Regions - New Zealand

New Zealand

New Zealand has long been famed for its stunning, unspoiled landscape. Equal to the international acclaim for its beauty is that for its fine wines. Climate, geography and human skill have combined to produce highly distinctive, premium quality wines, which are 'the riches of a clean, green land.'

Grapevines were first planted in New Zealand around 1819. For the next 160 years nothing much happened. Then, around 1980, New Zealand began making wine that caused an explosion in local demand while raising eyebrows in other countries. Between 1973 and 1983 wine production grew by a staggering 350% - a higher rate of growth than any other winemaking country during that period.

Most wine watchers feel that New Zealand has come further faster than any wine producing area in the world. From making just barely enough wine of ordinary quality to supply its less-than-enthusiastic natives in the 1970s to producing some of the most sought-after wines in the world just 20 years later is a success story indeed. The country is made up of two separate areas, aptly named the North Island and the South Island.

  • North Island: Two principal wine growing regions dominate the North Island; Aukland, the oldest grape growing region around New Zealand's capital and Hawks Bay, about 200 miles south. Both are in the same latitude as Morocco in North Africa, but because of their relative proximity to the ocean, are not as brutally hot. Cabernet Sauvignon and Sauvignon Blanc dominate the output here with Sauvignon Blanc being the best known.

  • South Island: The finest and best known region here is Marlborough. While many superb Chardonnays and Cabernets are produced, it is the Sauvignon Blancs which turn all the heads. Though cooler than many of the finest areas in the world for growing this grape, Marlborough boasts an extremely long and dry growing season. This allows the grapes to reach full maturity in a cooler climate while continually extracting flavor from the rich, alluvial soils. These wines are quite distinctive and full-bodied. Subtlety is not a word most use in describing the offerings from here, but they have certainly found their niche in the world of wine.

Look for very clean, and well-defined wines from New Zealand offering pinpoint flavors and lip-smacking acidity to compliment rich foods and challenging dishes. Prices are in the middle to upper levels because of the tiny quantities produced, but most are worth the investment.

New Zealand is a country of contrasts with dense, native forest, snow-capped mountains and spectacular coastline. With wine growing regions spanning the latitudes of 36 to 45 degrees and covering the length of 1000 miles, grapes are grown in a vast range of climates and soil types, producing a diverse array of styles. The northern hemisphere equivalent would run from Bordeaux (between the latitudes of 44 and 46 degrees) down to southern Spain.

New Zealand's temperate, maritime climate has a strong influence on the country's predominantly coastal vineyards. The vines are warmed by strong, clear sunlight during the day and cooled at night by sea breezes. The long, slow ripening period helps to retain the vibrant varietal flavours that make New Zealand wine so distinctive.

Located on the country's most easterly tip and closest to the international dateline, Gisborne boasts the world's most easterly vineyards and the first vines to see the sun each day. The region receives high sunshine hours on coastal plains that are sheltered from the west by a range of mountains. Soils include alluvial loams over sandy or volcanic subsoils of moderate fertility. Vineyards are predominantly sited on flats. Chardonnay occupies around half of Gisborne's vineyards and has lead Gisbornes grapegrowers and winemakers to christen their region the Chardonnay capital of New Zealand. The balance is planted in mostly white varieties, leaving red grapes a share of only 10%.

Although Sauvignon Blanc is the variety for which New Zealand established an international reputation it ranks second to Chardonnay, the country's most planted variety. Pinot Noir overtook Cabernet Sauvignon in 1997 to become the country's most planted red variety although a significant percentage of the Pinot Noir crop is destined for sparkling wine production. Plantings of Riesling, the seventh most planted variety, continue to grow slowly as the mostly slightly sweet and frequently very good wine made from it battles to lose its unfashionable image in the local market-place.

Every winery must belong to the Wine Institute of New Zealand, a statutory body formed in 1975 which collects a production-based fee from its members. WINZ has had an enormous influence on the development of the image and quality of local wine and has overseen New Zealand's substantial export attack on the United Kingdom, which imports more than two-thirds of all the wine exported from New Zealand.

This east coast North Island of Gisborne region is based on the town of the same name. It is beginning to shake off its image as a `bulk wine' region and has largely recovered from phylloxera with massive replantings.

Gisborne vine-growers and wine-makers have given their region the rather contentious title Chardonnay Capital of New Zealand. Gisborne Chardonnay is certainly the country's most distinctive regional example of the variety with soft and charming fruit flavours that often resemble ripe peach, pineapple, and melon. Gew¸rztraminer is Gisborne's other claim to vinous fame. Gisborne's wine-makers include the big two companies Montana and Corbans, which jointly produce about 80 per cent of the country's wine. Both companies have established large wineries in Gisborne, chiefly to process grapes for bag-in-box packaged blends, which accounted for nearly 60 per cent of the nation's wine sales by the late 1990s. Nestled within the large-scale, high-tech production facilities of Montana and Corbans are the small batch presses and barriques used to make limited edition, premium Chardonnay. At the other end of the production scale are many small lifestyle wineries (see lifestyle winery) that make only premium bottled table wine or traditional method sparkling wines. They include Millton Vineyards, New Zealand's first certified organic winery which produces grapes and organic wine according to Steiner's principles of biodynamism. Most Gisborne grapes are grown by farmers who sell them to wineries under long-term contract, or to the highest bidder. Several Auckland wineries regularly buy Gisborne grapes which are mechanically harvested before being transported for nine hours by road in covered dump trucks.

Hawkes Bay, around the town of Napier, is one of New Zealand's older wine regions and certainly one of the best. Complex soil patterns and mesoclimates make it difficult to generalize about the wines of such a diverse region, particularly when they are made by such an eclectic group of wine-makers. Situated on the east coast of the North Island, 130 miles south of Gisborne and 194 miles north of Wellington, Hawkes Bay frequently records the country's highest sunshine hours.

The best Hawkes Bay reds are Cabernet Sauvignon or a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and occasionally Cabernet Franc. They have intense berry and cassis flavours, often with a gently herbaceous reminder of their moderately cool climate (see cool climate viticulture) origin and, sometimes, strong oak influence from up to two years' maturation in new French barriques. Syrah is rapidly finding favour with Hawkes Bay wine-makers although plantings are still relatively small and are confined to the warmer parts of the region. Hawkes Bay Chardonnay may lack the seductive charm of the Gisborne equivalent but the best have intense citrus flavours and a brooding elegance that are seldom matched by the wines of other regions. Hawkes Bay Sauvignon Blanc is a softer, fleshier wine than the better known Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc. It often has a nectarine or stone fruit character, a useful indicator of regional identity.

Marlborough is the biggest of New Zealand's big three wine regions. Industry giant Montana planted the first vines in Marlborough when it established the South Island's first commercial vineyard in 1973. At the time it seemed an enormous gamble but after the vines reached full production Montana's investment returned a handsome dividend in terms of quality and profit. Other producers soon followed to establish wineries in the region or to secure a supply of grapes for the 18-hour journey north to Auckland or Gisborne. The single wine that put Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc on the international map was Cloudy Bay, in 1985. It remains today the most sought after New Zealand wine and one of the most sought after wines in the world.

Wairarapa, which includes the Martinborough region, is at the southern end of the North Island about one hour's drive from the nation's capital, Wellington. In 1998 Wairarapa had less than three per cent of the country's vines but 12 per cent of its wine-makers. They are typically small-scale, `lifestyle' producers with a quality-at-all-costs attitude to wine-making and a passionate faith in their region's potential. Wairarapa wine-makers argue over whether the region is more suitable for Pinot Noir (Ata Rangi, Dry River, Martinborough Vineyards) or Cabernet Sauvignon (Benfield & Delamere), but there is ample evidence that both varieties perform well. In their quest to make great wine most producers crop their vines so that yields are considerably below the national average, a significant factor in the region's success. In terms of topography, climate, and soils Wairarapa might easily be considered a miniature Marlborough, were it not for the region's ability to make top-quality reds on a regular basis.

In terms of grape varieties, expansion is concentrated in those varieties for which new Zealand is building a strong international reputation. Between 1998 and 2001 the changes in the producing area for these key varieties are:

  • Pinot Noir growth of 71%
  • Merlot growth of 49%
  • Chardonnay growth of 40%
  • Sauvignon Blanc growth of 15%
  • Riesling growth of 13%
  • Cabernet Sauvignon growth of 12%