In less than a century of winemaking history New Zealand became one of the most successful wine nations, home of styles and labels seen in wine lists and shelves the world over.
But there’s much more to New Zealand wine than the ubiquitous Marlborough Sauvignon Blancs, not least Pinot Noirs that compete with their best counterparts from both the Old and New World.
Vines were first planted in New Zealand in 1819 by Samuel Marsden, an English-born priest of the Church of England in Australia. The first winemaking would then be recorded in 1840 by James Busby. The development of the country’s wine industry remained negligible until the 1960s due to the predominantly British immigrant community, with a beer and whisky drinking culture, and the strong temperance movement, which imposed very restrictive limitations on wine sales.
In the first half of the 20th century most wines were made either in ‘sherry’ and ‘port’ styles, with very little demand for dry table wines. An influx from immigrants from other countries, especially Croatia, with a more consolidated wine tradition, created small pockets of vineyards for the production of table wines.
The temperance movement gradually lost traction and, in 1989, the Sale of Liquor Act finally allowed supermarkets to sell wine. This, along with more affordable overseas travels and increased exposure of New Zealand’s landscape and dining culture, catalysed the development of the country’s wine industry.
With a longstanding dairy industry providing a good technological framework, technical expertise and strict hygiene standards, it was easy for New Zealand farmers to establish winemaking operations at scale, with high quality standards and consistency.
International recognition for New Zealand’s aromatic and refreshing Sauvignon Blanc would propel the country on the international wine scene and established its position as one of the world’s leading wine exporters.
Geography and Climate
New Zealand consists of two main islands, North and South, separated by the Cook Strait. It is isolated in the South Pacific Ocean, 1900km southeast of Australia, 5000km north of Antarctica and 9000km west of Chile.
The country has a maritime climate, moderated by the cool waters of the southern Pacific. Latitude and topography result in slight variations, with the South Island (further from the equator) having a cooler climate than most areas in the North Island. Only Central Otago (South Island), protected from the ocean influence by mountain ranges on all sides, has a semi-continental climate.
Most vineyards are planted on the eastern side of the islands, more sheltered from the winds and rains blowing from the Tasman Sea. High UV radiation (though to be a result of a hole in the ozone layer and to very little air pollution), long hours of sunlight (due to latitude) and large diurnal temperature range, are key aspects of New Zealand’s success as a winemaking country: together, these factors allow for a long ripening season, with the grapes developing intensity of aromas while retaining acidity.
– Sauvignon Blanc – New Zealand’s queen variety with 62% of total plantings. The country’s distinctly aromatic and refreshing Sauvignon Blancs are responsible for the country’s winemaking boom. Although grown in almost all regions, it is particularly relevant in Marlborough, Wairarapa, Nelson and Canterbury.
– Pinot Noir – in recent years New Zealand has consolidated its reputation for premium Pinot Noir. It produces a range of styles, from the more concentrated examples hailing from Central Otago to the more elegant and floral from Marlborough and Nelson.
– Chardonnay – produced across a range of styles, some of which of outstanding expressiveness and quality. Gisborne and Hawke’s Bay are two of the regions to look out for.
– Pinot Gris – With sweetness levels ranging from dry to medium-dry, kiwi Pinot Gris can be outstanding, with beautiful aromatic complexity and great texture, imparted by lees stirring and maturation in oak.
– Merlot – the dominant variety in the Bordeaux-style blends produced in Hawke’s Bay.
Main Regions to know
Auckland – this was once the heart of the country’s wine industry but most facilities have now moved to Marlborough and Hawke’s Bay. The greater Auckland region is split into three sub-regions: Waiheke Island, West Auckland and Matakana. Waiheke island specialises in red blends based on Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah.
Gisborne – Most Gisborne vineyards are planted on a flat floodplain with clay, loam and silt soils. Chardonnay makes up more than 50% of plantings followed by Pinot Gris.
Hawke’s Bay – the oldest wine region in New Zealand, centred round the cities of Napier and Hastings. The moderate maritime climate is very similar to that of Bordeaux and indeed the region has become famous for its Merlot-based Bordeaux blends. The inland regions of Gimblett Gravels and Bridge Pa, both on alluvial terraces with gravelly soils are particularly prized. Hawke’s Bay also produced fine examples of Syrah and Chardonnay.
Wairarapa – An area focused on premium wines, from lower yielding vines. The most renowned sub-region is Martinborough, where intensely flavoured and elegant Pinot Noirs, and very perfumed Sauvignon Blancs. The elegance is given by the freshness of silt loam and loess soils.
Marlborough – by far New Zealand’s largest and most famous grape growing region. The modern age of Marlborough wine industry began in 1973 when the director of Montana Wines (now called Brancott Estate) recognised the region’s potential to make high quality wines and bought 1000 ha of land to plant vines. International critical acclaim to Marlborough’s Sauvignon Blancs in the 1980s allowed the region to grow rapidly and successfully since then, rarely meeting global demand. Pinot Noir is another successful variety, both in light-bodied juicy styles and deeper, more concentrated, from the Awatere sub-region.
Nelson – located on the north-west tip of the south island, this is the region with less protection from the winds and rains blowing from the Tasman Sea. The region produces more restrained, less herbaceous Sauvignon Blancs as well as excellent Pinot Noirs.
Canterbury – On the eastern, open, flat Pacific coast of the South Island, Canterbury covers over 200km but can be split into North Canterbury (which includes the Waipara and Waikari subregions) and South Canterbury. Most vineyards are located in North Canterbury, whose expressive Pinot Noirs have gained international acclaim. Other relevant grape varieties are Riesling and Sauvignon Blanc.
Central Otago – surrounded by the Southern Alps, this is the only region in New Zealand with a semi continental climate. The sheltering effect of the mountain ranges means that rainfall is very low, this in turn dramatically lowers disease pressure which explains why Central Otago has +become a hotspot for biodynamic viticulture (spearheaded by producers such as Felton Road).Central Otago has worldwide reputation for the quality and ageworthiness of its Pinot Noirs – the region’s high UV levels, hot summers and cold nights make for wines of incrdedible intensity and complexity.