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Wines from New Zealand

The history of winemaking in New Zealand is relatively short, having been hampered by conservative attitudes towards winemaking and alcohol. In the 1980s, New Zealand finally began capitalizing on its maritime climate, which is ideal for producing high-quality wines.

Today, New Zealand makes less than one-tenth of the wine of its nearest neighbor, Australia, but its production is increasing every year. And, unlike Australia, New Zealand has managed to maintain an elite image for its wines, as opposed to a good-value-for-everyday image.

Four large producers dominate New Zealand’s wine production:

  • Montana (sold in the U.S. under the Brancott label, to avoid confusion with the state of Montana)

  • Corbans

  • Villa Maria

  • Nobilo

In the past 20 years however, numerous small, boutique wineries have sprung up, especially on the South Island, and are making excellent wine.

New Zealand's grape varieties and wines

Of New Zealand’s two large islands, the North Island is warmer. Red grapes grow around the city of Auckland, in the north and around Hawkes Bay (especially known for its Cabernet Sauvignon) farther south on the North Island; Müller-Thurgau, Chardonnay, and Sauvignon Blanc are that island’s main white varieties. Martinborough, a cooler district at the southern end of North Island, makes very good Pinot Noir.

On the South Island, Marlborough — the country’s largest and commercially most important wine region — is New Zealand’s top production zone for Chardonnay and, especially, Sauvignon Blanc.

New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc

The first New Zealand Sauvignon Blancs to be exported were generally unoaked wines with pronounced flavor, rich texture, and high acidity. They were so distinctive — pungent, herbaceous, with intense flavors suggestive of asparagus, lime, or cut grass — that New Zealand became recognized almost overnight in the late 1980s for a new prototype of Sauvignon Blanc.

This style of New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc is still very popular worldwide. These are the least expensive “Kiwi” (as the locals call themselves, being among the world’s major kiwi growers) Sauvignon Blancs, retailing for $12 to $18, with many priced around $15.

Another style of New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc has evolved in the last decade. Riper, less assertive, and softer in texture, this style is often achieved through the use of oak barrels and/or blending with Semillon, and it has fruitier flavors, usually passion fruit or ripe grapefruit. The riper, fruitier, less herbaceous New Zealand Sauvignon Blancs are frequently labeled as “Reserve” wines or as single-vineyard wines. They generally retail for $18 to $30.

New Zealand Pinot Noir

Pinot Noir is increasingly significant in New Zealand. In addition to its stronghold in Martinborough, on the North Island, Pinot Noir is now being made in Marlborough and throughout the South Island, and this grape has now surpassed Cabernet Sauvignon as New Zealand’s most planted red variety.

New Zealand Pinot Noirs vary in taste from region to region; the wines of Martinborough, for example, are a bit more savory and minerally than those of Marlborough, which tend to be soft and fruity. In time, as the producers of each region refine their styles, the regional differences should become more evident.

In the central part of the South Island, Central Otago, home of the world’s most southerly grapevines, has emerged as one of New Zealand’s top regions for Pinot Noir. Vines are planted on hillsides for more sunshine and less risk of frost. The low-yielding vines here produce highly-concentrated Pinot Noir wines.

Current trends in New Zealand wines

New Zealand Sauvignon Blancs are still hot and Pinot Noir seems to be the next Big Thing. But New Zealand is more than just a two-grape country:

  • In the white wine category, look for the improved Chardonnay, Riesling, and Pinot Gris wines.

  • The biggest surprise could be New Zealand’s really fine Cabernet Sauvignons, Merlots, and Bordeaux-blends, not only from warmer-climate North Island regions such as Hawke’s Bay and its Gimblett Road zone, but also from Waiheke Island, a few miles east of the city of Auckland, where the climate is mild enough to grow Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot.

  • New Zealand’s final surprise is that it’s making excellent sparkling wines by using the classic method. Most of the better New Zealand sparkling wines also use the two main grape varieties of Champagne, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.

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