Perhaps no country is more closely tied to a single wine grape than New Zealand is to Sauvignon Blanc. It is their most widely planted wine grape and accounts for 80 percent of the wine New Zealand exports into the U.S. And why not? Sauvignon Blanc is the perfect partner with the seafood from the waters around New Zealand.
An array of z-words--Zingy! Zippy! Zesty!--is often employed to describe the fresh, food-friendly acidity of New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc. Local versions of this classic grape from the Loire region of France are aromatic and can be at their best when drunk young. So try recent vintages, when the fresh citrus and tropical fruit flavors are at their lip-smacking best.
Of course, it's not all Sauvignon Blanc down in kiwi country. Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, the flagship grapes of the Burgundy region of France, are also making names for themselves, particularly Pinot Noir. It is coming on particularly strong in the Central Otago, Marlborough, and Martinborough regions.
A Singular Situation
New Zealand is a unique place to grow grapes. Comprised of two main islands, New Zealand is situated more than a thousand miles southeast of Australia in the chilly South Pacific.
The vineyards are the most easterly situated vines in the world. Search any further east for vineyards and you end up in the west. Likewise, some of them lie about as far south as you can go on this planet. Look any further south for wine grapes and you’re on the flip side of the world heading north.
In this magnificent mountainous country--lush, green, and unreasonably beautiful--cool maritime conditions make a fine fit for growing Sauvignon Blanc, though wet weather means growers must stay vigilant, keeping the vines pruned of excessive growth. Too much green growth shades the grapes and leads to big yields that can result in unpleasant vegetal or washed-out flavors in the wines.
New Zealand's maritime climate helps explain why Pinot Noir--a difficult grape that doesn't suffer heat well--covers more acres in New Zealand vineyards than all other red grapes combined.
Wine Regions of New Zealand's South Island
New Zealand is comprised of two main islands, the North and the South islands. A backbone of dramatic mountains, known as the Southern Alps, divides the South Island along its length. Being closer to the Antarctic Circle, the South Island is the cooler of the two main islands. The South Island is also home to a pair of New Zealand's most important wine regions: Marlborough, which is renowned for Sauvignon Blanc, and Central Otago, which has come into its own as a prime place for Pinot Noir.
Marlborough sits at the northeastern top of the South Island. It is New Zealand’s largest wine-growing region and the most important for Sauvignon Blanc. But keep an eye out for Marlborough Pinot Noir, too. Marlborough has more acres devoted to Pinot Noir than any other region in New Zealand. Chardonnay has also found its way into a healthy number of Marlborough vineyards. Still, the main claim to winemaking fame around here remains crisp, aromatic Sauvignon Blanc. The scene is sunny with cool nights and a nice long growing season. The vines keep their feet dry during the growing season, the roots reaching down deep into well-drained soils of silt and gravel. The poor soils also keep yields from getting out of hand, which helps build flavorful fruit.
In a spectacularly scenic country, Central Otago just might take the prize for most stunning wine region of all. Beautiful lakes and snowcapped peaks define the landscape. Vines are planted on hillsides at elevations higher than other regions in New Zealand. Central Otago vineyards are also the most southerly situated in the world. The climate is warm, sunny, and dry. And the soils are minerally, uniquely so, consisting of schist and mica deposits on silty loam. Central Otago has emerged as New Zealand’s premier Pinot Noir region.
Wine Regions of New Zealand's North Island
The North Island of New Zealand lies across a treacherous narrow water passage known as Cook Strait. It is the smaller and warmer of the two main islands.
Gisborne is situated along the northeast tip of the North Island where the landmass juts out into the Pacific like the hammer of an old dueling pistol. Here are the world’s easternmost vineyards. When the morning sun peeks up over the horizon, its first light falls on the vineyards of Gisborne before all others in the world. Protected by rugged mountains to the west, the scene here is comparatively sunny and warm. Most of the vineyards sit along a flat, fairly fertile valley floor. Ninety percent of the grapes grown in Gisborne are white, and Chardonnay is the big grape here.
Hawke's Bay sees its fair share of sunshine. Situated just below Gisborne on the east coast of the North Island, it is protected by mountains to the west that help keep skies blue above the vineyards. Chardonnay is the primary grape here, but reds are ascendant too with Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot taking the lead.
Set amidst a backdrop of snowcapped mountains, Martinborough does not lack for natural beauty. This region sits at the southern tip of the North Island and includes New Zealand’s capital city, Wellington. The vineyards are planted on terraces of well-drained stony soils. Martinborough is one of three prime spots in New Zealand for Pinot Noir--along with Marlborough and Central Otago.