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A guide to New Zealand wine

About New Zealand wine

New Zealand is now a major wine producing country, with the body representing the industry (New Zealand Winegrowers) currently having 675 winery members. The growth has been dramatic with some 382 wineries back in 2001. The country has established itself firmly on the global wine production map with a distinctive New Zealand style with some very high quality producers. 

In the year to 30 June 2016, the value of the country's wine exports rose 10% to just under $1.6 billion.

Marlborough is the largest growing area in New Zealand, with 24,020 hectares, representing 66.4% of total production with Hawke's Bay in second place with 4,744 hectares and 13.1% of total production. Next comes Central Otago with 1,943 hectares (5.4%). 

Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay are the most widely planted grapes with Sauvignon Blanc being the largest New Zealand grape by far with nearly 60% of the growing area.

Sauvignon Blanc from the Marlborough region and Pinot Noir from Central Otago and Wairarapa have the greatest concentration of high quality wine producers.

The country is split into two parts; the "North Island" and "South Island", both producing very distinct wines and both would be described as maritime in nature. 

The North Island is a very wet place to grow grapes, with the exception of Wairarapa near Wellington and Waiheke Island about an hour off the coast of Auckland. It is generally warmer than the South Island, but both are impacted by the prevailing western winds and icy currents from Antarctica. Cyclonic rain storms move in from the East during the Autumn from the Pacific hitting areas like Hawkes Bay and Gisborne.

The soils in the North Island are on the whole very fertile but poorly draining, encouraging large crops of grapes which can struggle to ripen as well as a thick leaf growth that again hinders ripening. A wine makers nightmare if the  autumn storms and heavy rain hit! Heavy leaf growth can also reduce air movement and with damp this can cause rot (botrytis).

New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc

When people think New Zealand wine, they think about the distinctive flavours of the country's white wines and specifically Sauvignon Blanc from Malborough. New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc typically has asparagus, gooseberry and green flavours which come from compounds called methoxypyrazines.

Whilst Villa Maria and Cloudy Bay are probably the country's most well known white wine brands using grapes from the Malborough region, the Brancott Vineyard (owned by Brancott Estate, previously called Montana and now owned by Pernod Ricard) actually planted the first Sauvignon Blanc in Marlborough in 1975 and released the first vintage in 1979. A controversial decision at the time as many suggested that the South Island was too cold to grow wine grapes. 

Villa Maria was founded by Sir George Fistonich in 1961, leasing a 5ha plot of land on Kirkbride Road in Mangere, Auckland from his parents. The company is still a family-owned and operated business.

Cloudy Bay is an iconic NZ wine brand. It was established in 1985 by David Hohnen, the founder of Margaret River winery Cape Mentelle Vineyards and its 140 hectares (350 acres) of vineyards are located at three sites in Marlborough, including areas close to the bay for which they are named. In 2003 Cloudy Bay Vineyards was bought by LVMH (Louis Vuitton Möet Hennessy) through its champagne house Veuve Clicquot and since then there has been some criticism that though production has hugely expanded, quality is not at the same level as in the pre-LVMH era. 

Kevin Judd, the winemaker at Cloudy Bay for over two decades,  launched Greywacke in 2010 as a 'négociant' operation, borrowing winery space and using fruit he buys from long-standing friends and associates, all coming from mature vineyards within the central Wairau Plains and the Southern Valleys of Marlborough. Greywacke's Sauvignon Blanc is better value than Cloudy Bay yet retains its high quality and produces excellent wines.

New Zealand Pinot Noir

Central Otago New Zealand vineyard

Pinot Noir is now grown in several areas of New Zealand including Marlborough, Central Otago, Wairarapa, Canterbury/Waipara and Nelson. Generally speaking New Zealand Pinot Noir has more fruity notes, higher aromatic intensity and sometimes higher alcohol compared with Burgundy Pinot Noir.

The South Island's cool climate is well suited to the growing of this difficult grape and Central Otago has established itself as a key producing region. The nearest comparison in Pinot Noir style to Wairarapa is Russian River in California, whereas Central Otago is more similar to Oregon wines though with lower acidity levels and generally higher aromatics. Wairarapa Pinot has the aroma and flavour of black cherries, whereas Central Otago, South Island Pinot often has stronger strawberry aromas but still has a black fruit focus (black cherry and damson plum). Wairarapa Pinot Noir is therefore similar to St.Laurent produced in the Thermenregion of Austria. 

The following wineries are recognised are producing some of the best examples of Pinot Noir:

  • Ata Rangi, Bald Hills, Bell Hill, Burnt Spur, Burn Cottage, Churton, Craggy Range, Escarpment, Felton Road, Gibbston Valley, Grasshopper Rock, Greywacke, Julicher Estate, Martinborough Vineyards, Ma Maison, Mt. Difficulty, Mount Edward, Neudorf, Pegasus Bay, Pyramid Valley, Quartz Reef, Rippon, Schubert, Seresin Estate, Surveyor Thomson, Two Paddocks, Valli, and Wooing Tree.

New Zealand Organic Wine

Organic winegrowers of New Zealand

Many New Zealand wine producers have embraced organic and even biodynamic production with a desire to reduce chemical intervention in the vineyard and winery. As of vintage 2015, 12% of all NZ growers had an organic vineyard, and approximately 6% of all NZ vineyard land was certified organic. Organic Winegrowers New Zealand (OWNZ) is a grower-led organisation dedicated to supporting and encouraging the production of high quality, organic and biodynamically grown wines. See more at https://www.organicwinenz.com/ .

The following OWNZ member wineries produce wines solely from certified organic or biodynamic grapes:

* Artisan Wines, * Aurum Wines, * Churton, * Covell Estate, * Clos Henri, * Carrick, * Fancrest Estate, * Felton Road, * Fromm, * Hans Herzog Estate, * Huia, * Kaimira, * Konrad Wines, * Middleditch, * Millton Vineyards and Winery, * Mount Edward, * Muddy Water, * Murdoch, * Northburn, * Quartz Reef, * Richmond Plains, * Rock Ferry, * Seresin Estate, * Schubert Wines, * Soderberg Vidak - Dry Hills, * Sunset Valley Vineyard, * Takamatua Valley Vineyard, * Terrace Edge, * Te Whare Ra, * Turanga Creek, * Urlar, * Vynfields, * Walnut Block Wines, * World's End Wines

The following wineries produce some wines from fully certified organic vineyards, and have the rest of their vineyard land under conversion to organics. For details, check with winery:

* The Darling, * Red Deer Wine, * Stonecroft, * Te Mania, * Woollaston Estate

The following wineries produce some wines from organic vineyards. Please note that some of these are large wineries which only produce a few wines from organic grapes. For details, check with winery:

* Babich, * Dog Point, * Framingham, * Gibbston Valley Wines, * Greenhough, * Kahurangi Estate, * Loveblock, * Mahi Wines, * Matua * Mission Estate, * Odyssey, * Peregrine, * Pernod Ricard New Zealand, * Villa Maria Estate, * Vidal Wines, * Wither Hills

The following OWNZ member wineries have all or some of their vineyards in conversion to organics. These vineyards have all adhered to organic methods for at least one or two years. 

* Black Estate, * Greystone Wines, * Neudorf, * Ohui Vineyard, * Ormond Estate, * Saltings Estate, * Schubert Wines

New Zealand wine regions

Auckland Wine Region

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Auckland is home to a large, established and varied wine Region. Vines were first planted in Northland in 1819, four hours to the North of Auckland City. It is is best known for its Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay. Most of the top wineries in the area, use grapes brought in from other areas due to the difficulties in cultivating quality product on the heavy clay soils and high humidity due to it being sandwiched between the Tasman Sea and Pacific. 

Just off the coast is the exciting wine area of Waiheke Island which unlike the mainland has a warm, dry maritime climate with relatively free draining and infertile soils which makes it perfect for quality wines. 

Canterbury Wine Region

The Canterbury wine region was one of the last to be developed for wine production, with the first vineyard opened in 1977. The fastest growing area is the Waipara sub-region, 40 km north of Christchurch, where the Teviotdale range of hills protects the grapes from the sea breezes and increases the temperature by a few degrees compared to the area around Canterbury.

It has Christchurch within in and is dominated by the Canterbury plains, which span from the Southern mountain ranges of New Zealand to the east coast of the South Island. The soils of the region are stony and alluvial, whilst the climate is hot and dry in summer, and cold in the winter.

The area is best known for Pinot Noir and Riesling and the latter particularly in Waipara.

Central Otago Wine Region

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Central Otago is the world’s southern most wine producing region and has Queenstown at is centre, situated on the shores of Lake Wakatipu. It lies at latitude 45 degrees south, on the same parallel as the Northern Rhone valley and Bordeaux. The region has several large mountain ranges including The Remarkables, Hector Mountains, Cairnmuir Mountains, Pisa and Criffel ranges, Mount Cadrona and the Dustan Mountains. 

The climate has hot and dry summers and cold, snowy winters. Between December and February, the number of cloudless days with temperatures over 20 degrees centigrade and peaking at 30 degrees is very high.  Hot days means that the grapes ripen well, whilst cold nights cause high acidity, great conditions for Pinot Noir in particular. The landscape is absolutely beautiful but also remarkably barren in places, quite a challenge if you're a winemaker. When wine production first started in the area by pioneers like Gibbston Valley Wines and Black ridge many naysayers said that the area was "too cold, too remote, too barren, too warm". But thirty years on the early producers have proven the critics wrong with superb wines.

centralotagomap

The soil structure is unique compared with the other wine growing areas in that  it has silt loam with heavy mineral deposits. 

The area is particularly renowned for its Pinot Noir with silky smoothness, herb character (thyme and rosemary) and high fruit intensity, particularly cherry and damson plum. There are less red berry notes than other parts of the world where Pinot Noir is grown. Compared with Burgundy the wines are often bolder, softer, fleshier and more accessible and can be better value for money, though prices for NZ Pinot Noir have risen in recent years as its wineries have become better recognised. 

Central Otago sub-regions

Central Otago is split into several distinct sub-regions each with their own particular terroir.

  • Alexandra - The most southerly sub-region, with a dry climate and marked diurnal temperature variations which tends to produce very perfumed and finely structured wines.
  • Bannockburn - With a north facing ridge which is the driest area in New Zealand, it is warm, has varied soil types and is probably the most well known sub-region. It is home to many of the most highly regarded wineries including Felton Road and Mt Difficulty. 
  • Bendigo - Medium and high elevation terraces, stony soils and north facing slopes mean that the vines capture the sun ensuring a more powerful style than other sub-regions. But the cooler nights in Central Otago mean that Bendigo wines have good aromatics and varietal character.
  • Cromwell Basin - The  area borders the northern edge of Lake Dunstan and is adjacent to the Pisa and Lowburn sub-regions. The influence of the lake means that the wines are generally ripe and aromatic as the water ensures that temperature fluctuations are less marked than other areas and moisture is retained.
  • Gibbston - This sub-region is at high altitude and cooler which means later grape ripening and crisper wines with a more aromatic/herby notes but also having elegance and delicacy.
  • Wanaka - The most northerly and temperate of Central Otago's sub-regions with more rain and experiencing the influence of Lake Wanaka reducing the risk of frost and extreme temperature changes. Pinot Noir produced in this area is more pronounced in its fruit than other sub-regions because of the more temperate climate with elegance and expressive aromas and flavours.

Best vintages - 2012, 2010, 2009, 2007 (very good)

centralotagovintages

Central Otago pinot noir style versus Burgundy

 

Gisborne Wine Region

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Gisborne is New Zealand’s fourth largest wine region and is situated on the most easterly point of the North Island. It has high sunshine levels but can be hit by storms impacting the quality of vintages year to year. The main grape grown is Chardonnay, but Riesling, Chenin Blanc and Gewürztraminer are also grown. To the west of Gisborne, and separated by mountains is the Bay of Plenty. Historically the excessive fertility has made the production of high quality grape varieties difficult in most areas, due to dense foliage and dense crops that produce poorly ripened grapes.  Gisborne has also very high rainfall in February to April, a problem for red wine production. Production in less fertile sites has helped overcome some of these challenges.

Hawke's Bay Wine Region

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Hawke’s Bay is the country’s second largest wine producing region and is located on the east coast of the North Island and to the south of Gisborne. It is the country’s key wine and food tourism destination and is home to many of New Zealand’s best known wineries. It experiences lots and lots of sunshine and a temperate climate. Chardonnay is the most widely planted grape variety but Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Cabernet Franc are also produced.  It is the premier area for Bordeaux blend reds and has developed a reputation for quality Syrah, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc.

In 2001, a group of wineries and growers came together to form their own appellation based on the 1730 acre area of gravelly soil, the so called "Gimblett Gravels" which now produces some of the areas best wines. If Gimblett Gravels is stated on the label, 95 per cent of the grapes in the wine must be from there. 

Marlborough Wine Region

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Marlborough is the country’s largest wine producing region and is at the Northern most point of the South Island with the city of Blenheim at the centre of wine production.

The region is best known for Sauvignon Blanc (a third of production) but also produces Pinot Noir, Riesling and Chardonnay.

The region has similarity to Hawke’s Bay with a relatively cool climate, good sunshine and free draining alluvial soil.  It is now said to be one of the best places in the world to grow grapes but up to the 1970's wine production was minimal. Its most famous brand, Cloudy Bay, was first produced in 1985. 

It has a long slow ripening season, getting similar overall heat to Burgundy but the average daily temperature is lower. Hence the ripening season goes on until May with the benefit of relatively cold nights helping to produce acidity . 

Nelson Wine Region

Nelson is south of Marlborough, and is a relatively small wine region. Nelson vineyards focus on Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Riesling and Pinot Noir. It has a reputation as having the best climate in New Zealand with large amounts of annual sunshine. The Moutere Hills are an area of particular interest. The soils being mainly clay loam, Nelson is cooler than Marlborough and gets more rain in the autumn. 

Wairarapa Wine Region

Wairarapa is close to New Zealand's capital, Wellington City with the town of Martinborough at the centre of the wine region. It is right at the Southerly tip of the North Island. The climate is similar to Marlborough, with high sunshine hours, little rain and cooling breezes at night. The area has a strong reputation for Pinot Noir given its relatively cool climate. Subtle differences are seen in the wines from the south (which includes Martinborough), which has more maritime influences, to those grown further north.

Martinborough has become one of New Zealand's premier wine regions in spite of its small size with one of the longest growing seasons in the country and shielded from the harshest elements by high mountains,  meaning it is protected from both the summer and autumn rains which can impact other areas. It often experiences windier conditions and a cool climate with a long dry autumnal period. The land by the river flats is heavy clay, but a series of river terraces to the north east around Martinborough have shallow, gravelly silt over deep, free draining gravel. This produces perfect conditions for Pinot Noir and Chardonnay

New Zealand wine vintage reports

  • 2016 - Larger yields after the small 2015 vintage. Martinborough had excellent weather conditions throughout the year, and is likely to fare better than Central Otago. In Marlborough, larger than average berry size is expected to emphasise thiols (passionfruit flavours) over methoxypyrazines (herbal flavours).
  • 2015 - Low yields were the norm with Marlborough in particular having a very dry summer. However resulting wines had greater concentration than 2014 Central Otago Pinot Noir grapes had good ripeness.
  • 2014 - A pretty good year across New Zealand, particularly in Hawke’s Bay. Marlborough had its largest ever vintage with quality good across the board.
  • 2013 - Excellent wine growing conditions in the North Island, especially Hawke's Bay, with a warm summer and weather largely good across the country.
  • 2012 - A very cold year, one of the coolest on record with resultant low yields across NZ.  Sauvignon Blancs lost their classic tropical fruit notes and were notable for lime and lemon characteristics.
  • 2011 - A good year with a warm summer and high yields. 
  • 2010 - Sauvignon Blanc based wines were extra concentrated and Pinot Noir showed firm tannins and strong aromas. Increased wine flavour concentration was at the expense of yield.
  • 2009 - Good dry and warm conditions across New Zealand making wines of exceptional balance, particularly reds from Martinborough and Hawke's Bay.
  • 2008 - A poor year, a lot of wet weather and cool temperatures. Grape rot evident with low yields.

Recommended New Zealand wineries

Rippon Estate, Felton Road, Burn Cottage, Surveyor Thomson, Grasshopper Rock, Rock Ferry Wines, Pyramid Valley, Clos Henri, Villa Maria

Wine tasting in New Zealand

See the comprehensive article on top spots to visit on a wine tasting trip to New Zealand at :