New Zealand hasn’t always been top of mind for natural wine drinkers. This may seem surprising considering the country’s clean and green reputation. Approximately 96% of New Zealand’s vineyard-producing area is certified sustainable and 10% is certified organic, with many producers also farming biodynamically. But export restrictions, geographic isolation and domination of a style (namely Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc) loom large over New Zealand’s relatively young, modern wine industry.
Though natural wine producers have called New Zealand home for a time, the last three years have seen several new labels quietly enter the market and it’s likely more are on the way. Export regulations will loosen in the coming year, permitting producers to experiment and take more risks. Ultimately, though, it’s demand both locally and abroad that is the driving force for change.
“It’s changing because the market is changing,” says Lance Redgwell, owner and winemaker at Cambridge Road, one of New Zealand’s first natural wineries. “It’s also because there is confidence in numbers. There are frames of reference now, styles and techniques have been refined. There’s knowledge in the industry, people to ask and take advice from.”
In New Zealand and elsewhere, the exact parameters of what constitutes “natural wine” remain blurry. The general consensus, according to the official definitions of several groups around the world (S.A.I.N.S., AVN, VinNatur, Renaissance des Appellations, etc.) is that a natural wine should be from organically or biodynamically farmed fruit and made with as little chemical or technological manipulation as possible. This means wines that are fermented spontaneously with native yeast and without the use of any winemaking additives except for a small amount of sulfur, generally under 50 parts per million (ppm) total. Wines are bottled unfiltered and unfined with the exception of gross filtration.
Here are some of the producers to know from New Zealand’s nascent natty wine wave.
Redgwell’s upbringing on his grandparents’ dairy farm and veggie patch on New Zealand’s North Island instilled in him a deep connection to the land. In 2006, this led to the purchase of some of the oldest vines in Martinborough, at the bottom of the North Island.
Redgwell farmed these vines organically from the beginning, transitioning to biodynamic practices soon after. His natural wine journey flowed from there, influenced by the European pét-nats (pétillant natural) and orange wines introduced to him in 2010 by his U.K. and Japanese distributors as well as by the late Mike Weersing, an American expat who founded one of New Zealand’s most boundary-pushing wineries, Pyramid Valley. By 2012, Redgwell had drastically pared down his winemaking, transitioning to 100% native yeast and reducing sulphur additions to zero, in some cases.
The Cambridge Road range is a flag bearer for New Zealand natural wine. It runs the gamut from fun, fizzy and textural, with colorful labels and names like “Down the Rabbit Hole” and “Weeping Tiger,” and more seriously structured bottlings like the winery’s Pinot Noir.
“As a smaller producer with my own cellar door, I was able to introduce this style of wine to an unaware public and slowly start the long process of educating people on the textures and joys of these styles,” says Redgwell.
In 2010, Alex Craighead was making wines in Martinborough when he met Redgwell. Having spent many years chasing vintages at wineries of all sizes around the world, Craighead was dissatisfied with much of the wine produced in New Zealand. Redgwell’s stripped back wines struck a chord.
“I started trialing wines with no SO₂ [sulfur dioxide] in 2013 and was told by the owners of the winery I was working [for] that people didn’t get them,” says Craighead. “I had a strong feeling that these were some of the best wines I had made. So, in 2014 I began making wines for myself.”
Craighead went all-in on natural winemaking. He’s now based in Nelson, at the top of the South Island, where he owns and runs a solar-powered winery and vineyard where curbing environmental impact is top priority.
Wines from his Kindeli label are bright and whimsical in label, color and style. They’re blended wines, sometimes made from both red and white varieties. Craighead utilizes multiple fermentation and aging vessels, partial carbonic maceration and skin contact on the whites. The single-site Chardonnay and Pinot Noir from his other label, Don, are comparatively classic in style. Craighead avoids the use of added sulfur across all his wines.
Craighead is at the heart of a new generation of artisanal winegrowers in New Zealand producing playful, “glou glou” wines as well as more serious ones, with as light a human footprint as possible.
More New Zealand Naturalistas to Explore
Fully natural wineries
The former winemaker and viticulturist at Seresin Winery in Marlborough, Clive Dougall is widely regarded as one of the nation’s most passionate biodynamic winegrowers. However, Dougall, who cofounded the Deep Down label with wine marketer Peter Larimer in 2019, isn’t a fan of the word “natural.”
“I would say that we consider ourselves to craft authentic wine,” says Dougall. “By that I mean we strive to show the truest picture of a site and that vintage, which in our opinion is impossible to do if the wines are adjusted, inoculated and messed around with chemical additions.” He’s also a proponent of label transparency, and his bottles list any ingredients added.
Deep Down’s range currently consists of four varietal wines all from different vineyard sites. These include Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and, unusually for New Zealand, Arneis. While the white wines have small amounts of sulfur added, the Pinot does not.
“It is somewhat of the holy grail for me to be able to reduce and eventually exclude all additions from winemaking,” says Dougall. He performed extensive trials, going so far as to ship his wines to the U.K. and back, to ensure their ability to travel without the need for additional sulfur.
The Deep Down range is comparatively classic in style but with layers of flavor and texture that set them apart. They demonstrate the exacting yet risk-taking winemaker’s ability to appeal to a broad audience.
Canadian Amy Farnsworth may be New Zealand’s natty new kid on the block, though she’s spent nearly two decades in the wine industry. After time in the hospitality industry and later wine retail, where she mainly sold biodynamic wines, Farnsworth worked harvests around the world. She settled in New Zealand, her mother’s native country, where she worked for wineries including biodynamic champion Felton Road.
Today, Farnsworth calls the Hawke’s Bay region in the North Island home. In 2018, she launched her own label, Amoise. While Farnsworth buys fruit from organically farmed, family-run vineyards, she tends to some of the vineyards herself, and applies biodynamic preparations to her allotted rows, as well as making her own native yeast starters in the vineyard. Her extremely hands on, “no compromise” winemaking approach is inspired by the passionate vignerons she worked with in France.
“I embrace the challenges of making wine without additives,” says Farnsworth. “However, I could do without the stress and sleepless nights.”
Farnsworth currently makes Chenin Blanc, Syrah, Pinot Gris, Cabernet Franc and most recently a Gamay Noir, which was added to the stable in 2021. The Cab Franc is raw and lively yet earthy and sappy, while the Gris is cloudy, pithy and refreshing.