In the 1970s California and the United States paved the way for the popularity of “New World Wines,” meaning those produced outside of Europe, but few countries have embraced the trend as fully as New Zealand. Best known for its food friendly, crisp and wildly popular Sauvignon Blanc, New Zealand winemakers have also embraced red grapes, and this relatively new wine tradition is tied to a much older tradition of abundant and excellent foodstuffs, from the country’s famously natural grass fed lamb to its vast assortment of fresh produce and seafood.
New Zealand also has a longstanding BYO restaurant tradition which encourages wine drinking with meals, and because food excellence came first, the wine industry has created lots of bottles that go perfectly with meals – and in general are bargains.
Great wines are made the length and breadth of the country, but the epicenter and best known region is Marlborough on the South Island, the biggest production region and birthplace of the breakthrough Sauvignon Blanc that put the country on the world stage in the Nineties. Early on, legendary British wine critic Oz Clarke opined that New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc was “arguably the best in the world,” and many of his peers have since followed suit. While it plays second fiddle in France and California to chardonnay (white burgundy and Chablis), and is used primarily for less popular French Sancerre and Pouilly Fumé, New Zealand has fully embraced the varietal and is generally considered home to the world’s best Sauvignon.
New Zealand previously had a long thriving dairy industry which made extensive use of stainless steel tanks, so many nascent wine makers went straight to this approach, bypassing the traditional wooden barrels seen in Europe. As a result, few whites were oaked, resulting in wines more reliant on the inherent fruit characteristics, especially the now familiar crisp, acidic style of Sauvignon Blanc with exotic fruit flavors. It makes an excellent pairing for many foods, but especially the Pacific Rim and Asian cuisine widely consumed throughout Australasia. The signature “crispness” many fans covet results from the fact that despite their prominent acidity, most New Zealand whites skew quite dry.
Chardonnay lovers won’t feel left out either: after Sauvignon, this is the nation’s second largest production by volume. However, it has never garnered the international acclaim of New Zealand’s Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir, Chardonnay here is best known as a high value alternative to other countries, rather than a standout in its own right.
While a few winemakers are producing Syrah/Shiraz, for the most part New Zealand has ignored its neighbor and friendly rival Australia’s most famous grape, instead focusing on Pinot Noir and to a lesser extent Bordeaux-style blends of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc. Pinot Noir is the most produced red and third biggest wine overall here, and the Canterbury/Waipapra region in the middle of the South Island in particular has proven adept for growing world class Pinot, the heavily nuanced and temperamental variety that is the backbone of one of the world’s greatest wines, red burgundy.
However, more recently, the grape has taken off in New Zealand’s youngest and southernmost (actually the world’s most southerly major vineyard area) wine region, Central Otago, near the lower tip of the South Island. Long known for fertile soil and a climate that made it the top spot to grow much-loved cherries and other stone fruit, Central Otago took a stab at Pinot Noir and now produces many of the country’s most sought-after award winning reds. Following in the footsteps of the country’s famous Sauvignon, the Pinot is more fruit-driven and less woody than in the rest of the world, and while Pinot Noir is generally considered a lighter, delicate wine, this is much more full bodied and “big,” well suited to accompany New Zealand’s most beloved lamb, which elsewhere is traditionally paired with fuller-bodied Bordeaux.
Visiting Wine Country
Marlborough is New Zealand’s biggest wine region and biggest wine tourism hot spot, producing all the major varietals, red and white, and is also the gateway to the stunning Queen Charlotte Sound. It is home to internationally known producers such as Cloudy Bay, Allan Scotts and Brancott, as well as acclaimed boutique wineries like Te Whare Ra, Auntsfield and Seresin, all of which accept visitors.
Marlborough has two mapped “wine trails” and more than 40 public wineries or “cellar doors,” many with onsite quality restaurants. Located near the top of the South Island, it is temperate with plenty of sunshine and a mild climate all year round. If you visit just one winery, make it Cloudy Bay, New Zealand’s most iconic wine brand. Founded in 1985, it is one of the world’s leading producers and was at the forefront of popularizing the distinctive Marlborough style. Highfield Estate is a good choice for eating, with a very popular indoor–outdoor lunch spot fusing the finest New Zealand ingredients with Mediterranean influences – there’s even a Tuscan tower atop the winery you can climb for stunning views.
You can roam around yourself or take advantage of many options for pre-arranged wine tours with a local operator and visit a selection of the region’s top wine producers in a chauffeur driven car. Locally owned Sounds Connection in Picton, one of two major towns in the Marlborough region, has been doing tours for over 20 years and offers full day private tours that visit six or seven wineries, from the boutique to the iconic. Marlborough Tour Company offers both the small group full day Taste Marlborough Wine Tour, visiting several of the more exclusive wineries to taste award-winning reserve-grade bottles, and private custom tours. The vineyard area is flat and there are even tasting tours by bicycle, which visit six wineries with a stop for lunch.
In Central Otago the wine tourism infrastructure is not as heavily developed as in Marlborough, but one standout is organic and biodynamic Rippon Vineyard, equally famed for its wines and stunning views over the Southern Alps. Felton Road consistently produces some of the country’s highest rated 100% Pinots and accepts visits by appointment.
New Zealand promotes its wines very well and there is lots of useful information on wine, regions, wineries, and wine country travel at nzwine.com.
Where to stay in New Zealand