New Zealand may seem late to the show. But in only 50 years, it has made a name for itself in the wine world.
Winemaking in New Zealand dates back to the mid-19th century. But it didn’t really take off until after the 1970s. Up until that time, New Zealand was known for its beef, dairy, and wool. But in 1973, Britain opted to become part of the European Economic Community. This move severed its trade agreement with New Zealand.
Wine in New Zealand dates back to 1819. That’s when Reverend Samuel Marsden, a missionary from the Church of England, planted vines in the Bay of Islands. French missionaries followed and, in 1851, began making communion wine in Hawke’s Bay. Their vineyards are now the Mission Estate Winery. It’s the oldest continually operating winery in New Zealand.
Pinot Noir and Syrah vines arrived in 1881. In 1885, Romeo Bragato, an Austro-Hungarian oenologist, deemed the islands “pre-eminently suited to viticulture.” In 1906 he published “Viticulture in New Zealand.” And by 1908, five wines from his Te Kauwhata Experimental Station won gold medals at a Franco-British wine exhibition.
New Zealand was off to a great start, but the Temperance movement hamstrung expansion. Yep, New Zealand had one, too. Wine production languished until the last quarter of the 20th Century.
New Zealanders needed to diversify their exports after Britain's move to the European Economic Community. So they reembraced viticulture. Pastures with minimal fertility in low moisture areas were converted to vineyards. Across the islands, small boutique wineries, often with less than 50 acres of land, sprung up. In 1994 winery owners in New Zealand became the first in the world to establish a sustainability program. We love their motto: “Monitor, Measure, Reduce… Repeat.”
Since 2000, New Zealand has averaged a 17 percent year-over-year growth rate. And by 2020, New Zealand Wine exports overtook wool and garnered $1.92 billion NZ (~1.26 billion US) in sales. That’s equivalent to 3 percent of the global wine market.
New Zealand has roughly the same area as Colorado but stretches over 1,000 miles north to south. The northernmost tip is at 36°S, a latitude similar to Jerez, Spain. Its southernmost wine region is around 45°S, the same latitude in the Northern hemisphere as Bordeaux, France. New Zealand has a primarily maritime climate since the islands are only 280 miles at their widest point. Imagine what California wine country would be like if its wine regions had an ocean on each side! New Zealand’s maritime climate produces cooler summers and mild winters, with its wine regions in the eastern rain shadow of its Alps. This positioning limits moisture, which helps create more complex flavors in the grapes.
With the juxtaposition of its maritime climate, volcanic soils, and range of mesoclimates, New Zealand was made for wine.
In 2017, New Zealand submitted 18 different regions for Geographical Indication (GI) classification. These were approved in 2019. GIs are defined by the World Trade Organization and are used to protect agricultural products linked to a specific location. In the U.S., GIs include “Florida” oranges, “Washington State” apples, “Kentucky” bourbon, and “Napa Valley” wine. They aren’t trademarks, but rather certification marks indicating regional origin.
The list below includes the 11 most prominent regions and their respective sub-regions. We’ll start our adventure in northern North Island and work our way south.
Northland’s wine region has a sub-tropical climate with warm springs, and dry, hot summers and autumns. It’s perfect for producing early-ripening grapes or varietals that prefer a long growing season. No part of Northland is more than 31 miles (50 km) from the ocean, and it is the closest wine region to the equator. Due to its fertile soils, the area is known for low-acidity wines.
This was the first place where grapes were planted in New Zealand, on the Bay of Islands.
The Bay of Islands, Whangarei, and Kaitaia are still where most of the vineyards are concentrated. Chardonnay is the primary grape cultivated in the region, with Syrah, Pinot Gris, and Merlot coming in next. Varietals that do well in warmer climates are also common. These include Montepulciano, Chambourcin, and Pinotage.
Northland has three sub-regions, two on the eastern coast, Kerikeri and Whangarei, and one on the southwest coast, Dargaville.
Auckland, a small wine region southeast of Northland, is just outside the city of Auckland. It has around 790 acres of vineyards. The soil is clay with the occasional pocket of volcanic soil mixed in. Its mesoclimate is warmer than Northland. The area was settled by Croatian, Lebanese, and English winemakers. Each group brought its own traditions, which have melded over the years.
Due to the warmer climate, some winemakers are trying Italian and Spanish grapes here. These are varieties like Albariño, Montepulciano, Sangiovese, Dolcetto, Tempranillo, and Nebbiolo.
The Auckland wine region has four subregions: Waiheke Island, Kumeu, Matakana, and West Auckland.
West Auckland is known for its intense red blends made up of Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, and Malbec. It also produces New Zealand’s best Chardonnay in the Kumeu subregion. Other regional high points are Syrahs from the Waiheke subregion and Pinot Gris from Matakana.
These two small wine regions lie south of Auckland and, by many standards, in an area usually considered too rainy for viticulture. However, the clay and loamy soils provide a good base for the imported vines. The first grapes here were planted at Te Kauwhata by Romeo Bragato. He reportedly chose the area for its lovely rolling hills.
Focus in this region is on Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris, Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, and Cabenet Sauvignon. In Waikato, they have created a blend dubbed Charminer. It is a mix of un-oaked Chardonnay and Gewurztraminer. Together, they create a wine with crisper notes than a traditional Chardonnay.
Gisborne has the distinction of being the first place on the North Island to see the sunrise. It is the 3rd largest growing region with over 4,800 acres of vines. The region abuts the Pacific Ocean and includes three river valleys. Soil is a mix of well-drained silt and limestone in the hills and heavy clay in the valleys. This area is known for its dry-farming techniques. It has a range of large and boutique family-owned vineyards.
Historically, Gisborne was planted with Müller-Thurgau vines. These were used for fortified wines and the box blends that became popular in the 1970s. Eventually the Müller-Thurgau vines were uprooted, and Chardonnay and Gewürztraminer were planted in their stead.
The region focuses heavily on whites. Chardonnay dominates, with Pinot Gris and Gewürztraminer next in line. Gisborne Gewürztraminer, with its distinctive spicy flavor, is unique to the region. The primary red is Merlot. Other varieties include Semillon, Chenin Blanc, Muscat, Pinot Noir, Viognier, Malbec, and Pinotage.
Gisborne has nine subregions: Patutahi, Patutahi plateau, Waipoa, Golden Slope, Central Valley, Riverpoint, Manutuke, Ormond, and Ormond Valley.
The Ormond sub-region, which surrounds the town of Patutahi, is situated in the Raujumara Ranges in what is known as “The Golden Slope.” It’s an area just over 6 miles long of free-draining escarpment and limestone-derived topsoil. It produces many single-vineyard wines and some of Gisborne’s best Chardonnay.
Patutahi is another sub-region of note, known for its Gewürztraminer. Low rainfall, well-draining clay, and silt soils produce wines with exceptional texture and body.
The Manutuke sub-region is another Chardonnay-heavy area. It also produces botrytized wines--those infected with “noble rot,” a fungus (Botrytis cinerea). This fungus increases the concentration of sugars. (The most well-known of the wines made from noble rot infected grapes is Tokaj, from Hungary.)
Hawke's Bay, the second-largest wine region in New Zealand, has 91 wineries and over 11,570 acres planted in vines. It is also one of New Zealand’s oldest wine regions. The first winery in the area was established in 1851 by Catholic missionaries with vines brought from France. The winery became the longest continuously operating vineyard and is now called Mission Estate.
Most vineyards in Hawke’s Bay are clustered on the low hills and plains around the cities of Hastings and Napier. The region's long, dry summers are perfect for reds that take more time to mature; one of the reasons Hawke’s Bay produces more red wine than any other region.
Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Syrah, and Malbec are the most popular red varieties. Whites include Chardonnay, Pinot Gris, Sauvignon Blanc and Viognier.
Hawke’s Bay has five sub-regions: Esk Valley, Gimblett Gravels, Te Awanga, Havelock, and Central Hawke’s Bay.
Gimblett Gravels is unique among Hawke’s Bay subregions. It is one of the only GIs in the world defined by soil type. Its Omahu Gravels are gravel beds layered with silt and loam produced by the flooding of the Ngaruroro River. The area produces some of Hawke’s Bay’s most delectable reds.
The last of the wine regions of North Island is Wairarapa which sits at the southernmost tip. It has a climate similar to Burgundy, France. The area's limestone-based soils, high in calcium carbonate, are optimal for Pinot Noir. The region also boasts hot summers and a long growing season and lies in the Tararua Range rain shadow. Most of its 126 wineries are boutique family-owned affairs.
Along with Pinot Noir, vines grown include Sauvignon Blanc and Syrah. Aromatic grapes are also popular, and there are small plots of Pinot Gris, Chardonnay, and Riesling.
There are four sub-regions in Wairarapa: Masterton, Gladstone, Martinborough, and Opaki.
Masterton, where vines were first planted in the region, boasts 30 wineries, most family-owned and operated. This is an area with extreme temperature fluctuations--hot summer days followed by frosty mornings. And that is key to the complexity found in their Pinot Noir and Sauvignon Blanc.
Situated at the northern tip of South Island, the Marlborough wine region is the largest in New Zealand, containing over 69 percent of the vineyards. Two hundred sixty-one vineyards are accredited by Sustainable Winegrowing New Zealand, the organization founded in 1994 to promote New Zealand wines and protect its stunning landscape for future generations. The soil is sandy and stony, with areas in the northern part of Marlborough having chalky limestone. With mountains to the west and the Pacific Ocean to the east, summer temps average 70 degrees (25C) with cool nights. Paired with low average rainfall, this makes Marlborough perfect for wine production.
Sauvignon Blanc was initially planted in the 1970s and is the region's crown jewel. Connoisseurs have described its unique flavor as piercing, electrifying, zingy, bold, and thrilling. It is a wine that has no need for aging and is most often bottled with a screw cap instead of a cork. (That’s because cooking changes the flavor, causing the wine to lose its unique characteristics.)
In addition to Sauvignon Blanc, the Marlborough region also produces Chardonnay, Pinot Gris, and Riesling. Some vineyards are experimenting with Albariño, a vine native to Spain which makes a crisp wine with citrus, peach, and high minerality. Sparkling wine, produced in the method traditionally, is made from Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Meunier.
Sparkling winemakers in the region are led by Méthode Marlborough, an organization committed to producing world-class sparkling wine. They use the traditional method of dual fermentation, like that used for Champagne. The first fermentation takes place in barrels for a minimum of 18 months, and the second fermentation occurs in the bottle.
Reds grown in the region include Pinot Noir, Syrah, Tempranillo, and Montepulciano, a grape from Italy that produces a brightly-colored dry red wine.
Marlborough has three subregions: Wairau Valley, Awatere Valley, and the Southern Valleys. The Awatere Valley, with its cooler climate, contains over a third of Marlborough’s vineyards.
Nelson wine region is blessed with a sunny Mediterranean climate of warm days, cool nights, and long, dry autumns. German settlers were the first to plant vines in the mid-1800s. It is perfect for aromatic wine varieties like Riesling, Pinot Gris, and Gewürztraminer. The region drops down to Tasman Bay and is backed by mountains. The soil is a mix of alluvial gravel, sand, and silt near the bay and heavy clay soils farther up the valley.
Like many wine regions in New Zealand, Nelson’s vineyards are primarily Sauvignon Blanc. Pinot Noir, the aromatics, and Chardonnay also thrive here. The region now has around 40 wineries, many of them small family-owned boutique operations.
Nelson’s two subregions abut Tansman Bay. Moutere Hills is where the first settlers planted their vines. The area has clay soils threaded with gravel. It is wetter and warmer than other parts of Nelson. Waimea plains have stony soils laid down from ancient river floodwaters, and its vineyards share the area with hops and orchards.
North Canterbury is the fourth largest of New Zealand’s wine regions. It sits in the middle of South Island, running from the Southern Alps to the eastern coastline. The area has a diverse range of soil types. They range from stony alluvial river deposits to greywacke (coarse-grained sandstone) and clay derived from limestone deposits.
The wines from these regions tend to be complex and intense. Both their Pinot Noir and Riesling are internationally acclaimed. Other vines planted in the area include Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Gris, and Chardonnay.
Canterbury Plans, Waipara Valley, and the Banks Peninsula are North Canterbury’s three sub-regions. Waipara Valley is the fastest-growing wine region in New Zealand and is home to over 75 vineyards. Its mesoclimates produce unique Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs.
The most isolated of New Zealand’s wine regions, Waitaki Valley is problematic for winemakers. Growers first drawn by the soil ended up finding the climate a challenge. The soil is a mix of Limestone, greywacke (a coarse-grained sandstone composed of no more than 15 percent clay), and schist (a crystalline metamorphic rock that is split into thin sections). It is stony enough to radiate warmth and sunlight. This helps increase nighttime temperatures to offset the short summer daylight hours in this very cool region. Waitaki has the longest growing season of the wine regions. But the temperature is inconsistent. So year-over-year yields vary dramatically, as frost can occur in both spring and autumn.
The region is very young, with vines planted in the early part of this century. The primary varietals are Pinot Noir, Riesling, Pinot Gris, and Chardonnay.
Kurow and Oamaru are the two subregions in Waitaki Valley.
The Central Otago Wine Region is unique in many ways. It has the distinction of being the most southerly wine region, not just in New Zealand but in the world. Protected by mountains with peaks reaching 12,000 feet (3,650 m), it is the only part of New Zealand with a continental climate. Central Otago’s singularity continues with its soil. This is a mix of schists, silty and loamy soils that include mica deposits. Between 1861 and 1864, the area was inundated with prospectors from the Otago Gold Rush to the tune of 18,000 souls. Most left, some stayed. Luckily, the French miners brought their vines with them.
It is the third-largest wine-producing region in New Zealand and, as of 2020, had 133 wineries. Pinot Noir is the most popular vine, occupying 70 percent of the vineyards. The remaining are planted in Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling, Pinot Gris, and Gewürztraminer. This is another area where méthode traditionnelle sparkling wine is made, usually from a mix of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.
Sub-regions for Central Otago include Bannockburn, Bendigo, Wanaka, Gibbston Valley, Cromwell, and Alexandra.
Bannockburn, nicknamed “the heart of the desert” by prospectors, produces what many believe is the region's best wines. The area is the driest in Central Otago, and grapes tend to ripen earlier here than elsewhere in the region.
Bendigo’s vineyards are terraced on the stony north-facing slopes and lower in the valley. The area is known for its hot summers and cold clear nights. It has the largest number of vineyards of any of the sub-regions.
In 1864, Jean Desire Feraud planted the first vines in what is now the Alexandra subregion. Alexandra is the hottest of Central Otago’s subregions, often recording the highest temperatures in New Zealand. It’s also the southernmost.
New Zealand’s wine production has exploded over the last fifty years. And it’s only accelerating. The joy is, that they are not giving up quality for quantity. Many of New Zealand’s wineries and vineyards are small and family-owned. And they are pushing the boundaries of what distinctive terroir can create. It’s amazing what they do with the plethora of mesoclimates available to them.
As you walk through your favorite wine store’s New Zealand section, keep an eye out for these unique regions and subregions. And let us know what exciting things you find — maybe a world-class Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc, one of Waiheke Islands Bordeaux style blends, or a Gimblett Gravels Merlot. Have fun and explore.