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.

20 Under $12: Tasting Red

Autumn is in the air. With the changing weather it’s time to warm up with a range of reds. These span the style scale from elegant to powerful but all fall under the $12 mark making it easy to raise a glass or three.

Light and Bright:

2009 Mark West Pinot Noir, California $12
It’s tough to make Pinot Noir that falls into the well-priced category, but Mark West has done it. With red berry zip and a hint of earthy aromas, it’s a Pinot that will please.

2009 Arrogant Frog “Lily Pad Noir” Pinot Noir, Languedoc, France $10
A beret-clad frog with a jaunty grin adorns the label of this wine that offers a bit more weight than other affordable Pinots. Juicy and easy-drinking.

2009 Louis Jadot Beaujolais Villages, France $12
One of best vintages for Beaujolais in recent history has given this wine depth and character. Made with Gamay grapes, there’s an appealing lightness and succulence.

2009 Rioja Vega, Rioja, Spain $12
Slide into fall with this lovely red. Hailing from the classic Spanish region, Rioja, it’s made from the Tempranillo variety and is vibrant and elegant.

2009 Mandolin Syrah, Central Coast, California $10
A Syrah for Pinot drinkers, this lighter, brighter style is one to pop with pork or even with fleshy fish.

2008 Finca Constancia “Altozano” Vino de la Tierra de Castilla, Spain $10
A Tempranillo and Syrah blend that captures the racy side of red. Red berry fruit notes are topped off with a hit of peppery spice on the finish.

2009 Banfi Chianti Classico, Italy $12
It’s normally a challenge to find simple Chianti that fits the $12 price point, much less one from the highly-regarded Chianti Classico zone, but Banfi has managed to produce a structured yet sleek version at a surprising price.

Smooth and Supple:

2009 Torres “Sangre de Toro” Catalunya, Spain $10
A deliciously silky red that over-delivers quality for the price. Made with Garnacha (Grenache) and Carinena in Spain’s northeastern corner. With crowd-pleasing freshness, you’ll want to stock up on this one.

2009 Kenwood “Vintage Red” California $9
Kenwood is a Sonoma winery known for top bottlings (like their Jack London label) that you may want to crack open on weekends, but the quaffable “Vintage Red” is a Zinfandel-based blend for weekday sipping.

2009 James Oatley “Tic Tok” Shiraz, Mudgee, Australia $12
The name is an ode to the family patriarch – a clockmaker and this is a red worth twice the price. From the cooler climate area of Mudgee, it’s a Shiraz with style.

2008 Waterbrook Merlot, Columba Valley, Washington $11
Located in the hot spot of Washington, Walla Walla, Waterbrook crafts pricey reds, but this supple, sippable Merlot tucks in at a cool price.

2009 Cellar No 8 Red wine California $10
A mélange of eight varieties including Petite Sirah, Merlot, and Grenache, this just may become your house red. Fruit-driven and juicy, it’s a happy-maker.

2009 Naked Earth red, South of France $12
Made with organically grown grapes, this blend of Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Grenache is not overly serious but offers good drinking with burgers or pizza.

2009 Bota Box Cabernet Sauvignon, California $5 (500ml)
A to-go wine that can slip in a purse or pocket, this eco-friendly mini-box holds three glasses of smooth Cabernet. It’s ideal for the beach, outdoor party, or just when you want a little glass without the glass.

Full-bodied and Fleshy:

2009 Dancing Bull Zinfandel California $12
With dark berry fruit flavors underscored with a kick of smoky aromas, this hearty Zin is made for fall sipping. Try alongside a wood-fired pizza or last of the season BBQ ribs.

2009 Healdsburg Ranches Cabernet Sauvignon North Coast, California $12
This Cab over-delivers in quality. It showcases intensity of fruit and mouthwatering vibrancy. Sure it will pair with a steak, but try roast chicken or grilled eggplant.

2008 Purple Cowboy “Trail Boss” Cabernet Sauvignon, Paso Robles, California $12
Named for some rodeo dudes who enjoyed vino and showed off their purple teeth, this plush red has power. The brand also supports the “Tough Enough to Wear Pink” organization for breast cancer awareness.

2009 Concannon Cabernet Sauvignon, Central Coast, California $10
Making wince 1883 Concannon ranks among California’s most historic producers. This affordable but still fairly complex Cab is the real deal.

2010 Bodega Elena de Mendoza Malbec Argentina $11
Malbec is known for its saturated dark fruit character and this one doesn’t disappoint. It’s rich, it’s ripe yet balanced with a whack of freshness making it ideal to saddle up to the dinner table.

2009 Yarden Mount Hermon, Galilee, Isreal $12
Yes, this wine is kosher but it’s so much more. Made from Bordeaux varieties, it delivers complexity that belies the price. Lush but with an edge of tannic grip it’s one to pair with grilled meat dishes.