New Zealand's wine industry has only been producing wine for export since the 1980s, but wines from the small country quickly gained popularity and acceptance on the world stage. Within about five years, wine exports from New Zealand reached around $20 million, and currently the wine industry exports nearly $2 billion in wines the country has gained worldwide recognition for, such as Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir.
Early History of New Zealand's Wine Industry
While New Zealand is relatively new to the world stage, winemakers have been growing grapes and bottling wines since the 1800s. Most of the early wines bottled in the country were table wines and Sherry or Port-style wines made for local or personal consumption from grapes grown in family vineyards, and the varieties were light, semi-sweet white wines. Prohibition, the Temperance Movement, the Great Depression, and lack of access to wines from the rest of the world because of New Zealand's remote location kept wine from flourishing in New Zealand through early parts of the 20th Century. It was in the mid-1980s when growers began widespread planting European grape varietals that New Zealand entered the world wine economy and began producing wines the rest of the world wanted.
Sauvignon Blanc, New Zealand's First Great Wine
The first great wine to come from New Zealand was Sauvignon Blanc from the Marlborough region. New Zealand is best known for the dry, refreshing, and herbal Sauvignon Blanc wines that come predominately from Marlborough but are also produced throughout the country.
- The first Sauvignon Blanc vines were planted in New Zealand in the mid-1970s.
- In 1985, the Marlborough winery Cloudy Bay produced New Zealand's first Sauvignon Blanc wine to gain worldwide recognition. The winery continues to operate today, creating some of the world's best Sauvignon Blanc wines.
- About 80 percent of all New Zealand's Sauvignon Blanc is produced in the Marlborough region, and the wine accounts for around 87 percent of Marlborough's total wine production.
- As of 2017, New Zealand produced more than 275 million liters of Sauvignon Blanc wine.
New Zealand's Climate and Wine Regions
New Zealand's two islands have a diverse climate allowing for both warm and cooler weather grapes to flourish. The climate ranges from subtropical in the north to the southernmost wine-growing region in the world in Central Otago. Cooler temperatures from the country's extensive coastlines provide a long ripening period, which allows the grapes to develop in flavor and character to produce intense, powerful, dynamic wines that express the character of regions in which they are grown. New Zealand has 11 major wine regions, each with its own unique climate, microclimates, and soils.
Marlborough is New Zealand's best known and most successful wine region. Located on the north tip of South Island, this coastal region receives plenty of warming sunshine (it's the country's sunniest region), and it is sheltered from cooler southern temperatures by high country to the west and south. Coastal breezes cool the grapes and allow for a long ripening season. It doesn't rain a lot here, and the soils are well-drained. Likewise, foehn winds cause abrupt warming and drying, so the grapes become deeply concentrated producing intensely aromatic and flavorful wines.
- Marlborough accounts for nearly 2/3 of the wine grapes grown and wines produced in New Zealand.
- It's also the country's largest wine-producing region with more than 20,000 hectares of vineyards.
- While Sauvignon Blanc is king here, you'll find other wines from the area as well, including Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Riesling, and Pinot Gris.
- Marlborough has subregions that include Wairu, Southern Valleys, and Awatere.
Located on the east coast of the North Island, Hawke's Bay is the second largest wine-producing region in New Zealand. With coastline and river valleys, the wines here express differently than in the Marlborough region. It has warm, dry summers and long falls, but the maritime climate also keeps temperatures from soaring too high.
- Hawkes Bay accounts for approximately 10 percent of New Zealand's total wine production.
- Bordeaux grapes (Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot) thrive here, as does the Rhône mainstay, Syrah. You'll also find Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, and Pinot Noir as well as other, smaller varietal plantings.
- The area has extremely diverse soil conditions, allowing the terroir to shine brightly in the wine depending on where in the region it is grown.
- The region has nearly 5,000 hectares of grapes planted.
Central Otago is the southernmost wine-growing region in the world. Located on the south part of the South Island, Central Otago has the highest wine growing elevation of all of New Zealand's wine regions. As a result, the region has short, hot summers with dry autumns and low humidity.
- There are a total of about 2,000 hectares of vines planted in the region.
- Primary wines from the region include the Burgundy varietals of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. You'll also find aromatic varietals such as Riesling and Gewürztraminer. Other wines from the region include Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Gris.
- Central Otago makes about 3 percent of New Zealand's total wine production.
- The region has six subregions: Wanaka, Gibbston, Bannockburn, Alexandra, Bendigo, and Cromwell/Lowburn/Pisa.
Located on the central east coast of the South Island near the city of Christchurch, Canterbury/North Canterbury makes about 3 percent of the wines produced in New Zealand.
- The area grows around 1,400 hectares of wine grapes.
- The climate is cool and dry.
- Pinot Noir, Sauvignon Blanc, and Riesling are the primary grapes grown here. Additional plantings include Pinot Gris and Chardonnay.
- The region has three subregions including Waipara Valley, Canterbury Plains, and Waitaki Valley.
Located north of Hawke's Bay on the east coast of the North Island, Gisborne is a warm and sunny region with coastal cooling.
- Gisborne produces approximately 3 percent of New Zealand's wine.
- There are around 1,200 hectares of grapes planted in the region.
- Chardonnay is the main grape grown here, but you'll also find Pinot Gris, Sauvignon Blanc, Gewürztraminer, Merlot, and minor plantings of grapes such as Riesling and Viognier.
Additional Wine Regions
The remaining wine regions each produce less than 2 percent of the country's wines.
- Nelson is located on the north tip of the South Island just west of Marlborough. Wines produced here include Pinot Noir, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Gris, and Chardonnay.
Aukland sits on the west coast of the North Island. Wines produced here include red Bordeaux blends, Chardonnay, Syrah, and Pinot Gris.
Wairarapa is located on the southern tip of the North Island. Here, you'll find wines such as Pinot Noir, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Gris, Chardonnay, and Syrah.
Northland sits at the northeastern tip of the North Island. The tropical climate produces Chardonnay, Pinot Gris, Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Merlot along with Pinotages and Chambourcin.
Waikato and Bay of Plenty are located just south of Aukland. Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris are the primary grapes grown here, but you'll also find Chardonnay.
Waitaki Valley, located in North Otago, produces grapes such as Pinot Gris, Riesling, Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris, Chardonnay, and Gewürztraminer.
9 Wines to Try From New Zealand
Of course you'll need to try a Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand because this is the wine that truly shows you how far New Zealand's wine industry has come in such a short time. However, along with great Sauvignon Blanc wines from Marlborogh, you'll find a number of fantastic wines, often at great values.
Cloudy Bay Sauvignon Blanc
To truly understand New Zealand's Sauvignon Blanc, you need to taste a Cloudy Bay Sauvignon Blanc, the country's first highly acclaimed wine produced in the Marlborough region. The wines are consistently highly rated by wine experts, and the 2016 vintage is highly rated.
Felton Road Pinot Noir
Felton Road, located in Central Otago, produces Pinot Noir wines of distinction. The 2017 Bannockburn Pinot Noir will only set you back about 50 bucks, but it received monster ratings from Wine Spectator (96 points) and James Suckling (94 points). This is the Pinot to try from New Zealand; it's a tremendous value for the price.
Escarpment Kiwa Martinborough Pinot Noir
Another Pinot Noir that only costs about $50 a bottle but gets great ratings from wine experts is the Escarpment Kiwa Martinborough Pinot Noir. The wine is produced in the Wairarapa region, and it has received plenty of accolades including sky-high ratings from wine experts. The 2014 vintage is a particularly good one if you can get your hands on it.
Te Mata Coleraine Red
This red Cabernet Sauvignon-Merlot blend from Te Mata has been called "a New Zealand national treasure," and Robert Parker gave the 2017 vintage 93 points and the 2016 vintage 94 points. At around $75 per bottle, it's a well-priced and well-received bottle of wine from Hawke's Bay.
Mount Beautiful Chardonnay
From the North Canterbury region, Mount Beautiful produces a number of wines including this truly beautiful Chardonnay that suits the winery's name to a T. Wine Enthusiast named the 2017 vintage an editor's choice, and Wine and Spirits Magazine awarded 91 points to the 2015 vintage. At under $25 per bottle, if you can find this Chardonnay, it's a fantastic wine for the price.
Billancia La Collina Syrah
Located in the Hawke's Bay region, Billancia produces a single-vineyard estate Syrah called La Collina. James Suckling placed the 2016 vintage of this wine in the number two position on his Top 100 Wines of New Zealand list, and it costs around $80 per bottle. It may be difficult to find, but Wally's Wine World has a limited amount and some may also be available soon on secondary markets. If you can find it, it's worth it to purchase.
Craggy Range Le Sol Gimblett Gravels
While this wine is on the pricer side (about $100 per bottle), Craggy Range Le Sol is a beautiful representation of Syrah from Hawke's Bay. Various vintages regularly score 90 points or above by wine raters. The 2016 vintage took silver in the Decanter World Wine Awards. It may be tough to find bottles, but they are available on secondary markets. Check wine-searcher to see what's available worldwide. Top recent vintages include 2013, 2014, and 2015.
Sophora NV Sparkling Cuvée
It's difficult but not impossible to find a sparkling wine from New Zealand stateside. The Sophora Sparkling Cuvée is a non-vintage Pinot Noir-Chardonnay blend made in the traditional méthode champenoise. It's only $15 a bottle, and Wine Enthusiast lists it as a great example of a sparkler from New Zealand.
Dry River Craighall Riesling
If Riesling's your thing, then there are good examples coming from some of New Zealand's cooler regions. The Dry River Craighall Riesling tops Vivino's list of top Rieslings from NZ, and you'll find various vintages available in US shops. The grapes come from the Martinborough subregion of Wairarapa.
New Zealand's Growing World Wine Presence
With a relatively young international wine industry, New Zealand is growing in acres planted and worldwide reputation. The up-and-coming wines from New Zealand have powered their way onto the world stage, standing shoulder-to-shoulder with wine regions that have long established histories of creating world-class wines.