Wines from New Zealand continue to impress
New Zealand wines began to gain international recognition and popularity in the late 1980s and early 1990s and since that time there has been an explosion of wineries and vineyard plantings throughout the ten major wine-producing regions. As wine drinkers continue to seek alternatives to chardonnay, New Zealand’s star grape and second-most-popular white varietal worldwide is sauvignon blanc, which continues to gain momentum and is quickly becoming the white wine of choice among young wine consumers. The combination of the grapes newfound fashionable status coupled with New Zealand’s ability to churn out bottle after bottle of high-quality and affordable sauvignon blanc has thrust the country into the winemaking limelight. But sauvignon blanc is not the only grape variety of merit that New Zealand has to offer, as it also produces fine examples of pinot noir and Riesling and has even ventured into merlot, cabernet sauvignon and sparkling wines, although the later three have yet to garner mass appeal.
While vineyards have been planted throughout New Zealand since the early 1800s, they have expanded tremendously within the past twenty years. Today there are ten key wine-producing areas that vary greatly in climate, terrain, soil and styles of wine they produce. The regions are detailed below, from northernmost to southernmost.
Grapes were first planted here in 1819, making it one of the oldest regions, but until the recent resurgence in this area, winemaking nearly became extinct. The smallest and warmest of all the regions, this one has three most planted grapes: cabernet sauvignon, merlot and chardonnay.
New Zealand’s largest city, Auckland is also the one of the biggest, oldest and most diverse wine areas. The most planted grapes here are cabernet sauvignon, merlot and chardonnay, but you’ll also find some sauvignon blanc, semillon and other lesser known white varietals.
Wiakato/Bay of Plenty
This moderately warm area has a relatively small number of vineyard plantings, but the numbers are increasing. Wine production focuses primarily on chardonnay, with cabernet sauvignon and sauvignon blanc ranking second and third.
Located on the country’s easternmost point and closest to the international date line, the vines in this region are the first in the world to see sun each day. The fourth-largest grape-growing area in the country, Gisborne is the self-proclaimed “chardonnay capital” of New Zealand, as the grape occupies about half of the area’s plantings. The balance is made up with chenin blanc, Riesling and gewürztraminer, with less than 10 percent planted with red varieties.
The country’s second-largest region and home to many top wineries, Hawkes Bay is located on the east coast of New Zealand’s North Island and is a popular wine and food destination. Soil type varies here greatly from fertile silt to heavy stones, and the area receives lots of sunshine, making it ideal for growing chardonnay, the most widely planted grape. The long ripening season is perfect for late-ripening reds such as merlot, syrah, cabernet sauvignon and cabernet franc.
Situated on the western side of the country, this bohemian area is home to artists, foodies and stylish wines. One of the smaller wine regions, the most successful varieties here are chardonnay, sauvignon blanc, Riesling and pinot noir, all of which are ideally suited for the area’s cooler growing conditions.
Wellington, made up of quaint towns with world-class restaurants and rolling fields with boutique wineries, is the official name for the large region, which occupies the southern section of the North Island. On the lower east side sits Wairarapa, the region’s only wine district and located in the center of the Wairarapa district is Martinborough, the oldest and most recognized wine area in the district. The small wineries in this area have received international acclaim for producing top-quality pinot noir, in addition to fine examples of sauvignon blanc.
Revered for making some of the best sauvignon blanc in the world, Marlborough is the largest and most famous wine region in all of New Zealand, although the first vines were not planted here until 1973. The distinctive, zesty, fruit-driven sauvignon blanc made here has become a benchmark worldwide. While nearly one-third of the vineyards are planted in sauvignon blanc, they also make very good chardonnay and Riesling, and the pinot noir is quickly gaining in reputation.
New Zealand’s fourth-largest wine region, this picturesque area is relatively new to the scene with its first plantings in the late 1970s. Cantebury comprises two major wine areas: Christchurch and Wiapara. Chardonnay and pinot noir are the most widely planted grapes in the area, with Riesling following third and sauvignon blanc fourth.
The highest wine-producing region in New Zealand and the world’s most southerly, Central Otago, surrounded by snow-capped Southern Alps, is also one of the most scenic. Some of the country’s best pinot noir comes from this area, where it is by far the most dominant grape. Chardonnay ranks second, while sauvignon blanc and Riesling a distant third and fourth.
The cuisine of New Zealand is continentally inspired with classic flavors from Italy and France, married with more unique Asian and Pacific Rim spices, so the wines of New Zealand continue to evolve to best suit the diverse styles of food. While many New Zealand wines can certainly be enjoyed on their own, namely sauvignon blanc and pinot noir, most can complement a wide range of cuisine. Crisp, fresh and lively, try sauvignon blanc or Riesling with spicy, flavorful dishes (perfect for Cajun and Creole food) and Asian-inspired cuisine, while chardonnay, cabernet sauvignon and pinot noir tend to pair well with robust dishes and traditional European fare.
Recommended New Zealand wines
Brancott Pinot Noir $15
Brancott Sauvignon Blanc $12
Cloudy Bay Chardonnay $36
Craggy Range “Kidnapper’s Vineyard” Chardonnay $20
Craggy Range “Te Muna Road” Riesling $23
Lawson’s Dry Hills Pinot Noir $25
Palliser Estate Sauvignon Blanc $18
Stoneleigh Sauvignon Blanc $17
The Crossings Sauvignon Blanc $9
Villa Maria Riesling $12
Whitehaven Pinot Noir $25
Wild Rock “Cupid’s Arrow” Pinot Noir $20