When it comes to New Zealand wine, thirst-quenching Sauvignon Blanc is usually the first thing to spring to mind. However, across both islands, roots run far deeper than just SB. Varying microclimates, soil types, and topographical differences create a massively diverse viticultural scene, making it one of the Southern Hemisphere’s most exciting wine regions to explore. Get to know a bit more about New Zealand and its wines through our guide, here.
A Bit of New Zealand History
Winemaking in New Zealand dates back to the mid-19th century, with records of British oenologist, James Busby, first producing wine on the North Island in 1836. Shortly after, Mission Estate Winery (current name) was founded in 1851, making it New Zealand’s oldest continually operating vineyard. Thirty years later, Pinot Noir and Syrah were planted in Masterton, followed by the arrival of Dalmatian immigrants, who added their viticultural expertise to the island’s winemaking scene.
During the 20th century, wine was mainly produced for domestic consumption. However, a restructuring of the country’s economic exportation system was introduced in the late 1960s, placing a higher emphasis on more profitable goods. This led to a transition away from the dairy and wool industries and into the world of viticulture. In addition, the lifting of New Zealand’s ‘six o’clock swill’ law, where bars were only permitted to operate for one hour a day, coupled with a rise in exploration of wine regions overseas, helped dramatically change the country’s culture around wine.
Today, animal agriculture still dominates New Zealand’s export market, though wine plays a very significant role. Over 37,000 hectares are planted with vines, producing 2.85 million hectolitres of wine per year.
New Zealand recently implemented an official appellation system, using GI (geographical indication) classifications, equivalent to those of Europe’s PGI and America’s AVA systems. Upon its formation, 18 appellations were officially created.
The major grape growing regions of New Zealand’s North Island are Northland, Auckland, Gisborne, Hawke’s Bay, and Wairarapa. Northland is the closest region to the equator, with just 64 hectares under vine. Auckland’s 300+ hectares are mainly dedicated to Chardonnay and Bordeaux varieties, spread around the country’s largest city. These vineyards are also located within Auckland’s smaller subregions of Waiheke Island, Kumeu, and Matakana. Gisborne is the country’s most easterly producing region, with 1300+ hectares planted mainly to Chardonnay, Gewurztraminer, and other white varieties. Hawke’s Bay, New Zealand’s oldest wine producing region, represents about 10% of the country’s entire production, known for its Merlot based ‘Bordeaux blends,’ Syrah, and Chardonnay. Hawke’s Bay is also known for its signature soil, Gimblett Gravels, which is one of the world’s few GIs designated by soil type. Wairarapa incorporates the subzones of Gladstone and Martinborough, known for its Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris, Chardonnay, and Syrah production.
The South Island’s main growing regions are Nelson, Marlborough, Canterbury, the Waitaki Valley, and Central Otago. Nelson is New Zealand’s sunniest growing region and is relatively small, often overshadowed by neighboring Marlborough. With 24K+ hectares dedicated to Sauvignon Blanc, Marlborough holds over 75% of the country’s entire vineyard plantings. Canterbury is known for its Pinot Noir and white varieties (Chardonnay, Riesling, Pinot Gris, and Sauvignon Blanc), while the limestone, alluvial soils of the Waitaki Valley, wedged between Otago and Canterbury, is best known for its Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris, and Riesling. Central Otago is the country’s most southerly and highest (in altitude) wine region, characterized by a continental climate. Here, Pinot Noir is a key player.
Most of New Zealand’s wine regions are characterized by well-draining alluvial soils, with Waiheke Island and Central Otago being the two main exceptions. Local greywacke soil is also common, mostly made up of sandstone. In Hawke’s Bay, Gimblett Gravels are formed from rocky ex-river beds, creating low fertility soils and warmer microclimates. Limestone deposits are also found across the country, particularly in Canterbury and the Waitaki Valley.
Most of the country experiences a maritime climate, though cooler regions, like Central Otago, experience more continental influences. In total, New Zealand’s wine regions span from 36-45 degrees south latitude, similar to Spain’s Jerez (36 degrees) and France’s Bordeaux (45 degrees) regions, creating massive climate diversity across the country. Most of New Zealand’s wine regions are located on the eastern sides of the islands, where the weather is drier, and the majority of regions experience cool nights, imperative for preserving acidity within the variety of grapes.
And on the topic of grapes, New Zealand grows a ton. In the 20th century, Muller-Thurgau was actually the country’s most planted variety, though beginning in 1984, growers were paid by the government to rip up their vines and replace them with trendier varieties, particularly Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay. Today, Sauvignon Blanc is by far the country’s most planted variety, with Chardonnay, Pinot Gris, and Riesling also playing a significant role. For reds, Pinot Noir, Bordeaux varieties (Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon), and Syrah dominate the vineyards.
As with many New World regions, most wines in New Zealand are bottled and labeled varietally, meaning that only one grape variety is used in each bottle. Rosé and sparkling wines are also produced, the latter of which are generally made via the méthode traditionelle. In 2013, the Méthode Marlborough was established, with ambitions to put the region’s traditional method style sparklers on consumers’ radar, though sparkling wine still comprises less than 1% of the country’s total production.
For crisp, high-acid whites and cool-climate, aromatic reds, look no further than the highly diverse and underrated bottles of New Zealand’s many regions!