New Zealand’s wine industry has come a long way in a very short period of time. Just forty years ago the main grape in NZ was the bland, flavourless Muller Thurgau, with one of the main grapegrowing regions better known for stonefruit and hay than wine.
Actually, the only challenge for New Zealand wine is the sheer dominance of big name Sauvignon Blanc, when there is a diversity of different flavours to be had.
So where to start when tracking down the best in New Zealand wine?
Marlborough is New Zealand wine. The most important region for volume and value, it’s home to most of the largest producers and NZ’s mega wineries.
But it wasn’t always like that. Indeed, Marlborough’s wine history only dates back to the late 1970s when Montana (now Brancott Estate) started planting Chenin Blanc and Muller Thurgau. Then, it took until the 1980s that Sauvignon Blanc first entered the region. Now, Sauvignon Blanc makes up over 86% of Marlborough’s plantings, and the tonnage has almost tripled in the last ten years alone.
Marlborough’s rich alluvial soils can de deep and fertile, allowing for high volume production which has fuelled the region’s mega growth. Further, these soil types are known to help accentuate Sauvignon Blanc aromatics, giving Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc its famous ‘cat pee on a gooseberry bush’ characters.
Similarly, there’s a move within Marlborough to embrace grapes beyond the usual suspects, with Gruner Veltliner, Albarino and even Syrah now all having a role here. The alternative varieties impact, however, is still tiny - a drop in the vinous ocean
The secret to finding more interesting Marlborough wines is about following producers. While names like Stoneleigh, Oyster Bay and Cloudy Bay make some of the most popular products, there’s a second tier of small to medium sized makers delivering the best wines.
Further, the mild and sunny Marlborough climate means that biodynamics and organic viticulture is increasingly more prominent and will be even more important in the future.
Hard to pronounce, but home to some truly distinctive wines.
That’s the Wairarapa elevator pitch, with this region just outside Wellington in the North Island only small in production, but with an outsized reputation. Of particular note is the town of Martinborough, which is the centre of Wairarapa’s wine industry and perhaps the most focused ‘wine town’ in New Zealand.
Martinborough, in particular, makes truly exceptional Pinot Noir and is increasingly known for perfumed Syrah and fine Chardonnay. It even has a ‘mystery grape’ which no one quite knows much about, but a handful of producers make into a tangy and delicious medium bodied red.
Beyond Martinborough, the historic town of Greytown (which is not grey) is worth a mention, with the sub-districts of Masterton, and Gladstone delivering up some much of Martinborough’s flavour, except without being quite as sexy. Pinot Noir is the hero across both these sub-districts, and Sauvignon Blanc makes a home here too. But really, it’s Pinot Noir country for the best wines.
Central, as the locals call it, is the coolest wine region in New Zealand, geographically and metaphorically.
Located in the middle of the South Island and sitting the shadows of NZ’s highest mountains, Central Otago is one of the most southern wine regions in the world and producing true cool climate wines to match.
What’s fascinating about Central Otago is that while it is very cool it can also be very dry, with Bannockburn - home to some of the most famous producers - almost desert-like and only sustained by irrigation.
Easily accessible to Queenstown (and its international airport) means that this region has a cosmopolitan personality with interesting wine projects to match. There’s always something interesting happening in ‘CO’.
Hawke’s Bay has a climate that is often compared to Bordeaux, although that’s probably about where it stops for the Bordeaux comparison. Instead, Syrah is now arguably the hero grape for this important region, producing some of the most full-bodied, ageworthy reds in NZ.
Any conversation about the region needs to talk about Gimblett Gravels, the celebrated subregion where you can find some of Hawke’s Bay’s best wines. The Gravels was once a rubbish tip, and a racetrack, long considered unfit for anything. But a few industrious vignerons have now turned this area into the home of spicy Syrah and elegant, but powerful Merlot blends.