Although New Zealand winemaking goes back to the 19th century, it was not until the 1970s that the first stirrings of the island country’s modern wine industry began. The vector for this was Sauvignon Blanc, the region was Marlborough on the northeastern corner of South Island. In 1970, Marlborough (named after John Churchill Duke of Marlborough an ancestor of a prominent wine devotee), produced hardy any grapevines. After two decades of attempting to make Sauvignon Blanc in the oaked Fumé Blanc style pioneered by Californian Robert Mondavi, Marlborough developed its own style of stainless-steel fermented un-oaked Sauvignon Blanc. This wine combines the grassiness and tropical fruit typical of New World Sauvignon Blanc with the citrusy acidity of Old World offerings, with a particular Kiwi synergy that leads some wine critics to call this wine the world’s best Sauvignon Blanc. Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc has an exciting quality to it that for some reason the Californians and Chileans cannot match. Marlborough has a cool maritime climate with a long steady sun-filled growing season that helps bring out the natural balance of acids, sugars, and flavor intensity in the grapes.
Further south (in fact, the southernmost wine region in the world) is Central Otago, renowned for its Pinot Noir. High mountains up to 12,000 feet protect the region from destroying winds from the west. The region has the country’s only continental climate, with hot temperatures during the summer and winters cold enough for ice and snow. During the growing season, the area sees wide day/night temperature swings. Vineyards tend to inhabit hillsides to maximize sun exposure and reduce the risk of frost. Soils consist of rough-edged mica and other metamorphic schists in silt loams. The Pinot Noir (70% of production) has intense fruit, assertive structure and silky texture. Among whites, Riesling is the most well regarded, Pinot Gris the most produced. These two, with Gewürztraminer, are vinified in the full range of styles from bone try to sticky sweet.
The Canterbury/Waipara Valley region on east coast of the South Island around the city of Christchurch is cool and dry with light not very fertile soils. Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir lead, with some Pinot Gris. Nelson encompasses the northwest corner of South Island, separated from Marlborough by mountain ranges. Nearly forty varieties flourish in these rolling hills, but Sauvignon Blanc reigns triumphant, responding to worldwide demand. Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris production is substantial, but the prior leader, Chardonnay, now lags behind,
We cross the often-tempestuous Cook Straight to North Island. There, Hawke’s Bay on the eastern side is New Zealand’s second biggest wine producer after Marlborough. It is the oldest wine area. This large region has an array of soils and terrains, but is perhaps the sunniest region in the country. Winemakers, from small artisanal producers to large wine conglomerates, produce red Bordeaux blends, Syrah, some Chardonnay and, in a new trend, Syrah’s white Rhône companion Viognier. Gisbourne sits on the east coast directly north of Hawke’s Bay, producing soft fragrant Chardonnay with peach, pineapple, and melon accents as well as Gewürztraminer.
In the southwestern stretch of North Island, the Wellington/Wairarapa region includes the distinctive production area of Martinborough. Close to the national capital of Wellington, the region is characterized by small-scale producers who specialize in Pinot Noir. Many of these wines are getting excellent marks from international wine critics.
Auckland, the most populous city in the country, is the hub of the wine region by the same name. This warmest of New Zealand’s wine regions produces red wines from grapes that thrive on heavy clay soil, including Bordeaux blends, in addition to much variety including Gewürztraminer grown in the shadow of Auckland’s airport. Many of the winemakers here, as is true elsewhere in the country, are of Lebanese and Croatian descent. The Waiheke Island sub-region is achieving renown with high quality Bordeaux blends, Montepulciano, Petit Verdot, Chardonnay and Viognier. The Matakana sub-region, despite its humidity, is doing well with Pinot Gris, Syrah and Bordeaux reds.
Northland, which also has a Croatian heritage, has a nearly subtropical climate, producing Chardonnay with tropical fruit notes, Pinot Gris, and Viognier, and among reds some spicy Syrah, Bordeaux blends, Pinotage, and deep-colored aromatic Chambourcin.
Since we have just mentioned Pinotage, South Africa’s signature red grape, it is time to look at this final southern hemisphere wine producer.