Rugby Meets Wine: When the Winners Are All Black and White

New Zealand not only rocks, it’s on a roll. The “All Blacks” won the battle on the field and the “all whites” took top accolades in the glass.

This past weekend the Kiwi national rugby team, the All Blacks, scored an emotional victory over their top rivals, France, to win the Rugby World Cup. As one of the largest sporting events on the planet, people from all over the world flocked to the small island nation to watch the six-week long series of games between nations such as Australia, Italy, South Africa, and the United States.

I was one of those who made the trek half way across the globe to attend not only a rugby match, but also to take part in a battle of the bottles. New Zealanders are obsessed by their national sport, but they’re also proud of the country’s wine culture. Winging to the land of the long white cloud – as the local Maori people call New Zealand – I was the American judge for a wine competition dubbed the First Fifteen.

Held in Nelson, one of the most picturesque spots in New Zealand, the focus of the event was to showcase aromatic white wines from countries across the world taking part in the Rugby World Cup (fifteen refers to the number of players on a rugby team). The good-natured battle I took part in was the wine counterpart to the game being played between the United States and Italy hosted in Nelson, the birthplace of rugby in New Zealand.

Aromatic is a term used to describe wines that have a uniquely fragrant personality: floral, peach-scented Riesling, juicy, tropical Pinot Gris (Pinot Grigio), and assertive, spicy Gewurztraminer are examples.

Other top Rugby countries like France and Australia could rightly lay claim to having top aromatics (Alsace in France is home to iconic Pinot Gris and Gewurztraminer while Australia’s Clare and Eden Valleys rank high in Riesling), but this battle was between titans Italy, New Zealand and the United States.

Wines were selected by the judges to represent their country. I picked fifteen top American aromatics from Oregon, Washington State, California and New York State, while the Italian judge selected his lineup from northern Italy. In a blind tasting along with a Kiwi and Australian judge, we sniffed, swirled and spat through the wines to select our winners.

Interestingly, each of the countries won one category. The United States took Pinot Gris with the sleek Etude from Carneros, California and Chehalem from Oregon, while the Italians swamped the Gewurztraminer category (Italy is the home of the variety after all). The Kiwis, however, took home the Riesling trophy and the overall win.

If you think of New Zealand as only Sauvignon Blanc, there’s much more to discover. Pick up a bottle of one of these winning Kiwi wines and raise your glass full of white in honor of the All Blacks.

Wollaston Estate Riesling, Nelson, New Zealand $19
Crafted in a delicate, lightly sweet style, this Riesling is classy. Crisp and focused, it’s an ideal partner for fresh seafood or simple grilled vegetables.

Neudorf Vineyards “Moutere” Riesling, Nelson, New Zealand $32
A rich, lush, and sweeter style of Riesling from one of the region’s iconic producers (pronounced Noy-dorf), it’s an age-worthy beauty.

Te Mania Pinot Gris, Nelson, New Zealand $15
Exotic aromas float from the glass while a mouth-filling texture wraps your palate in pleasure. Uncork alongside curried dishes for a taste sensation.

Shopping Suggestions

If you can’t locate those specific wines, try versions from some of my favorite producers. With laser-like Riesling from the South Island’s mountainous Central Otago region, juicy Pinot Gris from the famous Marlborough area, and intense Gewurztraminer from the North Island’s historic Martinborough region, there are plenty of New Zealand aromatics to explore.

Craggy Range

Villa Maria

Prophet’s Rock


Mt. Difficulty “Roaring Meg”

Pinot Gris:
Quartz Reef

Spy Valley

Kim Crawford



Dry River


Lawson’s Dry Hills

Shaky Bridge


To read the version on Today Show BITES, click here.

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