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New Zealand: An Intriguing Young World of Wine

New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc picnic on the shore of Lake Wanaka, Otago, South Island.

All of these gray, early April days have me longing for the sunshine more than ever.  For me, nothing invokes the spirit of summer like certain wines, and New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc is one of them.  This bright, vibrant wine, with invigorating tropical fruit aromas and zippy, refreshing qualities immediately conjures memories of hot, sunny days and warm, pleasant evenings.  Thoughts of this distinctive Sauvignon Blanc, the wine that New Zealand has become most associated with for better or worse, got me thinking about the country as a whole, and more specifically its wine industry and individual regions.  New Zealand’s wine industry has had a tumultuous, albeit short, history and is one of the most interesting New World wine regions to explore in depth.

New Zealand Wine History: Challenges & Triumphs

Still very much in its youth, New Zealand’s wine industry was born less than 200 years ago, in 1819.  We can thank the British missionaries of that era for recognizing New Zealand’s various and textured landscapes as viable grape growing territories.  The Reverend Samuel Marsden was the first among them to plant vines, in the aforementioned year, choosing a site on the northeast coast of the country’s North Island (now the Northland wine region).  In 1836, the British expat James Busby started a vineyard near Marsden’s location, began making wine and sold it to British troops.  Since its early days, the wine industry has experienced many ups and downs, and has had to compete with the country’s taste for beer, consumption of which far exceeds that of wine.

Despite New Zealand’s relatively isolated location, the same pestilences that have ravaged the rest of the world’s wine regions have made their way here and had destructive affects on the vines.  During the late 19th century, phylloxera, the insatiable louse that feeds on vine roots, and powdery mildew, the vicious fungal disease that attacks grapevines, caused major damage to New Zealand’s young vineyards.  In response to these pests, New Zealand’s winemakers planted resistant American hybrids.  Since the 1960s, these vines have gradually been replaced with European vinifera grafted to phylloxera-resistant American rootstock, which has long been the wine world’s solution to the devastating louse.

Subsequent to the damages caused by natural pests, New Zealand’s budding wine industry met with additional challenges in the form of the country’s temperance movement, prohibition and post-World War economic depression.  On the bright side, all of the lows in the country’s wine trade have been matched with periods of growth and success, including government restrictions on wine imports, which began in 1958 and encouraged national support of the industry.  Soon after, restaurants were given permission to sell wine, followed by the issuance of a BYO license, permitting restaurant patrons to bring their own wine.  These legislative changes significantly boosted wine sales and, in the face of hardship, New Zealand’s wine industry has prevailed!

Geography & Climate

New Zealand is the most southern of the world’s wine regions and its location in the South Pacific Ocean provides a moderating maritime climate.  The surrounding ocean currents bring about mild winters and relatively cool summers.  During the hottest days of summer, the nights in New Zealand are cool, producing grapes with consistently high levels of acidity.  Together, the North and South Islands span a remarkable range of climates and geographical differences.  For starters, the North Island is much warmer than the South Island.  The country’s topography ranges from gravelly, alluvial valleys to rich, green pasturelands.

Due to frequent rainfall, New Zealand is a lush, green country for the most part, which is great for grazing cattle, but not always so good for vineyards.  In soils where excess moisture cannot drain properly, vigorous leaf growth and dense vine canopies have been a major issue, resulting in wines with green, vegetal flavors.  All of the verdant vine growth shades the inner grape bunches, preventing them from ripening and encouraging the spread of fungal diseases.  It wasn’t until the 1980s, when Dr. Richard Smart served as government viticulturist and taught canopy management techniques, that the affected vineyards took a leap in quality.  As a result, New Zealand viticulturists are the authority on the topic of canopy management.

Wine Regions of New Zealand

New Zealand’s wine regions are each unique, producing signature wines with distinctive qualities.  From north to south, the major regions are Northland, Auckland, Gisborne, Hawke’s Bay, Wairarapa (including Martinborough), Nelson, Marlborough, Canterbury (including Waipara) and Central Otago.

North Island Regions

Northland is located at the northern most tip of the North Island and is where vines were first planted in New Zealand.  The climate here is warm, damp and fair, which hasn’t been so advantageous for the region.  The warmth and wet weather are breeding grounds for rot, getting in the way of quality wine production, although there have been some success stories here.

Auckland is New Zealand’s largest city and the vintners here make wines from grapes that are brought in from all over the country, making it the most diversified region of production.

Located on the east coast of the North Island, Gisborne once had an unappealing reputation for producing bulk wine.  Now the region is known for producing supple, peach and pineapple inflected Chardonnays.  Gisborne’s vintners are indeed proud and have dubbed the region the Chardonnay Capital of the country.  Within the region, the runner-up to Chardonnay is Gewurztraminer.

South of Gisborne, on the North Island’s east coast, Hawke’s Bay is one of New Zealand most prized wine regions, producing exceptional Bordeaux-style blends of Merlot with Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc.  These Merlot blends have rich black currant flavors and delicate herbal notes.  Chardonnay is the co-staring varietal of the region, with a signature concentrated citrus fruit character and resounding elegance.  The Sauvignon Blancs from this area also have a distinctive flavor profile, tasting of nectarines and peaches.  In addition to Merlot and Chardonnay, Syrah is an up-and-comer here, gradually becoming more widely planted and having great potential within the region.

Hawke’s Bay encompasses an array of terrains and soil types, from coastal mountains to fertile, gravelly flatlands, and gets more hours of sunshine than the rest of the country.  The region’s gravel soils support water drainage and cause water stress, which is actually a good thing for grape quality.  Stressed vines lead to more intense and complex flavors in the grapes, resulting in better wines.  Conversely, the more fertile areas of the region, consisting of alluvial and gravel soils, contend with vigorous vine growth and require more canopy management.

The most famous area within Hawke’s Bay is the Gimblett Gravels district.  The deep gravelly-shingle soils here are renowned for producing arguably the country’s very best Cabernet Sauvignons and Merlots.  One of the area’s noteworthy wineries is Te Awa, a single-vineyard estate situated in the heart of the Gimblett Gravels.  If you’d like to experience the signature wines of Hawke’s Bay and Gimblett Gravels, we recommend trying both the 2007 Te Awa Cabernet Merlot and the 2007 Te Awa Syrah!

In the southern part of the North Island lies the Wairarapa region, including the Martinborough sub-region, which is home to small boutique wineries that have remained committed to making wines of the highest quality.  Both Pinot Noir and Cabernet Sauvignon do well in this elite wine region.

Dry River is one of Martinborough’s finest wine estates, consistently crafting cellar-worthy wines that reflect the vineyard sites from which they come.  A few favorites include the 2008 Dry River Chardonnay, the 2008 Dry River Pinot Noir and the 2009 Dry River Craighall Riesling.

Craggy Range wine estate, owned and operated by the Peabody family, specializes in exceptional single-vineyard wines that are true to their terroir. The highly rated 2008 Craggy Range Vineyards Pinot Noir Te Muna Road Vineyard is a wonderful example of Martinborough Pinot Noir, showing aromas of dark fruit and violet, flavors of rich, ripe raspberry, silken tannins, impeccable balance and finesse.

South Island Regions

Traveling further south and leaving the North Island behind, we reach the South Island’s most northern wine region, Nelson, where fifteen wineries lie amidst picturesque undulating hills.  Here Sauvignon Blanc rules over Pinot Noir and Chardonnay as the leading grape variety.

Next up on the South Island is Marlborough, New Zealand’s largest wine region and home to the Cloudy Bay wine estate, which single-handedly pushed Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc into the spotlight.  Cloudy Bay Sauvignon Blanc delivers quintessential characteristics of ripe lime and grapefruit, along with a remarkable tropical medley of papaya, mango, orange blossom and gooseberry. Vibrant and refreshing, this is just what the doctor ordered on a hot summer afternoon and makes an ideal accompaniment for the fresh, bright flavors of Asian cuisine or mussels steamed with white wine and herbs.

Located on the South Island’s central coast is the region of Canterbury, including the Waipara sub-region.  Here the cooler weather is a great fit for growing Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, along with long-established cool climate lover’s Riesling and Pinot Gris.

Last but not least, we come to Central Otago, the world’s most southern vineyard area!  Here the climate is continental and the region experiences unpredictable temperature fluctuations on a daily basis, as well as from season to season.  The vineyards of Central Otago are planted on hillsides to increase sun exposure and decrease the threat of frost.  One of New Zealand’s developing wine regions, the growth of Central Otago viticulture has been astounding.  Pinot Noir accounts for three-quarters of the region’s wine production and is the star of the show!  Showing a rich, fruit-forward character, Central Otago’s Pinots have caught the eye of the wine world and have garnered great recognition for New Zealand red wine as a whole.  One of our favorite Central Otago wineries is Mt. Difficulty, which owns some of the region’s oldest vineyards and produces exceptional Pinot Noirs, Sauvignon Blancs and Rieslings.  We’re big fans of the 2008 Mt. Difficulty Pinot Noir Roaring Meg Central Otago, the 2008 Mt. Difficulty Riesling Roaring Meg Central Otago and just in time for summer, the 2008 Mt. Difficulty Sauvignon Blanc Central Otago!

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