New Zealand’s Wine Regions: A Cool Climate Wine Haven

June 25, 2021

New Zealand’s Wine Regions: A Cool Climate Wine Haven

Whether you’ve had a chance to visit these two islands or simply know them through Lord of the Rings, New Zealand is home to some amazing scenery. But that’s not all they’re known for. New Zealand is also home to some of the best wines in the world and despite only producing 1% of the world’s wine, New Zealand reigns as the Sauvignon Blanc capital of the world. So what is it about New Zealand that results in such fantastic expressions of wine? The answer lies in the proximity to the ocean and the cool to moderate climates the country experiences. In short, the answer lies in terroir. 

History of Winemaking in New Zealand

Throughout the 1800’s hobbyists, settlers, and missionaries built the foundations of what would become New Zealand’s key vineyards. Despite this long history, it was only during the 1970s that the commercial wine industry truly took off and New Zealand began exporting their wines. As more and more people around the world discovered these wines, New Zealand became synonymous with a flavor-forward New World wine style.

This was a product of the maritime climate which helps keep temperatures from becoming too hot or too cold in combination with soils that are split between fertile, volcanic soils in the north and rocky, glacially-formed schist to the south. The long and generally cool growing season results in grapes that have a striking acidity. However, terroir isn’t the only thing helping produce great wines. New Zealand is also home to progressive winemaking techniques. In fact, 96& of vineyards are certified by the Sustainable Winegrowing NZ Program. All of these factors play together in perfect harmony to result in the impressive range of complex and flavorful wines we have the pleasure of enjoying today. 

New Zealand’s Wine Regions

infographic on new zealand wine regions

New Zealand’s wine production takes place across both islands, however the bulk of production happens in 4 regions. 

Marlborough

The home of Cloudy Bay Vineyards, Marlborough is the most well-known of New Zealand’s wine regions because of its zingy Sauvignon Blanc. It’s this wine and this winemaker that put New Zealand on the global stage and who up to today still produce one of the best New World Sauvignon Blancs in the world. It’s also one of the largest wine regions, responsible for nearly 75% of total production in the country. As expected, Sauvignon Blanc is the most planted grape in this region. However, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Riesling also do well here. This is thanks to a combination of chilly nights, plenty of sunshine, and dry autumn that allow grapes to mature into the fall. What this means is that the fruits can ripen and build sugars slowly whilst maintaining acidity. 

Hawke’s Bay

Located on the eastern coast of North Island, Hawke’s Bay is the second largest wine region in New Zealand. This sunshine soaked area known for its complex soil patterns produces beautiful full-bodied and slightly acidic Chardonnay. However, Hawke’s Bay is also known for red Bordeaux Blends that are driven by Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon, which thanks to the region’s heat, are bold, fruity, and tannic. 

Central Otago

You’ll find Central Otago at the tip of South Island and is one of the world’s most southerly wine regions. A mountainous region, Central Otago experiences extreme swings in temperatures that places vines at risk of frost. Because of this, winemakers have planted their vineyards on sunny slopes and employed methods of frost management. Nevertheless, this region is most known for its Pinot Noir. 

Wairarapa

At the southern tip of North Island, Wairarapa is Pinot Noir country. Vineyards here are planted on well-draining alluvial soils leading to beneficial stress (roots have to go deeper to find nutrients) on the grapes which results in more concentrated flavors. On top of this, the area has relatively low temperatures, plenty of rain, but a dry autumn which creates the perfect conditions for Pinot Noir that ranges from big and juicy to dry and earthy. The most well-known sub-region of Wairarapa is Martinborough, a source of complex Pinot Noir that has darker and richer flavors such as ripe plum and chocolate. 

Of course, there are a few other wine regions worth mentioning. Gisborne, which is on the eastern coast of North Island and has the warmest temperatures in New Zealand produces not only some of the most captivating Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc, but Gewurztraminer as well. North Canterbury. North Canterbury experiences a long growing season that has been beneficial for Riesling, Pinot Noir, and Chardonnay. Nelson’s vineyards, which you’ll find at the northernmost tip of South Island, are largely devoted to Sauvignon Blanc which produce a softer expression than those of Marlborough. 

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If it’s Syrah you’re after, Auckland and Northland are the places to look. Auckland’s high temperatures means big and bold reds and in the humid, tropic Northland a long and warm growing season produces fantastic Syrah and Chardonnay. Quick fact: Northland is the site of New Zealand’s very first vines. Finally, at the foot of Mt Cook you’ll find Waitaki Valley. Soils here are dominated by limestone deposits and schist which aids in heat retention and drainage thus producing flavorful grapes with good acidity, most notably with Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris, and Riesling. 

Key Wine Varieties in New Zealand

Now that we’ve covered the key wine regions you’ll find in New Zealand, it’s time to deep dive into the country’s wine varieties. What is it about their flavor profiles that makes them stand out from the rest? 

Sauvignon Blanc

A native grape of France, Sauvignon Blanc can now be found worldwide. In New Zealand however, it has taken center stage. Largely growing in the Wairau River Valley in Marlborough, Sauvignon Blanc wine from New Zealand is dry with a powerfully aromatic citrus flavor. Think grapefruit, lime, and tropical hints of passionfruit, guava, and white peaches. You can also expect to get green herbaceous notes like bell pepper or jalapeno. 

Pinot Noir

A grape that grows best in dry climates with cool nights and warm days and in chalky soil or clay, Pinot Noir has been incredibly successful across New Zealand. It’s actually become the flagship red grape of the country. It’s most notable however in Central Otago and Wairarapa where temperatures are moderated by the coastal breeze and inland bodies of water that leave behind fertile soil. Pinot Noir is distinguished by its elegance with examples from Martinborough showing more structure whereas those of Marlborough are more silky. 

Chardonnay

Chardonnay in New Zealand is defined by its ability to take on the influences of its terroir and different winemaking techniques. This is why you’ll find a range of styles and flavors across New Zealand. In the north for instance, Chardonnay is rich and honeyed with soft acidity. In the South however, Chardonnay expresses more minerality and bright citrus flavors thanks to a cooler climate. 

Bordeaux Blend

Made up of Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Cabernet Franc, New Zealand’s Bordeaux Blends are reminiscent of those in France. They both express herbal notes that are woven with bright rather than overly ripe, red fruits. You’ll find the best Bordeaux Blends in the North Island where temperatures are warmer and moderated by coastal breezes. 

Other notable varieties include Pinot Gris (or Pinot Grigio) which is often compared to those from Alsace: full-bodied and toasty with notes of flowers and ripe pears. Syrah lends towards being fruit-forward with hints of spice. Malbec on the other hand is full-bodied and acidic with a deep purple-red color and flavors of plum and black cherry.

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