New Zealand Wines


The growth of New Zealand's (N.Z.) wine industry in the past 3-4 decades has been quite remarkable, not just in the development of a serious and quality market with an impressive world reputation but also a rapid expansion in both the vineyard acreage and number of high class, state of the art wineries. Vineyard acreage has increased from 1000 acres in the 1960's to 54,000 acres in 2006 with over 530 wine producers. Many winemakers have fashioned wines using considerable technical expertise but the influence of the European quality revival, exemplified by better health in the vineyard, is also evident.
The best sites for growing wines are slowly being unearthed although time is required to emulate many of the premium old world areas which have had centuries to define and redefine the best grape and site match. In Williamson and Moore's book "Wine Behind the Label" they observe that 'The direction for New Zealand provided by well-educated, widely travelled, outward looking winemakers such as John Buck (Te Matu), Michael Brajkovich (Kumea River) and Steve Smith (Craggy River) is now being given increased focus as new talent, be it home grown or imported, is attracted to what is seen as an increasingly glamorous vocation in a beautiful setting.' This is resulting in wines of better structure, increased longevity and greater individuality and flair.
Despite producing less than 0.3% of the world's crop, most of N.Z.'s wine is exported. At present, the U.K. is their largest market although the U.S.A. is forecast to overtake the U.K. by 2009. This despite the fact that N.Z. is one of the most isolated countries in the world and 12,000 miles from the U. K. Every winery and grape grower must belong to N.Z. Winegrowers, the statutory body formed in 1975. It has an enormous influence on the development of the image and quality of local wine and has overseen N.Z.'s substantial export attack on the U.K. The industry has established a sustainable wine-growing programme that provides a framework for wine producers to continually work towards improving all aspects of their performance in terms of environmental, social and economic sustainability. Joe Fattorini writing in The Glasgow Herald last year said 'It may come from the other side of the world, but the low emissions of container ships, New Zealand's reliance on hydroelectricity and its commitment to sustainable viticulture, mean that a bottle of New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc is quite possibly the most environmentally friendly wine on your local shop's shelves'.


Wine growing in N.Z. lies in northern hemisphere terms on latitudes between those of Morocco and Paris. However the Pacific Ocean, strong westerlies and the effects of mountains and clouds temper the effects of latitude. Nearly 1000 miles separate the northernmost wine region of northland from the country's and world's most southerly wine region of Central Otago. It also produces the world's most easterly wines thanks to an adjacent date line.


Grape vines were first planted by an Englishman, the Rev Samuel Marsden in 1819 at Kerekeri on the far north east coast of N.Island. There is no record of him making wine.That honour belongs to the first British resident, James Busby who established a vineyard in nearby Waitangi in 1836 and sold wine to the British troups. A few vines were planted in the mid 19th century in the Hawke's Bay area. Later in the early 20th century, Dalmatian producers established vineyards around Auckland producing what was known as "Dally Plonk".
In 1944 Montana Wines were founded by Croatian immigrant Ivan Yukich, pioneering Sauvignon Blanc wines. The company has become the country's largest producer and was taken over by Pernod Riccard in 2005, producing half of the country's wines with names such as Lindauer, Deutz, Brancott and Montana.
Villa Maria founded by George Fistonich, which also owns Esk Valley, and Vidal is the second largest producer in N.Z.
Nobilo part of Constellation brands, the world's largest wine company is N.Z.s third largest producers with labels such as White Cloud, Drylands and Selaks.
Despite the continual dominance of the multinational companies there are still many small independent wine producers.


There are ten main wine regions.

Half of N.Z.'s vineyards are in this region. Apart from one vineyard established here in 1873 vines were unknown for a hundred years until 1973 when Montana established a small commercial vineyard in the area producing Sauvignon Blanc. This is now N.Z.'s premier wine producing region with 27,000 acres under vine and it now boasts 40% of the country's vineyards.
In 1985 David Hohnen from Western Australia launched Cloudy Bay wines with considerable success. The winery is now owned by the Louis Vuitton Moet Hennessy Group.
The area centres on the Wairau River Valley, a long valley flanked by mountains opening out onto the wide, shallow Cloudy Bay. The climate is ideal for cool climate grapes with long days, cool nights, bright sunshine and dryish autumns. This leads to high sugars and acidity. Frosts and lack of water are a constant problem.
Main grapes grown are Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Gris, Riesling, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.

Hawke's Bay
Second largest growing region in N.Z. with over 50 producers. It is one of the country's most historic wine regions, first planted by Marist Missionaries in mid 19th century. Te Matu is site of country's oldest recorded winery.
In 1960's Cabernet Sauvignon was introduced by Tom McDonald for Australian wine company McWilliams. Serious expansion of Cabernet Sauvignon in 1970's. In late 1990's development of gravely soils e.g. Gimlett Gravels around Hastings which had been exposed by major floods in 1867. This led to development of hydroponic cultivation, which allowed control of grape ripening.
Cabernet Sauvignon now grown less, but early ripening Merlot and Syrah very successful. Chardonnay rivals merlot as the most planted variety.

Gisborne (Poverty Bay)
North East of North Island. In terms of vineyard area, third most important in region but relatively few wineries.
Warm and sunny.
Grows almost exclusively white grapes and has a reputation for lush Chardonnay. Also some of the world's finest Gewürztraminer, intense Semillon and rich Chenin Blanc. Also some Merlot, Syrah and Muller-Thurgan.

Central Otago
N.Z's 4th largest wine region and World's most southernmost wine region. Between 1997 and 2006 the number of producers rose from 14 to 82.
It has a continental climate, lying in the rain shadow of the Southern Alps and unusually strong sunshine due to hole in ozone layer lying above the area. Vineyards often on hills to avoid frosts.
Pinot Noir has become the region's flagship wine, with bright fruit flavours and high alcohol levels often over 14%. Good results also with Chardonnay, Pinot Gris and Riesling.

Martinborough (Wairarapa)
Most of Wairarapa's better-known vineyards are planted around Martinborough.
It has a serious reputation for vivid Burgandian Pinot Noir which varies from potently plumy to lean and dry. The variety represents almost half of the plantings in the area.
According to wine expert Dr Neil McCallum the area is 'very like Edinburgh in terms of our heat summation' however autumns are reliably dry. Spring frosts are a perennial threat. Season is long. Soils are thin and poor, on free draining deep gravels, silts and clays.
Many leading wineries established in the 1980's although still quite a number of independent boutique vineyards producing excellent Pinot Noir wine.
Great rivalry between the other great Pinot Noir producing area of Central Otago.
Other wines produced are Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Gris which is based on an 1880 clone.

Auckland and Northland
Small in terms of the area of vines actually produced but big in political power as has 90 wineries. Historically, Montana, Villa Maria and Nobilo established their headquarters here.
Despite sub-tropical climate, produce good red wine. Cloud cover moderates sunshine intensity. Rain and rot are problems.

Waiheke Island
Lies to the east of Auckland and misses some of their rains. Bordeaux grapes and Syrah showing potential. Vines planted in 1978 by Kim Goldwater and more recently Essli Merlot have grabbed world attention.

Known as the sunniest place in N.Z. Lies in north west of South Island. Formerly major apple-producing area. Wetter than Wairarapa but produce similar Burgandian grape varieties and Sauvignon Blanc.

Waipara and Canterbury
North of Christchurch, close to Southern Alps. Produces crisp, fruity Rieslings and well structured Chardonnays and also some Pinot Noirs.

Kumea and Hupai
Northwest of Auckland. Small but significant viticultural area. Eleven wineries profit from their proximity to Auckland and make little or no wine from grapes grown in home region. Kumeu produces some exciting and adventurous Chardonnays, especially by N.Z.'s first master of wine Michael Brajkovich.


Sauvignon Blanc
First planted in the 1970's. Became firmly established as N.Z's flagship wine. 72% of N.Z.'s wine sold overseas is Sauvignon Blanc. There is some concern that N.Z. may have too many eggs in the one basket with Sauvignon Blanc and may need to diversify further. Ideal in the cool climate. Most widely planted varietal with 8000 hectares in 2007. 80% grown in Marlborough region. "Pungently aromatic and explosively flavoured wine, its zesty character is redolent of green capsicum and gooseberry with tropical fruit overtones."
Styles vary depending on region with flavours of passion fruit, nectarine, grass, citrus fruit, herbs and flint. Auberon Waugh, wine critic has said, "New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc is now the world's best and that they should just get on with the job of making it."

Pinot Noir
Second most exported variety. Vines existed as early as 1897 but only in mid 1980's did quality production begin in Martinborough. Since 1990's plantings have expanded in all regions in South Island with a few sites in the north in Hawke's Bay, Gisborne and Auckland. Plantings have grown 800% in past 10 years and exports have grown even more. Used in both still and sparkling wine production.
Main regions for Pinot Noir plantings are Marlborough 44%, Central Otago 23%, Martinborough 14%, Canterbury 9% and Nelson 4%. Spectrum of flavours and styles:
Martinborough: dark fruit flavours, savoury notes dense and gamey.
Marlborough: bright red fruit and more linear structure.
Central Otago:
1.Gibbston Valley: Sweet soft up-front fruit with flavours of raspberry, strawberry, herbs and spicy notes.
2.Bannockburn: fuller, more tannic wines with cherries, dark fruits and undertones of thyme.

Oz Clarke wrote in January 2007 "I've learnt that Pinot Noir from New Zealand has come of age in the most astonishing way. I would now, without hesitation, serve a Pinot Noir from New Zealand alongside, or even ahead of a Pinot Noir from Burgundy".

Introduced in 1800's but decimated by phylloxera and re-introduced in 1970's. 3rd largest variety grown. Most is consumed domestically with less than 25% exported. Production now declining as a flood of cheap, bland Australian Chardonnay has dulled the lustre of one of the world's greatest grape varieties. Main producing areas are Gisborne, Marlborough and Hawke's Bay. As a wine, it strongly reflects unique terroir and there is huge diversity within the regions. N.Z. Chardonnay hallmarked by mouth-filling concentration of citrus and tropical fruit flavours, finely balanced by crisp acidity and perfectly rounded oak.

Overtaken the fickle Cabernet Sauvignon in 2002 although plantings now forecast to remain stable. Bordeaux blends very popular with New Zealanders. 80% of red plantings, excluding Pinot Noir, in Hawke's Bay. Merlot based reds rich and plummy in their youth, acquiring complex, leathery, gamey characters with age.
Grown since mid 1800's but strong surge in past 5 years. It is the "rising star" in Hawke's Bay. Auckland and Northland are second largest producers of red wines (excluding Pinot Noir).

Aromatic Varieties
New Zealand offers ideal climate for their production. Main wines are Riesling, Pinot Gris and Gewürztraminer.

Main aromatic varietal. Mainly grown in Marlborough, Canterbury. At present it is N.Z.'s best value wine.

Pinot Gris
This is enjoying a dramatic rise to fame in N.Z. and is close behind Riesling as the 4th most popular and fashionable white variety. Fast expanding production, up 122% from 2005-2006. Why? Some would say because inoffensive. Produced mainly in Marlborough, Hawke's Bay and Central Otago. Gewürztraminer Production only a third of Riesling. Produced mainly in Gisborne, Hawke's Bay and Marlborough.

Kerr Fraser 15th May 2008