Sauvignon Blanc and Beyond: A Regional Guide to New Zealand Wine

Misha's Vineyard in Central Otago / Photo courtesy Misha's Vineyard

For a nation roughly the size of Colorado, New Zealand produces an outsized amount of wine. Nearly 100,000 acres are devoted to wine production. On the North and South islands, where most of the population lives, grapevines dot the dry riverbeds, valleys, lake edges and rolling hills pocked with limestone boulders. Vineyards span the subtropical Northland region to arid Central Otago, the most southerly wine region in the world.

With no vineyard further than 80 miles from the ocean, New Zealand’s maritime climate, cool nights and long hours of sunshine mean many of its wines are refreshing, with bright fruit, heady aromatics and abundant acidity.

These characteristics apply to New Zealand’s unmistakable, gregarious Sauvignon Blanc. But New Zealand’s diverse climate, soil and topography also delivers muscular reds, long-lived Chardonnay, traditional-method sparkling wines, Riesling of all shapes and sizes, as well as myriad other aromatic styles.

Map of regions of New Zealand wine country
Courtesy New Zealand Wine

The main wine regions in New Zealand

New Zealand comprises 11 official wine regions, which received legal recognition in the form of geographical indications (GIs) in 2018. Small regions like Gisborne and Auckland in the North Island, and North Canterbury and Nelson in the South, are where some of the nation’s artisanal and creative winemaking takes place. Here, they grow relatively uncommon varieties with exciting promise like Chenin Blanc and Grüner Veltliner, as well as more traditional plantings like Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.

The most prominent wine regions in New Zealand are Marlborough, Central Otago, Hawke’s Bay and Wairarapa.

Ariel photo of the Marlborough wine region / Photo by Peter Burge
Ariel photo of the Marlborough wine region / Photo by Peter Burge

Marlborough

Tucked into the northeast corner of South Island, with nearly 50,000 acres planted to grapevines, Marlborough is New Zealand’s largest wine region. It accounts for two-thirds of the country’s plantings, which includes the vast majority of New Zealand’s Sauvignon Blanc. The variety thrives in Marlborough’s abundant sunshine, cool nights and relatively fertile, free-draining soils.

“I like to think of Marlborough and Sauvignon Blanc as a lucky accident, or perhaps an educated punt, that resulted in something that was unique in the wine world,” says winemaker Anna Flowerday. She and her husband, Jason, own Te Whare Ra, where Marlborough’s oldest vines reside.

“Sauvignon from here tastes like nowhere else in the world,” says Flowerday. “It captures the amazing long sunlight hours in the fabulous array of thirst-slaking flavors, and our diurnal range contributes to the ripe, mouthwatering acidity.

Your Quick Guide to New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc

“If you want Turangawaewae, [the Maori word for] a sense of the place, then Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc has that in spades.”

Marlborough’s three main subregions are the Southern Valleys, Wairau Valley and Awatere Valley. The former has heavier clay soils, while the Wairau Valley is on an old gravelly riverbed with stony, skeletal soils. Both produce tropical versions of Sauvignon Blanc with passionfruit and grass flavors.

Awatere borders the Pacific Ocean and Kaikoura mountains. Its elevation and cooler, drier climate produce more herb-flecked Sauvignon Blanc, often with notes of salt, tomato leaf and jalapeño.

There’s more to Marlborough than Sauvignon Blanc, of course. Subregions with heavier soils, like Southern Valleys, are home to Pinot Noir, the quality of which has evolved in tandem with the area’s viticulture. These Pinot Noirs are increasingly structured, but still offer plenty of bright red berry fruit.

Pinot Gris, Riesling and Gewürztraminer also find happy homes in Marlborough’s cool, maritime climate. “Aromatic whites are arguably the unsung heroes of Marlborough,” says Flowerday, who makes five wines from these three varieties.

Vineyards owned by Cloudy Bay / Photo by Jim Tannock
Vineyards owned by Cloudy Bay / Photo by Jim Tannock

Central Otago

Central Otago produces just 3% of New Zealand’s wine, most of which is world-class Pinot Noir. The region’s rugged terrain includes snow-capped mountains, arid hills and river gorges. It has New Zealand’s highest elevation and most continental climate, though vineyards are still less than 150 miles from the sea.

Otago’s autumns are dry with low humidity, and its summers are short and hot. Winters bring frost and, occasionally, snow. These conditions, along with old, windblown loess, river gravel and sandy soils, create wines with both structure and finesse.

Pinot Noir comprises 80% of Central Otago’s plantings, and styles vary by subregion. Expect vibrant Pinot Noir from lakeside sites in Wanaka, elegant iterations from the elevated vineyards of Gibbston and powerful Pinots from warmer sites like Bannockburn or Bendigo. Otago’s diversity is an asset. Producers have the freedom to craft both single-site wines as well as blends.

“It’s like questioning whether there is one clear Burgundy style, taking into account Chablis to Maconnais and everything in between, as Central Otago vineyards can be up to 100 kilometers [62 miles] apart with different climates, soils and major geographic features separating them,” says Grant Taylor, owner/winemaker at Valli Vineyards. “The diversity in styles means there will be a wine from Central Otago that most people will enjoy.”

Pinot may rule in these parts, but winemakers here also produce Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc, both crackling with the region’s natural acidity. A smattering of aromatic varieties like Riesling, Grüner Veltliner, Pinot Gris and Gewürztraminer also make appearances, as does some rosé. But perhaps the most exciting Pinot alternative produced in the region are its traditional-method sparkling wines. Sadly, due in part to high production costs, little of it is made, and even less exported to the U.S. If you see it, snap it up.

Villa Maria's Gisborne vineyard / Photo courtesy Villa Maria
Villa Maria’s Gisborne vineyard / Photo courtesy Villa Maria

Hawke’s Bay

The first vines planted in Hawke’s Bay date to 1851, which makes it New Zealand’s oldest wine region. The country’s second-largest region, it produces about 10% of New Zealand’s wine.

Hawke’s Bay is located on the eastern side of North Island between the Pacific Ocean and the inland Kaweka mountains. It has 25 soil types, from free-draining gravel and stone laced with red metal, to loamy clay, limestone or sand.

Temperatures are on the warmest side of cool-climate viticulture, but abundant sunshine means a long growing season. It’s warm enough to ripen the red varieties that the region is most known for: Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah. In addition, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Gris ripen well on the coast, hillsides and in river valleys.

Meet the Producers Transforming New Zealand Pinot Noir

Hawke’s Bay’s most famous wine growing district, Gimblett Gravels, is one of the only districts outside of Europe designated by soil type, not geographic location. At nearly 2,000 acres, its alluvial soils are a mix of coarse sand, stone and gravel known as greywacke, deposited onto the plains after a massive flood from the nearby Ngaruroro River in the 1860s.

This unique soil provides excellent drainage and low vine vigor. That, plus the area’s considerable diurnal temperature range, creates powerful red wines such as Merlot-dominated Bordeaux-style blends and, to a lesser extent, Syrah, with stony character, distinctive tannin structures and pure fruit flavors.

Hawke’s Bay’s most planted variety, however, is Chardonnay.

“Chardonnay is very comfortable in Hawke’s Bay,” says Nick Picone, chief winemaker at Villa Maria Wines. He’s based in Hawke’s Bay and heads up the company’s North Island winemaking. “There is enough heat for it to fully ripen, but it’s also cool enough to retain beautiful natural acidity, flavor and freshness. You could call Hawke’s Bay ‘Goldilocks’ for Chardonnay.”

Escarpment Vineyard in Martinborough / Photo courtesy Escarpment, Jet Productions
Escarpment Vineyard in Martinborough / Photo courtesy Escarpment, Jet Productions

Wairarapa

Wai means water in Maori, so many places in New Zealand, particularly in wine regions, begin with the word. There’s Waipara Valley in North Canterbury, the Wairau Valley in Marlborough, and the Waitaki Valley in North Otago.

Wairarapa is located on the North Island, an hour east of New Zealand’s capital, Wellington. Technically, it consists of three subregions, Gladstone, Masterton and Martinborough. The latter is so well known, helped in part by the region’s historic town center with which it shares a name, that many wine drinkers are familiar with Martinborough, but not Wairarapa.

Wairarapa produces just 1% of the nation’s wines, primarily Pinot Noir. It occupies a dry, windswept valley near the Ruamahanga River and is protected by the Rimutaka and Tararua ranges to the west.

The occasional spring frost and southerly winds result in low yields of thick-skinned fruit that produce concentrated wines with structure and personality. Wairarapa Pinot Noirs can be elegant yet powerful, mineral and spice-driven with sinewy tannins and the capacity to age for more than a decade.

“Martinborough produces Pinot Noir that is distinct from this region,” says Helen Masters, head winemaker at one of the region’s founding wineries, Ata Rangi. “Other varieties may produce great wines year to year, but the voice is not as clear and defined as it is with Pinot Noir. No matter who the producer is, it is as though [the wines] have been painted with the same brush, savory rather than fruit driven, with length defined by very fine tannins.”

Wairarapa also produces distinctive Sauvignon Blanc. It’s bright and boisterous like its Marlborough counterpart, but often more textural and mineral-driven. Chardonnay and Viognier, plus aromatic whites like Riesling, Pinot Gris and Gewürztraminer, make appearances, as does rosé. Wairarapa also occasionally produces spicy, heady Syrah.

Published on July 28, 2020
Topics: Wine Basics