On the rugged south island of New Zealand in the Central Otago region, Mount Difficulty earned its name by being impassable. Now, the area—home of several vineyards—is producing some of the best pinot noirs in the world, under the Mt. Difficulty banner.
Can you imagine? Those grassy and citrus-scented sauvignon blancs are not the only fine wines from New Zealand one can find. Who knew?
Mike Boswell did, for one. A native of Wellington, New Zealand, and a former professional sailor, he moved to the Wood River Valley from Brooklyn, N.Y., in August 2006. In December, he started Savor New Zealand, a company that specializes in bringing boutique wines from his home country to Idaho.
"I find I'm promoting New Zealand as much as wine consumption," he said. "Everyone's either been there, knows someone who has or wants to go. These wines are iconic, family owned vineyards. I like people to try them but that's very much the end of it. It's almost like a community service when I do tastings. How can the general public know about them if they haven't tried them?"
Boswell knows his wines from more than experience. His business approach is typical of a kiwi, in that it's mixed up with the idea that it's all good.
"My philosophy is it should be fun in the first place, and educational in terms of New Zealand," he said. "All these wines are available in the U.S. and are getting rave reviews but haven't been in Idaho until last December."
When Boswell arrived in Ketchum, he said he found what he called "a significant gap" in the wine market. There wasn't much other than a small number of mainstream sauvignon blancs such as those from Marlborough, a highly revered wine-producing region.
"Some of our top producers were absent," he said. "No one knew about these small producers, but I did and thought I could bring them here."
Boswell then began a search for the best vineyards and the people behind them.
"I went to New Zealand and asked for the best wine brands we have," he said.
At first, he thought he could sell just what he personally liked. But after meeting New Zealand's only female "master of wine" ("a crazy chick named Jane Skilton"), he received his own sort of education.
"I wanted credibility and to have the connection right back to the winery," he said. "I got Jane involved as well, in the sense that she put the technical aspect in. She contributed to a couple picks as well."
On the racks in the Sun Valley Wine Co. one can now find Savor New Zealand wines from Escarpment, Akaru, Pegasus Bay, Quartz Reed, Carrick, Seven Terraces, Mt. Difficulty and Hunter. Made by former Marlborough winemaker Larry McKenna, the Escarpment Pinot Noir 2004 was awarded a gold medal at the 17th Wines of the Pacific Rim Festival 2007, held at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel in Hong Kong. ("They call Larry the godfather of pinots," Boswell said.)
These are also available at other wine outlets including Atkinsons' Markets, diVine in Hailey, the Boise Coop and on wine lists from here to Boise. Boswell has also conducted winemakers' dinners, including at the Sun Valley Food & Wine Festival this past June. On Thursday, he hosted a sold-out winemaker dinner at Mortimer's in Boise.
How do these wines differ from those available from huge producers from their neighbor Australia?
"New Zealand is a cooler grape growing nation. Australia is hot," Boswell said. "As a result, it's distinctly different. We're in the same latitude as Burgundy and Oregon. Australia has an immense amount of production. They really have been phenomenal in marketing the brand."
In other words, and what Boswell is too much a gentleman to say, is that Australia is able to feed the masses (although many first-rate wines are produced there). New Zealand's small artisan production is a matter of land, space and time. After all, they've only been at it a short time. Given 20 years, New Zealand's pinot noirs may rank among the best in the world. Already, their reputation is growing.
One of the most appealing aspects of the New Zealand wines is their ability to go well with food.
"The flavors are really intense," Boswell said. "So they sell out and are drunk quite young. It will be interesting to see how they age."
Boswell is now reaching out beyond the valley. "People have really embraced them and not just the pinot noir and sauvignon blanc. Riesling is great with food—it finishes with acidity and citrus but has a definite crispness.
"Seriously, get rid of the old notions. Pinot goes with everything. It crosses all boundaries."
Boswell sells well. He's passionate about wine and a good conversationalist. His blue eyes aren't bad either, and when he's on a roll about the vineyards, his winemaking friends and New Zealand's unique climate, he can turn emotional.
"The Wine Company has helped a new business in town," he said. "At this point they may have one of the best New Zealand pinot noir selections in the U.S. I think that is equally representative of the fact that the wines have been well received. I've introduced something new to the market. Those are the sort of wines I have access to, which means that's now what Idaho has access to. We're up and coming."
And given the determination of a Kiwi with passion, it wasn't that difficult.