A Beginner's Guide to New Zealand Wine
It's famous for its zesty, tropical sauvignon blanc, but a closer look at the world's southern and easternmost winemaking nation reveals there are many other wines to love from this region.
The world's southernmost and easternmost winemaking country, New Zealand is made up of two land masses in the South Pacific Ocean known as the North and South Islands. It's so sparsely populated that sheep outnumber people (there are 28 million sheep and only 4.7 million humans). And it's growing rapidly as a wine producer: In the mid-1980s there were only about 100 wineries in the country, and now there are nearly 700!
What's Special About New Zealand Wines?
If you love supporting wines from boutique wineries and family farmers, New Zealand should be at the top of your list: A full three quarters of the country's wineries are producers working with less than 20 hectares (one hectare is equivalent to 2.471 acres) of vineyard land. New Zealand is also notable for its countrywide commitment to organic farming and sustainable viticulture: New Zealand Winegrowers reports that 98 percent of the country's vineyard land is certified under the Sustainable Winegrowing New Zealand program. Not only does this monitor chemical usage in the vineyards, but it also keeps an eye on water and energy efficiency, soil biodiversity, waste management, and the impact of tourism.
Although the first vines were planted by missionaries in 1819, a nationwide temperance movement similar to Prohibition in the U.S. delayed the true birth of modern winemaking until the 1970s. As a result New Zealand is less bound by tradition than some other winemaking countries and quick to embrace innovation. It was the first country to popularize the screw cap closure. Today over 85 percent of New Zealand wines are sealed with a screw cap.
Now, get up to speed on New Zealand wine by exploring five prominent wine regions of this island nation—Marlborough, Hawkes Bay, Central Otago, Nelson, and Wairarapa, as outlined below.
If you've only tried one wine from New Zealand, chances are it was a sauvignon blanc from Marlborough, which is undoubtedly the most important wine region in the country; Marlborough, located on the South Island, produces 67 percent of the country's wine. Nearly 90 percent of Marlborough vineyards are planted with sauvignon blanc, and the area's cool climate creates a signature style of sauvignon blanc, characterized by aromas of passion fruit, lime zest, and flint, that you won't find anywhere else in the world; on the palate it's bright and tangy, full of citrus with a herbal streak of Thai basil or tarragon, and a long, clean, bright, and crisp finish.
The legendary wine that started it all is Cloudy Bay Sauvignon Blanc 2018 ($22.97, totalwine.com). Founded in 1985, Cloudy Bay was instrumental in pioneering the global growth of Marlborough sauvignon blanc, establishing it as a true benchmark. Great value options include Villa Maria Private Bin Sauvignon Blanc 2018 ($12.99, wine.com) and Allan Scott Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc 2018 ($14.99, wine.com).
Located on the North Island, Hawkes Bay is the second largest wine region in New Zealand. It's a warmer and drier area, and there isn't much sauvignon blanc grown here. Instead, Hawkes Bay is known for chardonnay and merlot. Cabernet sauvignon and syrah are becoming more prominent, especially in the Gimblett Gravels subregion. All this means that Hawkes Bay is one of the most important regions in New Zealand for red wines, specifically robust Bordeaux-style blends.
Craggy Range "Te Kahu" Gimblett Gravels Vineyard 2011 ($24.99, wine.com), is a powerful, complex Bordeaux-style blend made of merlot, cabernet franc, cabernet sauvignon, and Malbec. Pair it with Lemongrass Beef Skewers. Esk Valley Gimblett Gravels Red Blend 2017 ($20.99, wine.com) is full-bodied and rich, with plum and blackberry flavors. Grab a bottle and try it with Lamb Chops with Artichoke Hearts. One of the most famous reds from Hawkes Bay is Te Mata Coleraine 2017 ($89.99, wine.com). It's a splurge, but this iconic wine has layers of dark fruit, leather, and sandalwood and will age well. It would make a great gift for a collector.
Pinot noir lovers, take note: Some sublime pinot noir is being made on the South Island in Central Otago at the 45th parallel—it's the world's southernmost wine region. The cool climate retains freshness in the grapes while the strong sunshine promotes ripeness during the day. Amisfield Pinot Noir 2016 ($45.99, wine.com) is fresh and floral with bright red cherry notes and a hint of earthiness, and it pairs nicely with umami-rich dishes like Shiitake Nori Rolls. Burn Cottage Cashburn Pinot Noir 2017 ($32.99, wine.com) is harmonious and medium bodied with red fruit notes and a complex finish; pair it with Sesame Seared Tuna with Ginger-Carrot Dipping Sauce. And don't forget to try one of the most famous Central Otago wineries, Felton Road: Felton Road Bannockburn Pinot Noir 2018 ($47.99, wine.com) has rich cherry and raspberry notes and a silky, elegant, concentrated finish; try it with Zucchini, Lamb, and Summer Squash with Buttermilk Dill Marinade.
For whites, aromatic options like riesling, pinot blanc, pinot gris, and gewurztraminer are the dominant varieties in Central Otago. Rippon Vineyard Mature Vine Riesling 2017 ($31.99, wine.com) has rich peach, mandarin, and lime flavors with enough sweetness to be able to pair nicely with desserts. No virtual trip to New Zealand would be complete without the famous Pavlova, with its light layers of meringue, cream, and fresh fruit. Impress dinner party guests with Blood-Orange Pavlovas with Grand Marnier.
Central Otago is also becoming known for fantastic sparkling wines: Try Quartz Reef Methode Traditionnelle Brut ($33.99 wine.com). Lively, brisk, and clean, with a slightly creamy mineral finish, it's ideal paired with seafood such as Roasted Shiitakes and Pacific Cod.
The northernmost region on the South Island, Nelson is New Zealand's sunniest wine-producing region and has a scenic coastline of sandy beaches and rugged mountains. It's a charming place to visit with a vibrant craft arts scene full of local potters, painters, artisans, small family farms, cheesemakers, and wineries—unlike Marlborough, which many bigger wine brands call home, Nelson is boutique all the way.
Chardonnay from Nelson is structured and complex, and sauvignon blanc is also produced here: A delicious example from the South Island's oldest family winery, Seifried Sauvignon Blanc 2017 ($22.99, wine.com), pairs with Roasted Chicken with Ginger, Chile, and Lime. Red wines from Nelson will be mostly pinot noir, with deep and elegant flavors and subtle tannins: try Middle-Earth Wine Pinot Noir 2017 ($22.99, wine.com) paired with Roasted Salmon with Parsnips and Ginger.
Small but mighty, the Wairarapa region contributes just one percent of New Zealand's total production; even so, many believe they are responsible for some of the best wines in the country. The subregion of Martinborough is one and a half hours drive north-east of Wellington, New Zealand's capital, and was discovered to have similar geographic conditions to Burgundy which encouraged a lot of intrepid farmers to experiment with pinot noir. The area's hot summers and cool evenings and exposure to strong winds results in wines with lots of complexity and concentration.
Wineries of note include Ata Rangi, helmed by the dynamic winemaker Helen Masters, awarded New Zealand Winemaker of the Year. Because it's such a small area, many wineries mostly distribute locally. If you can't make the trip, Seven Terraces Pinot Noir 2016 ($17.99, wine.com) and Decibel Pinot Noir 2014 ($36.95, empirewine.com) are currently available in the U.S.