New Zealand: Vibrant Wines

By / Wine + Drinks / May 4th, 2011 / 1

New Zealand is a small and relatively isolated country that has long found itself in the shadow of its larger neighbour, Australia. (Canadians can empathize, living as we do next door to the US.) Until recently, New Zealand also played second fiddle to Australia in the world of wine. But a couple of decades ago, quite suddenly, New Zealand exploded onto the world stage with its vibrantly alive Sauvignon Blancs. These exuberant, intensely aromatic wines revealed new dimensions of this well-known grape, immediately captivating wine lovers everywhere.

Since then, viticulture on this small island has progressed rapidly. Sauvignon, the variety that originally thrust New Zealand into the international spotlight, still remains king of the hill. It is far ahead of all other varieties, both in total hectares planted and overall production. The story is still a work in progress, however. It is no longer entirely about Sauvignon. New Zealand’s southerly latitude and maritime influences mean that cool climate conditions are the norm. This has favoured white varieties that typically exhibit brilliantly aromatic and vibrantly fruity character. Reds, though, are starting to challenge the dominance of whites, led by Pinot Noir, which is rapidly gaining ground and is unrivalled as the country’s top red grape.

Similarly, the geographical focus has widened to include many new plantings in less established, newer wine regions. Today, wine is being made in the Northland region at latitude 36˚S, close to the northern tip of the North Island, all the way down to 45˚S in Central Otago, close to the other end of the South Island. Wine growers continue to develop their understanding of local terroir, continually gaining experience working with different varieties. Armed with this new knowledge, they are zeroing in on the best vineyard sites for particular grapes. This understanding, together with meticulous vineyard practices, has resulted in startling improvements to quality and the creation of wines that more clearly reflect the distinctive terroir.

The list of grapes that thrive when planted in the right spots throughout this beautiful country has expanded dramatically. Well known white varieties, especially Sauvignon, but also Chardonnay, Pinot Gris, Riesling and Gewürztraminer have been planted in quite diverse regions up and down the country. Planting of reds, led by Pinot Noir, has become much more extensive in recent years. Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Cabernet Franc and Malbec all appear to have a future in New Zealand’s wine culture. The same varieties, despite being grown in quite different locations with different climatic conditions, nonetheless exhibit remarkably characteristic vigorously fruity, aromatic expression and lively acidity that are recognizably New Zealand.

As of 2009, there were over 643 wineries in the country, with productive vineyards covering some 31,000 hectares. While there are several larger, internationally owned wineries, most are smaller boutique-style, often family-owned, operations. Although they can be further subdivided, there are basically nine major wine regions, five on the North Island and the remaining four on the South Island. By far the largest and most important is Marlborough at the northwestern tip of the South Island. With almost 17,000 hectares of vineyards, Marlborough boasts 53.7 per cent of New Zealand’s total vineyards. The climate, with its warm days, cool nights, dry autumn and variable soils, provides ideal conditions for several varieties. Superstar Sauvignon leads the pack, but impressive Pinot Noir is making great strides. Chardonnay, Pinot Gris, Riesling and Merlot all flourish in well-selected sites.

Illustrating some of the differences in regional style, Chardonnay grown in Marlborough’s generally cooler conditions is typically crisp and apple-like, with lively refreshing acidity. The same grape, grown in the warmer, wetter conditions of Gisbourne, on the North Island, exhibits more tropical, pineapple-like character. Chardonnay from the Hawke’s Bay region, close to Gisbourne, is somewhere in between, with good weight on the palate and peach-like fruit expression. The Canterbury/Waipara region’s combination of hot days, cold nights and dry autumn conditions produces very crisp, austere-style Riesling, whereas in Nelson’s warmer climate this grape can put on more weight and show lush passion fruit character.

Pinot Noir is most widely planted in the cooler South Island, although there are fine producers like Ata Rangi in Martinborough, the southernmost region on the North Island. Many of the best-known New Zealand Pinots, and the ones most likely to be found in Canada, come from Marlborough. Entry level Marlborough Pinot Noir is characterized by seductive perfume, generous red fruit and supple tannins. More classic expressions show greater concentration, bigger structure and need some ageing. The Canterbury/Waipara, and especially rising Central Otago regions, are also beginning to demonstrate real prowess with this grape. Some of these wines are now finding their way onto Canadian shelves.

Central Otago is New Zealand’s southernmost region and has its most continental climate, with hot summers and cold winters. Winemaking here can be a nail-biting proposition. Celebrated movie actor Sam Neill (Jurassic Park, The Piano) owns his own small winery, Two Paddocks, in the Gibbston Valley sub-region. Neill spoke at the Vancouver Playhouse Festival earlier this year. Emphasising the marginal character of the climate, he described his own vineyard location as “on the edge of madness.” Despite the extreme conditions, Otago Pinot Noirs typically show more concentrated intensity than finesse, with an often remarkable degree of ripeness. It is still relatively early days for this growing region, though, and the emergence of a definitive Central Otago Pinot Noir style is likely still in the future.

A bright future

New Zealand, it seems, can almost do it all. We have not even touched on the fine Traditional Method sparkling wines, nor the racy, Late Harvest-style Rieslings and unctuously rich dessert wines. Rhône-like Syrah, especially grown in the Gimblett Gravel area of Hawke’s Bay, looks like another rising star, but not likely to challenge Pinot Noir as top dog. This country’s greatest strength lies with its cooler climate aromatic whites and Pinot Noir. While Sauvignon Blanc continues to lead the way, Riesling, Pinot Gris, Gewürztraminer and Chardonnay all deserve more attention. Pinot Noir has already achieved a very high international standard, especially in the moderate price category. It is a fair bet that future examples may challenge the world’s best.

a note on wine and culinary tourism

New Zealand’s wine regions are not only stunningly beautiful, but offer great opportunities for wine and culinary tourism. Many wineries offer accommodation and have restaurants featuring fine local seafood, meats and produce. The country also offers excellent artisanal cheeses and many other local specialities. Fairfax Media in Auckland puts out a comprehensive annual guide, Cuisine Wine Country, which is a must if you plan to go.

Wine Notes

91 Allan Scott Family Winemakers Riesling 2007, Marlborough ($21.49)
Piercingly aromatic Riesling intensity with vivid lime, flinty mineral and a whiff of petrol. Lovely citrus flavours contrast with gritty minerality, lively acidity and lingering floral and mineral notes. Would not be out of place in Germany.

89 Twin Island Sauvignon Blanc 2009, Marlborough ($22.99)
Rather subdued aromatics reveal subtle citrus, grass and mineral character. More forward on the palate, though, with bright green fruit, passion fruit, firm minerality and zesty acidity. An austere classic style to pair with simple seafoods.

90 Nautilus Chardonnay 2008, Marlborough ($28.99)
Whole bunch pressed from hand picked grapes, then barrel fermented with lees stirring, this well-crafted wine is perfumed with floral accents together with leesy citrus and lightly buttery notes. Concentrated fresh citrus, lively acidity and firm mineral, good weight and acidity on the palate.

88 Kim Crawford Pinot Gris 2008, ($22.99)
From selected vineyards across New Zealand, this one has plenty of aromatic fresh green fruit and delicate floral notes. Generously ripe, softly smooth apple and pear flavours contrast with agreeable mineral grip and well-modulated acidity.

88 Kim Crawford Pinot Noir 2008, Marlborough ($24.99)
Seductive scents of strawberry and red cherry with dried grass and lightly spicy overtones. Cherry is more prominent in the mouth, backed by firm but supple tannins, a splash of milk chocolate, vanilla and appetizing acidity.

90 Mud House Haymaker Dry Riesling 2007, South Island ($19.32)
Excellent Riesling varietal character. Lemon, lime, mineral, floral and petrol show on the nose. Flavours come through equally in the mouth with a light, off dry finish.

89 Seresin Sauvignon Blanc 2008, Marlborough ($25.43)
This refined wine was made from selected parcels of fruit, separately fermented using wild yeasts. Bouquet is not typically assertive (there is a small percentage of Semillon in the blend). Fine citrus, tropical fruit, floral and mineral notes come through, with expansive green fruit, a hint of grapefruit, lively acidity, minerals and a trace of passion fruit on the lightly creamy palate.

88 Momo Sauvignon Blanc 2009, Marlborough ($20.34)
Certified Organic grapes were bunch pressed and cool fermented for this readily recognizable New Zealand style. Aromatic gooseberry and tropical fruit character plays through on the palate, with emphatic gooseberry in the foreground and tropical fruit playing in a minor key. Finishes with bracingly crisp acidity and firm mineral grip.

89 Babich Family Estate Vineyards Cowslip Valley Sauvignon Blanc 2009, Marlborough ($21.99)
This single vineyard wine shows intensely piquant gooseberry and herbal aromatics with a whiff of passion fruit. Tart gooseberry with hints of passion fruit and guava on the palate. Agreeably smooth texture.

89 Mud House Chardonnay 2008, Hawke’s Bay ($17.50)
Vibrantly clear, delicately perfumed fine citrus fruit with a subtle trace of butter. Delicious lemon citrus flavour in the mouth with lightly creamy mouth feel and dry, food friendly finish.

90 Ata Rangi Pinot Noir 2008, Martinborough ($59.99)
Broodingly dark colour with an expressive, expansive bouquet revealing cherry, strawberry, clove and floral notes. Cherry is dominant on the palate with smooth velvety texture, mineral, solid tannins, spice and chocolate notes on the finish. Needs time to develop.

91 Crossroads Winery Elms Vineyard Reserve Syrah 2007, Hawke’s Bay ($32.99)
Fine, complex bouquet shows developed red berry fruit, a whiff of clove, fresh herb and a pinch of white pepper. Lovely, refined raspberry fruit in the mouth, with exceptional balance and well integrated fruit, peppery spice and milk chocolate on the prolonged finish. A terrific wine!


Sean Wood is a weekly wine columnist for the Halifax Chronicle Herald. He has written for both national and international wine magazines and travels frequently to report on wine regions throughout the world. He has provided consulting services to government on wine-related issues as well to the hospitality industry. Sean also serves frequently as a wine judge. His book Wineries and Wine Country of Nova Scotia was published in September 2006.

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