtaking scenery, this little bit of paradise is poised to make an even bigger splash.

Although it's a relatively short 11-hour 55-minute flight from Los Angeles, New Zealand seems for many closer to heaven than to any earthly place. With the country's chefs and wine-makers consistently making strides in the food and wine world, culinary tourism ranks right up there with the already famous scenery. They're all compelling reasons to take a closer look at this isolated island nation in the South Pacific.

Setting the stage for discovery 

Filmmakers and celebrities have done their part to take notice of the country. Most or all of "King Kong," "The Last Samurai," "The Chronicles of Narnia" and "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy were filmed there, as well as two recent popular TV shows, "Xena: Warrior Princess" and "Hercules: The Legendary Journeys." Oscar-winning actor Russell Crowe calls it home. So does famed soprano Kiri Te Kanawa. And did you know that the first man to climb Mt. Everest, Sir Edmund Hillary, was a Kiwi, as New Zealanders are affectionately called?

The Sauvignon Blanc shake-up 

For all its scenic splendors and famous faces, New Zealand was mostly known for its export of lamb until the mid-1980s, when there was an earthquake of sorts in the wine industry. Its epicenter was the region of Marlborough at the north end of the South Island. But the quake was felt the strongest in Great Britain, where the first bottles of New Zealand's Cloudy Bay Sauvignon Blanc were sold.

English wine drinkers were, as Elvis said, "all shook up." They loved the fresh, strong, pungent white wine, with its in-your-face flavors of gooseberry, herbs and lime and a rapierlike acidity.

Soon the rest of the wine world learned that Sauvignon Blanc from Marlborough had unique flavors and characteristics, unlike the stone-and-mineral qualities of France's Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé or the softer, fruitier Sauvignon Blancs from California and Australia.

Because New Zealand's Sauvignon Blancs are mostly fermented in stainless steel rather than oak barrels, the wines take on a brightness that might seem picklish if a purity of fruit weren't so compellingly present.

The style was an overnight success, and it put New Zealand on the global winemaking map. For the past 25 years many winemakers around the world have followed suit, trying to emulate this popular style of Sauvignon Blanc.

Other bright whites—and Pinot too 

Today wine is made from the north end of New Zealand's North Island to the southern environs of the South Island -- and the goods go beyond Sauvignon Blanc.

The country's winemakers craft other white grapes into fresh, fruity sips. Rieslings dazzle with a balance of citrus and zip; Chardonnays -- often unoaked -- let the tropical fruit flavor shine through. Reds are getting in on the act too. In the last 10 years Central Otago has become known for its Pinot Noirs, while winemakers in the Stonyridge winery craft world-class Malbecs.

Screw-cap revolution

Early on, New Zealand winemakers knew corks could compromise their wines. So virtually the entire industry began using screw-cap closures while the rest of the winemaking world was dragging its collective feet because of the old-time stigma attached to screw caps. New Zealand had no such baggage. Screw caps worked, they were cheaper and they kept the wine fresh. As with unoaked Sauvignon Blanc, the idea is catching on the world over.

Sips in the city

For a taste of the cosmopolitan side of the country, today's visitors often spend some time in Auckland, at the top of the North Island. Thanks in part to tourism, especially from Europe and the Far East, you can find quality restaurants featuring cuisines from all over the culinary map, including Polynesian. Bottles from all over the country crowd wine menus and match the cuisine well.

Take it outside 

Nature hounds, especially those visiting Milford Sound in the southwest of the South Island, love New Zealand's fjords and snowcapped peaks. This is one of the most beautiful spots on earth -- the "eighth wonder of the world," Rudyard Kipling called it.

Today's travelers, however, may be equally wowed by the wine.

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