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Best New Zealand Wines: A-Z Guide to New Zealand Wine by Variety and Region
New Zealand has fertile soil and an irresistible maritime climate that’s ideal for producing many different types of wines. World-famous whites and reds provide depth and interest to your taste buds while enthusiasts and laymen alike enjoy embracing everything about the local viticulture.
The crisp, fresh wines that come from the land of Kiwi are reminiscent of the sunshine and clean air. They’re top quality and exported worldwide for all to enjoy. However, wineries in New Zealand are a tourist attraction themselves, and nothing compares to enjoying wine in its home country.
New Zealand is mysterious to those of us who live halfway around the world. It’s exotic and captivating. We yearn to visit, but don’t quite know what to expect when we get there. These two islands are in isolation, with their closest neighbor at just about 1000 miles away. That’s Australia, in case you didn’t know. ‘Ello there, Mate!
Because of New Zealand’s geographical location, it has the southernmost and easternmost vineyards in the world. Wine grows all over the two islands from tip to tail and these two small land masses are halfway between the South Pole and the equator.
New Zealand wine is surprisingly well-known, despite the fact that it makes up less than 1% of all of the world’s wine. While New Zealand has been making wine for centuries, the modern history of New Zealand wine only goes back a few decades. Don’t play down the drama, though.
New Zealand’s wine culture has only been recognized in the past 30 years, yet no matter where you go, it would be hard not to find something from this mysterious land. Sauvignon Blanc is a distinctly New Zealand story, but it’s not the only one.
New Zealand Wine History
New Zealand’s history seems short to the rest of the world because these wines have only been available everywhere since the 1980s. The Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir varieties have only been popular since 1990 or so. However, these classic European grape varieties have been growing in New Zealand for two centuries.
Many colonists’ gardens contained grapevines, and in 1840, at the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi, New Zealand had already produced and bottled its first wine. The first recorded vineyard was that of Samuel Marsden, who was an Anglican missionary, in 1819.
Scotsman James Busby is the earliest winemaker recorded and he was the first British Resident to inhabit the islands. During a visit from French explorer Dumont d’Urville, Busby gave him a light white wine that d’Urville said was very sparkling and delicious.
Unfortunately, despite efforts to preserve the passion of the winemaking industry in New Zealand, many crops were destroyed by phylloxera aphid, oidium, and prohibition. The wine industry thus faded into almost nothing.
A gradual resurgence of the industry began in the 1920s and by World War II, the wine industry was booming, at least locally. By 1960, many New Zealand winemakers had licenses to sell at more retail outlets.
The 1960s and 1970s saw heavy investment from companies overseas in America and Australia which sparked its worldwide growth and popularity. It also sparked the desire for improved quality with an emphasis on producing sweet, fruity, light wines.
It wasn’t until recently that New Zealand wine drinkers began consuming dry wines with more fervor like Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Sauvignon Blanc, and Pinot Gris. Surprisingly, these dry wines account for more Kiwi wine production than sweet and light.
While wineries in New Zealand were originally tasked with serving a small market domestically under the constraints of the highly-regulated local economy, by 1985, many of the restrictions against international sales were lifted.
In 1990, there weren’t quite 100 wineries in New Zealand. Today, there are more than 670. The industry has swollen and is constantly buzzing with excitement over new labels and new faces. Samual Marsden’s prediction two centuries ago that New Zealand would be highly favourable to the vine has been fulfilled in a brilliant way.
New Zealand Wine Varieties
Most New Zealand wine varieties are grown in a number of different regions. Unlike the restrictions placed on European countries, New Zealand doesn’t regulate its wine production to specific regions, although each region produces wines with distinguishing characteristics.
Sauvignon Blanc is grown in the regions of Marlborough, Hawke’s Bay, Central Otago, Gisborne, Nelson, Wairarapa, and Canterbury & Waipara. Each region imparts its own style to the production and you’ll find Sauvignon Blanc wines that range from vividly fruity to complex and oaky.
Both Marlborough and Gisborne Sauvignon Blanc are bold, vivid, and tropical. They can be light, zesty, and herbaceous with mineral depths and pungent aromatics. Central Otago Sauvignon Blanc has many of these same qualities with crisp acidity and a dry finish.
Canterbury & Waipara Sauvignon Blanc has the same crisp, fresh, fruity qualities as the previous regions, but it has an interesting structure and more weight. Hawke’s Bay Sauvignon Blanc varieties are weighty as well, but use oak fermentation to add body and complexity.
Wairarapa and Nelson Sauvignon Blanc wines are more sophisticated, vivid, perfumed, and poised. They have crisp acidity and mineral textures as well as herbaceous characters and vivacious tropical fruits.
New Zealand Pinot Noir comes from Marlborough, Hawke’s Bay, Central Otago, Canterbury & Waipara, Wairarapa, and Nelson regions. Most of these varieties are strongly perfumed and intense. They have rich flavours and complexity.
Flavours range from spicy herbs to lush dark cherry with dark colours, brooding textures, and supple structure.
In Hawke’s Bay, early plantings were used for the production of a sparkling base and it has only been in the last two decades it has grown to be more suited for still wines.
Chardonnay comes from Marlborough, Hawke’s Bay, Central Otago, Gisborne, Canterbury & Waipara, Nelson, and Auckland regions. Possibly the only thing each region’s Chardonnay has in common is citrus flavours. The rest is unique.
For example, Marlborough produces a wide variety of Chardonnay. Some are completely unoaked while others pull out all the stops when it comes to ageing and complexity. They are well-structured and intense.
Chardonnay is Hawke’s Bay flagship white wine with full body and fine acidity. It’s balanced and rich with a long finish and excellent fruit flavours.
Chardonnay from Central Otago has mineral characters and their fine body, tight structure, and sophistication ages will with elegance and complexity. However, it can be bottled young if preferred.
Gisborne Chardonnay bursts forth on the palate with lush fruit and is rich with delicious simplicity when young, and intense when aged.
Canterbury & Waipara Chardonnay styles vary widely across the region with great body and structure with fine acidity and rich citrus flavours. Auckland Chardonnay also varies in weight across the region with fresh acidity and tropical flavours.
Nelson produces Chardonnay wines that have elegance, complexity, and depth. The fruit is intense and pure and the best Nelson Chardonnay has exceptional longevity.
Hawke’s Bay and Auckland see a variety of stylish red blends. Bordeaux from Hawke’s Bay is powerful, elegant, and ages well. Hawke’s Bay also produces Merlot with plummy depths and rich flavours.
Pinot Gris is cultivated in Hawke’s Bay and Auckland. Both are spicy and fresh. Hawke’s Bay Pinot Gris has balanced acidity while Auckland’s Pinot Gris is weighty with ripe pear flavours and aromas.
Syrah comes from Hawke’s Bay, Wairarapa, and Auckland regions. Hawke’s Bay Syrah is distinguished and refined with ripe and elegant fruit, lingering spice, and supple tannins.
Wairarapa Syrah is young but elegant, with a spicy backbone. Syrah in this region aims to replace the Merlot and Cabernet blends that are tricky to grow in this climate.
Auckland Syrah is sophisticated and intense. This variety is fostering excitement in the community regarding its pure, elegant, and aromatic expression.
Other Aromatic Wines
Marlborough produces wines that are pure and vivacious and they range from sweet to dry and lush to taut. Central Otago also produces a wide range but the wines they make are sparkling and fruity.
Gisborne makes these aromatics with well-textured spice while Canterbury & Waipara’s aromatics are bright and fruity. Wairarapa’s long growing season makes late-harvested styles that always impress.
Nelson’s climate is host to a variety of styles, but all have poised acidity, rich flavors, and impressive textures.
New Zealand Wine Regions
New Zealand is full of bright colours, vivid personalities, and contagious energy. This subtropical paradise is home to a lot of sunshine and refreshing sea breezes. The wine regions are diverse, but no vineyard is more than about 80 miles from the ocean.
Each region has its own climatic conditions and unique soil composition. Every subregional characteristic has an opportunity to shine through the varieties of wine produced there. You can identify the wide variety of New Zealand wines by more than just their region, but by the exact soil in which they’re grown.
This climate is cool with high sunshine. There’s not much rainfall and the soil is free draining and moderately fertile. The wines that come from this region are vivid and unique. With a water basin running through and a backdrop of rolling hills and high peaks, the landscape is as elegant as the wine.
Marlborough is most famous for its Sauvignon Blanc that put New Zealand’s wine game front and center in the 1980s. It’s also the country’s largest wine region growing? the entire country’s total vines.
The range of wines found here is great, with intense Chardonnay, sophisticated Pinot Noir, and bright aromatics. Diverse soil creates a large array of styles and each unique subregion has its own meso-climate and soil composition.
Within mere moments of hitting the tarmac at Blenheim airport, you can be sipping your favorite wines at a cellar in Marlborough. You may also find the region via the Cook Strait ferry and drive through the stunning scenery or take a steam train ride.
Along with excellent wines, Marlborough features fresh seafood prepared with world-famous chefs. The diverse land displays hills, valleys, and waterways. Wine tours, hiking, and sightseeing abound.
The Marlborough subregions include Southern Valleys, Wairau Valley, and Awatere Valley. The Southern Valleys are the most important subregions including Ben Morvan, Brancott, Fairhall, Waihopai, and Omaka valleys. The soil is heavy with a lot of clay.
As you head south, it gets colder and drier and many varieties are produced here including exceptional Pinot Noir and aromatics.
The Wairau Valley has gravelly soil and varying rainfall throughout the subregion. It’s generally cooler and drier with early ripeners, so wine produced here is intense with a lot of bodies.
Awatere Valley is very distinct because it extends all the way from the sea inland to the Kaikoura range. It’s cool, dry, and windy with some elevation that produces bright and dramatic wines like Pinot Noir and Sauvignon Blanc.
Climate and Soil
Throughout the Marlborough region, there’s a lot of sunshine but the temperatures are fairly modest. This is what creates the piercing intensity, acid retention, and sharp expression of their wines.
The mountains protect the region from extreme wind and rain. The cooling sea breezes and long summers allow for a wide variety of styles to thrive. Wines here include Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Noir, and Chardonnay.
See some of the best Marlborough wine brands in the market here:
This second-largest wine region is abundantly sunny. The first grape plantings were in 1851 and since then they’ve earned a reputation for churning out high-quality Merlot, Cabernet, Chardonnay, Syrah, and Pinot Noir.
The warmth in this climate lends itself well to a long growing season and very successful dessert wines. The tourism features winery experiences, festivals, and beautiful architecture.
Visiting Hawke’s Bay
Hawke’s Bay has plenty of tourist opportunities. Wine lovers can explore the region with restaurants, accommodations, and experiences. It’s easily accessible from Napier Airport and has plenty of cycling trails, classic cars, and architectural tours.
Diversity of landscape mirrors the diversity of wine with plains, peaks, valleys, coasts, and cliffs. Wine is highly celebrated all year long with events, markets, and festivals
Hawke’s Bay Subregions
Subregions in Hawke’s Bay include coastal areas, hillsides, alluvial plains, and river valleys. Coastal influences on winemaking include dramatic growing seasons and climates while the hillsides steadily produce classic reds.
The plains contain the earliest wineries of the region and were formed over thousands of years of the Ngaruroro River changing its course. There are plenty of established Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and other reds here.
Hawke’s Bay contains four rivers running directly through, creating grape growing diversity and sheltered environments with altitude variations, differing access to sun, and varying soil types. These areas produce excellent Chardonnay, Pinot Gris, and Sauvignon Blanc.
Climate and Soil
A lot of sun and heat in the summer produces long growing seasons while the mountains offer protection from wind and frost that can affect growth. Cool, wet weather may cause problems with the growing season, but the soil is well-drained, reducing the impact.
Four rivers mean plenty of different soil types for significant variations in wine styles. From sandy to clay and stones to metal content, each area is different but very fertile. Wines in Hawke’s Bay include Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Gris, red blends, Syrah, and Pinot Noir.
These spectacular views produce sophisticated tourism, impressive white wines, and the world’s best Pinot Noir. The first award-winning wine from this region was a Burgundy in 1881. The climate is extreme and produces wines just as intense with plenty of expressions.
Visiting Central Otago
This southernmost region has large mountains, dramatic skies, and pristine lakes. Queenstown Airport is nearby and there are plenty of tourist activities for any season. Hit the slopes in the winter, go on a winery cycling tour in the summer, and dine at exceptional restaurants anytime.
Central Otago Subregions
Subregions in this area include Wanaka, Gibbston, Bannockburn, Alexandra, Bendigo, and Cromwell. Each has its own distinct soil type making for a wide range of styles.
Wanaka makes the best Pinot Noir and some very vivid whites. It lies within the mountains north of Queenstown and has some of the most beautiful vineyards. It’s cool and wet while Lake Wanaka helps to mitigate frost and produce very delicate wines.
Gibbston produces light, but very intense wines with great expression. It is situated on the Kawarau Gorge with north-facing hills in a cool climate that causes grapes to ripen later than other subregions.
Bannockburn is on the bank of the Kawarau River and is one of the warmest and driest places in the whole region. Harvest happens almost a full month before the other subregions, which means the wines are complex and distinct.
Alexandra features extreme summers and winters, which makes for vivid, aromatic wines with fine structure.
Bendigo is the warmest of all of Central Otago’s subregions with gentle slopes and stony soils. The summer here is hot, but with cold nights.
Cromwell has vines on lower terraces and along the valley floor at the base of the Pisa mountains. Wines from this subregion are seductive.
Climate and Soil
Central Otago is the southernmost wine region in the world, but it’s also at the highest altitude in all of New Zealand. This makes for a semi-continental climate where frosts are planned for but vines could also receive long sunshine hours and hot temperatures. Low humidity in the fall coaxes wines of both complexity and purity.
Soil is old silt formed from several ice ages in which glaciers ground the schist into fine flour. Water erosion has created interspersed layers of gravel and sand. All soils are free-draining, but rainfall is minimal.
All soil is rich in minerals and irrigation is a great tool to optimize the quality of the fruit by reducing stress. These factors create premium boutique wines from this region including Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and Sauvignon Blanc, among others.
The fascinating history of this region, as well as the bright sunshine and beautiful landscapes, make for a fantastic place to visit. It’s a remote area, but worth the trip for flavorful, fruit-forward wines. While Chardonnay is dominant, Pinot Gris also enjoys success.
Here there are robust growing conditions, but the abundant sunshine also creates a great place to visit. The wineries are all close together and within 15 minutes of the Gisborne Airport.
Accessibility makes it easy for travellers to relax and take the time to enjoy everything about Gisborne from wines and cafes to galleries and shops. Nature lovers will enjoy fishing, cycling, surfing, and hiking.
Subregions in Gisborne include Ormond, Patutahi, and Manutuke. Ormond produces single-vineyard wines in the river valley, but The Golden Slope contains topsoil heavily influenced by limestone, which makes the best Chardonnay.
Patutahi is a warmer, inland subregion with low rainfall and well-drained soils that produce great Gewurztraminer. Manutuke produces Chardonnay in its sandy soil. Other varieties produced in Gisborne include Sauvignon Blanc and Merlot.
Climate and Soil
The warm climate here with the highest sunshine hours in all of the country causes grapes to be harvested early. The soil is well-drained and diverse. Some are clay and produce fleshier wines while some are fine silt and make aromatic wines.
Canterbury & North Canterbury
Here, the Southern Alps cascade into expansive lowlands where vintners produce fantastic Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. You can see the Pacific Ocean to the east and the Alps to the west. A cool, dry climate with a lot of sunshine makes for a long growing season and expressive wines.
Visiting Canterbury & North Canterbury
The Christchurch Airport is centrally located within this region and tourism includes many hidden gems. New cycle trails connect many of Waipara Valley’s wineries and dining experiences are high quality.
Subregion exploration continues to provide some exciting diversity for the future offerings of the region. Current subregions include Waipara Valley, Canterbury Plains, Waitaki Valley.
Waipara Valley soil is gravel and clay. They produce fantastic Rieslings but recent exploration has revealed distinct Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs.
The Canterbury Plains are flat with free-draining soil made from gravel and they grow expressive and graceful Pinot Noirs and Rieslings.
The Waitaki Valley has limestone soils and dry falls that make complex, intense fruit wines with a mineral character.
Climate and Soil
Low rainfall with plenty of sunshine leads to warm summers, hot and dry winds, and sea breezes that occasionally lead to cold fronts. The soil varies from gravel to limestone to clay. Irrigation is necessary here but produces ripe, complex wines.
Wairarapa is a mouthful, but it has a beautiful meaning. “Glistening waters” perfectly describes its picturesque landscape and exceptional wines. Only 3% of the land here grows vines and they only account for 1% of the country’s total production.
However, Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir stand out here, as well as some Syrah, Chardonnay, and dessert wines. Each subregion provides subtle character differences that the discerning palate will enjoy exploring.
Take the train from Wellington into Wairarapa through beautiful scenery and experience everything there is to do. Many wineries are within walking distance of each other and small wineries give you an opportunity to speak directly with the winemaker.
Vineyard accommodations are unique and allow you to immerse yourself in the culture of the region. You may stumble upon something very special and get a rare experience that’s like no other.
Subregions in Wairarapa include Masterton, Gladstone, and Martinborough. Masterton was the first city where grapes were planted more than 100 years ago and it is now the largest town in the region. This subregion has early morning frosts and very hot summer days. Complex, flavorful wines like Pinot Noir and Sauvignon Blanc are the primary varieties.
Gladstone is south of Masterton with a cooler climate and river terraces, but still plenty of suns. Clay soil produces Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir.
The colonial village of Martinborough is characterized by small vineyards and family producers. It has a cool, dry climate and free-draining soils. Fantastic Sauvignon Blanc, Syrah, and Pinot Noir rival the best of Burgundy here.
Climate and Soil
This region has cool spring, autumn, and winter, with very hot summers and cool nights. This is a fantastic climate for growing grapes and creates intense complexity and character. The soil is silt and gravel with some local limestone.
Nelson has a coastal climate with semi-fertile, free-draining soil. It has extended sunlight hours and is known for bountiful orchards. It’s a small region allowing cyclists to visit most wineries in a single day.
The wine roots in Nelson begin in the 1800s thanks to German settlers. Many of the pioneering winemakers of the 1970s are still going strong here today. Other than wine, Nelson has an artistic culture.
The sunny climate makes visiting joy all year long. There are plenty of galleries, breweries, cafes, and wineries to see. The outdoor scene includes cycling, kayaking, and hiking, while fresh seafood is plentiful.
The Moutere Hills and Waimea Plains make up the subregions of Nelson. Moutere Hills is wetter and warmer while Waimea Plains is cool and dry. Moutere Hills has rich clay soils that create wines with texture, complexity, and depth. Waimea Plains is known for vibrant aromatics and rich, expressive wines.
Climate and Soil
Nelson is easily New Zealand’s sunniest region with very few clouds in the sky on most days. Variable temperatures encourage character in the wine while many hours of sunlight produce pure fruit flavors.
Soil is gravelly with a clay base and holds water well. These types of soils give wine richness and depth, but the Waimea Plains subregion generally has lighter wines than Moutere Hills. Common varieties here are Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Noir, and Chardonnay.
Auckland is famous for large wine companies and plenty of boutique vineyards that offer a lot of wine variety. There’s something in Auckland for everyone. It’s one of the oldest wine regions in New Zealand and was established shortly after 1900.
If you’ve not heard of any other region in New Zealand, you’ve surely heard of the one that contains the country’s largest city of the same name. Each subregion has its own personality, but all are within an hour’s drive of Auckland.
However, if you want to venture off the beaten path, there are a few fantastic wineries that are outside of the subregions and you won’t want to miss them. Be sure to visit Matakana, West Auckland, and Waiheke on your trip.
Auckland is diverse, with rolling hills, sandy beaches, ferry rides, art galleries, spas, and great dining.
Waiheke Island, West Auckland, and Matakana are the three subregions that comprise Auckland. Waiheke Island is known for exciting blends like Cabernet, but more recently, Chardonnay, Syrah, Petit Verdot, Viognier, Pinot Gris, and Montepulciano have come to the forefront.
West Auckland is home to one of the oldest wine families in the country. This warm, fertile region was settled almost 100 years ago and the family still cultivates the land today. Merlot and Chardonnay reign supreme.
Matakana has rolling hills and great tourism. The vines are young, but a balmy climate produces good texture and body in wines like Cabernet, Syrah, and Pinot Gris.
Climate and Soil
Auckland is warm and humid with more rain in the winter. Vines here can be prone to disease. The soil is immensely fertile because of Auckland’s volcanic history.
New Zealand Wine Recommendations
There are too many wineries and too many wines to try them all. If you’re going to New Zealand, you can’t go wrong with almost any winery you visit, but here are some favourites.
This winery is in Martinborough, about 40 miles from Wellington. The wines made here are fashion-forward and the vintners intend to take their wines to exciting new places. They focus specifically on Chardonnay, Pinot Gris, and Pinot Noir, but their 2014 Pinot Noir is particularly stunning.
Felton Road is in Central Otago, and they specialize in Chardonnay, Reisling, and Pinot Noir. Block 3 2015 Pinot Noir was critically acclaimed, and it will only take a sip for you to see why.
Temperate and beautiful Hawke’s Bay is home to Te Mata, a winery dating back to 1896. There are a total of 11 wines produced here and the entire operation is family-owned. Try the 2014 Shiraz or the 2014 Cabernet Sauvignon if you go for a visit.
The Chardonnay here is something special. Try the 2014 Kumeu Mate’s Vineyard Chardonnay or the 2014 Hunting Hill Chardonnay. Both are rich, concentrated, and punchy. Your taste buds will be working overtime.
“New beginning” in Maori is a fine way to describe this winery. Every new vintage is made with eager desire. Their Pinot Noir regularly makes it in the top five of favourite wine lists. It’s a complex wine with blended flavours that come together nicely on the palate.
The 2013 Waikari Pinot Noir is perhaps the best Pinot Noir that New Zealand has to offer. The rich dark berries are powerful but spice and minerals also play on the tongue for exceptional complexity. This is the most expensive wine on our list, but if you can drop $200NZ on a bottle, you won’t regret it.
Rippon features some of the most beautiful scenery you can find. It’s the oldest winery in Wanaka and has been operated by five generations of family. They’ve mastered their technique and know exactly what they’re doing when it comes to the 2012 Gewurztraminer.
Shiraz at Craggy Range is exceptional if you want a red, or try Sauvignon Blanc if you prefer white. It is vibrant and zesty with green apple, honeysuckle, and nectarine aromas. They use their exceptional climate and rich farming history to cultivate not only wine but the people’s spirit.
If you like Jurassic Park, you’ll like this winery. Owned by Sam Neill, this winery specializes in reds, because those are Neill’s favourites. Or should we say, “favourites?” Try the 2014 Pinot Noir for spicy black currant flavours and herbaceous aromatics.
Trinity Hill Shiraz is among the best because they are very particular to only produce the wine during years when grapes are at their best. Their quality assurance process is beyond compare, starting with the way they cultivate the vines to produce grapes of the highest quality.
FAQs About New Zealand Wine
New Zealand is mostly known as the region that produces excellent Sauvignon Blanc selections, but their wine industry is also producing quality Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Merlot, Pinot Gris etc.
Not necessarily. New Zealand wines are usually in the medium expensive range with bottles going from $20 to $50 depending on the year of production, but there are also bottles that go up that $100.
New Zealand’s wine is usually not expensive, however, if you have ordered some and you live in the USA, you might have to pay expensive taxes for getting it.
Yes, of course. If you like getting quality wine every month, carefully selected by wine connoseurs, you can try Bottle Service, WineDab, Wine of the Month Club, or Gold Medal Wine Club.
If you want to surprise someone with delicious wine from New Zealand, you can try one time services like WinePlus, The Good Wine Co, and GlenGarry Wines.
New Zealand is a young country with a young wine history, compared to much of Europe, but they sure know what they’re doing. They create old and new wines with dedication, passion, and fervour. You can’t go wrong no matter where you go, which wines you try, or what other activities you do.
There are too many regions, too many wines, and too many sites to see in New Zealand. To really do this country justice, you’d need to live there. Actually, that sounds divine. When do we leave?
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