Wine regions of New Zealand

Wine making in New Zealand

The history of New Zealand winemaking seems rather short compared to the Old World winemaking countries. The very first vines were planted in 1819 by an Englishman, missionary Samuel Marsden, who was a chaplain in the Australian state of New South Wales in the 18th century. His main task was to negotiate with the indigenous people of the islands, the Maori, and persuade them to accept the presence of the Anglican church and the English crown on the islands. This event is considered the starting point of the history of New Zealand winemaking. In addition, it was S. Marsden was the first to note that her lands were favorable for vines.

The very first winemaker on the islands is considered to be James Busby, who began producing wines from his own vineyards by 1840. Then European settlers from Croatia and France began to arrive on the islands. They brought with them the necessary knowledge and technology, which contributed to the development of winemaking. French missionaries founded one of New Zealand’s first Mission Estate Winery at Hawke’s Bay, which is now the oldest active winery in the country.

In the late 19th century, phylloxera and powdery mildew even reached New Zealand, destroying its vineyards. Once salvation from the parasite was found, unlike European winemakers, New Zealanders simply replaced Vitis Vinifera vines with hybrids and American varieties with natural resistance to phylloxera, but not remarkable for the quality of wines produced. Thus until the 1960s, mainly American Isabella grew on the islands.

In the 1960s and 70s Australian and American companies started to invest a lot in the New Zealand wine industry and the technology and quality of the New Zealand wines began to improve. By the 1970s, American vines and hydrids had been replaced by the productive European variety Müller-Thurgau, which produced fruity, simple light sweet white wines. In 1980 the potential of the Marlborough region was unlocked and Müller-Thurgau was gradually replaced by Sauvignon Blanc, more suitable for the production of quality beverages.

In 1980 the New Zealand government allowed the importation of foreign wines, which (especially from Australia) made local winemakers compete in the domestic market.

The demand for New Zealand wines fell, so winemakers began to actively explore export opportunities. Betting on the reputation of white wines, bright, with a pure fruit profile, Sauvignon Blanc became the main variety and the emblem of the country’s winemaking. This strategy paid off; exports grew along with profits – since 1990 wine export revenues have risen from 18 million to 1.8 billion.

Today, 86% (statistics from of New Zealand’s exported wines are bright, citrusy Sauvignon Blancs with high acidity – New Zealand’s most celebrated wine profile. But the islands also have room and suitable terroir for Riesling or Chardonnay, and even Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah, wines from which have the juiciness and ripeness of New World wines or the finesse and complexity of Old World drinks.

Classification of New Zealand wines

Like the rest of the New World wine producing countries, there is no classification of wines as such, except for a hierarchy into regions and sub-regions. Also, in the New World, unlike in Europe, the regulation of the production process is quite loose, but producers must comply with the following requirements:

  • If one variety is listed on the label, it must account for at least 85% of the wine’s assemblage;
  • The regional indication obliges to use at least 85% of the grapes from the region in the production of the beverage.

As for the rest, winemakers are not forbidden to “fine-tune” the wine if the conditions in a given year were not the most favorable:

  • Chaptalization – adding sugar to fermenting must to achieve a certain level of alcohol;
  • Acidification – increasing the level of acidity;
  • Reverse process – reduction of acidity.
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Terroir of New Zealand.

This country stands out in the world wine making in several ways:

  • Only here the climate almost everywhere is oceanic (except in Central Otago in the heart of the South Island, where it is semi-continental);
  • Oceanic breezes reach almost every part of the country, as the distance to the ocean nowhere exceeds 120 km;
  • Plenty of sunshine and cool nights (thanks to the ocean) create ripe and concentrated grapes, with a rich bouquet;
  • Most New Zealand vineyards are in the eastern part of the South Island, where they are protected from strong westerly winds by the central mountain range.

New Zealand soils are varied and come in:

  • heavy clay soils;
  • fertile alluvial;
  • gravelly;
  • quartz;
  • Grauvacca, of special sandstone with inclusions of quartz;
  • coarse sand.

The soil composition of the North Island differs from that of the South Island, as New Zealand lies at the junction of the Pacific and Indo-Australian tectonic plates – in the first case, soils of volcanic origin prevail, while in the second – of glacial origin.

New Zealand grape varieties

Due to the richness and diversity of soils, as well as favorable conditions for winemaking, the country produces not only red and white wine, but also sparkling wine. The main varieties are:

  • Sauvignon Blanc – in New Zealand it has a bright and recognizable style. Its bouquet combines notes of gooseberry, citrus, freshly cut grass, passion fruit, while the taste is remarkably light, fresh and with high, “crisp” acidity.
  • Pinot Noir represents about 7% of the wines produced. The main appellation for this variety is Central Otago, and the drinks have a juicy “New World” style.
  • Chardonnay, a multifaceted variety that performs very differently in different wine regions, producing a wide range of wine styles, from pure citrus-fruity to rounded, slightly woody.
  • Syrah is a warm-loving variety that grows mainly in the North Island with a milder climate.
  • Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon – the appropriate terroir for these varieties is on the North Island, namely the gravelly soils of Hawkes Bay, close to the Bordeaux terroir.

Wine regions of New Zealand

There are a total of 11 wine regions spread across both islands. On the North Island are:

  • Northland is the northernmost, where the first vineyards appeared in 1819. Northland is closer to the equator, so the climate is warm and humid, subtropical. Northland’s vineyards receive more heat and light than the rest of the country, but also more precipitation and moisture, since Northland is not protected from westerly winds. Its soils are mostly heavy clay soils and do not have good drainage. Therefore, winemakers choose more suitable volcanic areas and slopes. This appellation’s Chardonnay has a tropical character, the Pinot Gris has a full-bodied fruit profile, the Merlot has cherry and spice tones, and the Syrah has plum and floral hues. Thanks to the warmth of Northland, red varieties grow most successfully here.
  • Auckland, the appellation south of Northland is characterized primarily by small, private wineries. The first Auckland winemakers were Croatian immigrants, so many famous New Zealand wineries owned by Croats (Nobilo, Babich and Villa Maria) still own plots in Auckland. Its climate is not easy for viticulture – it is humid and rainy. The most favorable conditions are found east of Oakland, partially protected by the Whitaker Mountains. The most favorable, warm and dry climate is on Waiheke Island, which produces quality Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon wines. Auckland’s soils are heavy, clayey, and in some places too fertile, but winemakers solve this problem with special methods of vine management and the choice of rootstock that reduces its fertility. Of the white varieties, Chardonnay and Pinot Gris are found here, producing juicy wines with a tropical character. The reds are Merlot and Syrah, which produce elegant and concentrated drinks.
  • Gisborne is the third most important appellation on the east coast of the North Island. It is protected from humidity by forest and hills to the west, so it receives less rainfall than Northland and Oakland. The oceanic influence is still felt here in the form of cool breezes that offset the generous heat and light of the sun, lengthening the ripening period of the berries and increasing their acidity. The best vineyards are located on eastern and southern slopes with good drainage and calcareous soils, where the best Gisborne Chardonnay wines are produced. Good quality drinks also come from Chardonnay vineyards on sandy soils near the coast. Gewürthstraminer thrives on clay slopes, producing wines with rich texture and body.
  • Hawke’s Bay is New Zealand’s second most important appellation (after Marlborough), located on the east side of the North Island, near the bay of the same name. Hawkes Bay is protected from humidity and wind by the mountains in the center of the island, and cool ocean breezes help reduce nighttime temperatures, prolonging the ripening period of the grapes under generous and long-lasting sunshine. The topography of Hawkes Bay is quite varied, so winemakers have a wealth of unique sites to choose from:
    • The coolest ones are closest to the coast or in central Hawkes Bay, at an elevation of 300 feet. In the former, sea breezes lower the air temperature; in the latter, the elevation.
    • Alluvial plains and stony terraces – possess young volcanic and gravel soils and sandstone deposits with quartz. On such terroir is the Gimblett Gravels site, famous for wines from the Bordeaux assemblage as well as Cabernet Sauvignon Merlot and Syrah varieties.

    The South Island is divided into the following sub-regions:

    • Marlborough is New Zealand’s most important wine region, encompassing 2/3 of the country’s vineyards and producing more than 70% of its wines. With such a large area, Marlborough is also the most diverse region, with a variety of terroirs and macroclimates. It is divided into three sub-regions:
      • The Wairau Valley – accounting for 45% of Marlborough’s vineyards. The macroclimate here is slightly warmer than neighboring Avatera, but Wairau is sufficiently refreshed by the breezes of nearby Cloudy Bay, so its Sauvignon Blanc drinks have tropical touches of passion fruit but retain a recognizable grassy character. The vineyards are mostly in the lowlands, near the river of the same name, and the hilly southern part is home to the Brancott Estate, one of New Zealand’s largest, world-renowned producers. The soils of the Wairau are stony, infertile, and well-drained; in the hilly part they are more clayey. The Vairau Valley is sometimes listed on labels, but this is mostly characteristic of wines from special allocated areas. The most common variety here is Sauvignon Blanc, but Chardonnay, Riesling and Pinot Noir are also found. The latter has a lighter body than neighboring Martinborough and Central Otago. Marlborough also produces quality sparkling beverages.
      • The Awatere Valley is the southeastern sub-region of Marlborough, cooler than the Wairau. Awatere vineyards are located on the hilly banks of the river of the same name. A special feature of Avatere is its unique soils, which consist of graywacke rock (quartz sandstone), gravel and loam. They are infertile and have good drainage, which causes the vines to develop a deep root system by which the vines penetrate deep into the ground, gaining access to minerals. Avatere is closer to the ocean than Vairau, so it’s fresher and windier, and the grapes ripen later, acquiring thicker skins. Avatere’s Sauvignon Blanc wines have a bright minerality and are sometimes compared to Loire Valley whites.
      • Southern Valleys is a lesser-known sub-region located between Vaillard and Avatéré. The soils are heavier, with more clay, and conditions are more favorable for Pinot Noir.
      • Nelson is a small appellation, producing less than 2% of New Zealand wines and almost unknown outside its borders. Nelson is south of Marlborough, surrounded on three sides by mountains and has a sunny climate with the refreshing breezes of the Tasman Sea. Vineyards are located on hills, in valleys and closer to the coast, and the soil composition will vary from gravelly alluvial with good drainage, to heavier clay and loam soils, depending on the terrain. Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir are the most common varieties in Nelson, the former, from sites closer to the coast, produces elegant drinks, with tropical juiciness and citrus-mineral freshness, while the latter, growing in the hills, produces rich and berry-spicy wines.
      • Canterbury is a vast province in the east of the South Island that was only granted appellation status in 2016. Canterbury is sheltered from westerly winds by the Southern Alps, and has an oceanic climate, thanks to the Pacific Ocean influence from the east. Here, mountain winds and ocean breezes help reduce the temperature and humidity in the vineyards. Canterbury is divided into:
        • North Canterbury.– which is located in the Waipara River valley, on alluvial and clay soils, and on stony and calcareous soils in the hilly area. Pinot Noir takes up a third of the plantings here, but Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling and Pinot Gris are also common.
        • The Waipara Valley – on the other hand, is protected from Pacific breezes by the coastal hills, but is under the warm winds coming down from the Southern Alps. In Waipara, grapes ripen long and evenly, accumulating aromatic substances. Particularly prized are the berry-spicy Pinot Noir, the honeyed Riesling, and the rich and aromatic Chardonnay. In addition, there are Gewürthstranimer, Pinot Gris, which even make sweet wines, from very ripe or botrytized grapes, in Weipar. The soils in the valley itself are alluvial, with gravelly subsoil, and on the hills there are limestone and chalk, the wines from which take on a mineral hue

        New Zealand is primarily a white Sauvignon Blanc wine. 73% of the wines it produces are Sauvignon Blancs, and 86% of the wines it exports. Not surprisingly, dry New Zealand wine is associated with Sauvignon Blanc, although the country has favorable conditions for many other grape varieties.

        The Best New Zealand Wines

        New Zealand’s best-known wine is made in Marlborough, and it is home to the vineyards of most of the country’s top producers:

        Villa Maria, a family winery founded in 1961 and owned by Croatian immigrants, whose owner has made an important contribution to the history, development and current prominence of New Zealand winemaking. He was the first to pay winegrowers who sold him crops according to the quality of the produce, the first to pay attention to the importance of terroir in wines and to invite foreign consultants, and he introduced the “Reserve” category. Villa Maria was the first company to completely do away with corks – 100% of its wines are closed with a screw cap. Today Villa Maria is one of the largest wineries in New Zealand owning hundreds of hectares of vineyards in Marlborough, Hawkes Bay, Auckland and Gisborne and producing several lines, cuvées:

        • PrivateBin – Bright, approachable and clear, from classic New Zealand varieties and the best-known regions (Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir from Marlborough, Syrah from Hawkes Bay).
        • CellarSelection – More concentrated wines, aged in barrels.
        • PlatinumSelection – Drinks from special plots, the grapes for which underwent a strict selection.
        • Reserve – Cuvée from the best plots, with the best grapes, produced only in good vintages.
        • SingleVineyard – Special cuvées from unique, specially separated plots, with a special microclimate and soil.
        • Icon -Villa Maria’s prestigious wine, white and red, from the Gimblett Gravels sub-region.

        Brancott Estate (formerly Montana) – Marlborough’s first Sauvignon Blanc, in its recognizable style, was made specifically by Brancott Winery in 1979. In the 80s and 90s, Sauvignon Blanc and other Brancott cuvées won many medals at national and international competitions. Today the Brancotte wine lineup has expanded significantly with wines from other varieties (Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris, Gewürthstraminer, Merlot) and other regions (Hawkes Bay), and the brand has become world famous, but the Brancotte emblems are still Sauvignon Blanc and Marlborough.

        Taka is produced by Spring Creek Vintners, one of the largest wineries in New Zealand, from its own organic grapes in a modern facility that allows the winery to produce a wide range of beverages under its own brand as well as by order for its partners.

        What does New Zealand wine go with?

        The peculiarity of the country’s white wines is their fruity purity and freshness with perceptible crisp acidity.

        Elegant appetizers like seafood and fish with exotic citrus sauces or spiced with fresh herbs are a harmonious accompaniment to Sauvignon Blanc (quiet or sparkling):

        • Sea bass ceviche with lemon sauce and zest;
        • scallop carpaccio;
        • dorado tartare with mango and lime;
        • fresh salmon sushi;
        • lightly salted salmon;
        • shrimp cocktail.

        North Island Chardonnay, with its roundness and juicy, tropical notes, is matched by main courses:

        • Baked white fish (sunfish, turbot);
        • white poultry with cream sauce or mushrooms.

        Pinot Noir from different regions is an elegant accompaniment to various red meat dishes:

        Hobbit Land: New Zealand and its wines

        “Light, sparkling and very tasty,” the French navigator Dumont d’Urville shared in 1840 about tasting local wines. Since then, 180 years have passed and New Zealand’s wines are known far beyond the country’s borders, but Dumont d’Urville’s words are still true.

        Two Centuries of History

        The first vines were planted in the country in 1819. It took more than 150 years to realize how suitable the cool maritime climate is for the production of high quality wines. The industry here has a complicated history, full of strange prohibitions and restrictions. Until 1881 the wineries had no right to sell their products to the public, but had to sell them through hotels. The law was softened in the middle of the XX century – specialized stores were allowed to sell a certain amount of local table wine, although the distribution of licenses was carefully monitored. In 1960 the wines appeared in restaurants. Supermarkets, on the other hand, received licenses to sell local products only in 1990. Despite all the difficulties, the wine industry of the country has made a great leap over the past 30-40 years. Today New Zealand produces less than 1% of the world’s wine volume, but offers an impressive variety of styles.

        Grape varieties

        The leader in terms of plantings is sauvignon blanc, thanks to which the country has gained a foothold in the world market: the vineyards cover 20,000 hectares. The second most popular variety is pinot noir, but its harvests are mainly used for the production of sparkling wines. Chardonnay, pinot gris and merlot are also in the top five (the area of which has considerably decreased in the last ten years). The Riesling plantations, on the other hand, continue to grow slowly and producers are working hard to rid the variety of its “unfashionable” image on the domestic market. Shiraz, Gewurztraminer, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Malbec are also grown in New Zealand.

        Grape varieties

        The main wine regions

        There are 11 wine regions in New Zealand. Some of them (Wairarapa, Northland, Hawkes Bay and others) are located in the North Island, some (Marlborough, Nelson, Central Otago) are in the South.


        The largest region with 2/3 of the country’s vineyards. The first commercial vineyard of the industrial giant Montana started the development of the industry here in 1973. At the time it seemed like a gamble, but as soon as the risky investment paid off, other producers came to the region. Sauvignon blanc is a major variety in Marlborough; the aromatic, tropical-toned wines are considered a national treasure and a major export hit. In the middle of the last decade, Marlborough sauvignon blancs took up almost half of the Australian white wine market, much to the annoyance of local producers. Other popular regional varieties are pinot gris, chardonnay, and riesling.

        Producers: Misty Cliff, Clos Henri, Sileni, Paddle Creek


        Hawkes Bay.

        The region, second only to Marlborough, has a rich history: the first vines were planted here in the mid-19th century. The most common varieties are Chardonnay and Merlot, as well as Sauvignon Blanc and Shiraz. The warm climate and long growing season allow winemakers to make dessert wines.

        Producer: Te Mata

        Peak Te Mata, Hawkes Bay

        Central Otago

        Is the southernmost winemaking region in the world and the only truly “continental” region in the country. Most of the vineyards are planted on slopes, giving the berries optimal ripening conditions and reducing the risk of frost. Central Otago is essentially a mono-region: pinot noir accounts for almost 75% of the vineyards. It is followed by pinot gris and Riesling by a wide margin. Otago is one of the rare winemaking areas in the country without sauvignon blanc.

        Producer: Felton Road

        Central Otago.

        Industry specifics

        – In 2001, winemakers who preferred screwcaps over traditional corks formed The Screwcap Initiative – to popularize the use of this closure method. The initiative of Australian colleagues from the Clare Valley, who joined this initiative the year before, pushed them to do it. The efforts of New Zealand winemakers were fruitful. In 2001 only 1% of the local wines were screwcapped, while in 2004 almost 70% were. Ten years later, in 2014, the vast majority of New Zealand products, 95%, were corked with screwcaps.

        – New Zealand has traditionally focused on the figure of the winemaker rather than the specific vineyard. This approach is directly opposite to the traditional French view on the primacy of terroir. Note, however, that New Zealanders’ interest in sub-regions, especially in Marlborough and Central Otago, is growing rapidly.

        Industry Features.

        Classification of New Zealand wines

        Labels must show, among other things, the origin of the wine (country), the grape variety, the region, the name and address of the supplier, the amount of sulfites (if the wine contains more than 10 mg of sulfur dioxide), and the likely allergens (dairy products, eggs).

        The term Certified Origin (CO) guarantees compliance with the so-called “85% rule”. It means that if the label says Marlborough Pinot Noir, the wine must have at least 85% Marlborough-grown pinot noir.

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