It’s no secret that New Zealand makes delicious wine. Although it produces just 1% of the world’s wine, it’s a safe bet that New Zealand sauvignon blanc can be found on the shelves of just about any wine shop in the U.S. This zingy, citrusy, herbaceous white wine put New Zealand on the map, and it’s one of the reasons that American wine lovers know the sauvignon blanc grape by name.
But despite the fact that this grape dominates the country’s vineyards, there’s far more to New Zealand than just sauvignon blanc. New Zealand’s winemakers are making a wide array of delicious wines, and there has never been a better time to explore them.
New Zealand can often feel like another world—and for good reason. Located several hours off the southeastern coast of Australia, New Zealand is home to the world’s southernmost vineyards. But while the country’s two islands are narrow, they are also long, stretching across an area that nearly equals the length of the East Coast of the U.S. Though abundant sunshine and cool Pacific breezes are elements shared by most of New Zealand’s 10 key wine regions, each one has its own particular climate, soils and geographic influences, creating a springboard for many different grapes and wine styles.
Besides sauvignon blanc, which accounts for 73% of New Zealand’s wine production, the Burgundian duo of pinot noir and chardonnay has developed a stronghold in the country’s vineyards. Planted on both the North and South Islands, the wines from these grapes vary from rich and ripe to earthy and bright depending on the region and producer. Other red grapes, such as merlot, cabernet sauvignon and syrah, thrive in warmer regions, while white grapes like pinot gris and riesling add to New Zealand’s strong white wine reputation.
But there’s an energy of innovation among New Zealand’s vintners as well, who are producing exceptional traditional-method sparkling wine, experimenting with new vinification methods and planting offbeat varieties in new vineyards. Until recently, few of these non-sauvignon blanc wines ever came to stateside shores, but American wine lovers now finally have the opportunity to realize just how diverse and delicious New Zealand wines can be. With sauvignon blanc, we’ve already dipped a toe into the wide world of New Zealand wine. Now it’s time to dive straight in.
Backdropped by stunning peaks and home to some of the world’s most extreme adventure tourism, Central Otago is the world’s most southerly wine region. Without direct ocean influence, intense sunshine and higher altitudes create aromatic wines that contrast ripe fruit with serious structure and complexity. Pinot noir is king in Central Otago, where it can create long-lived, layered, remarkable wines on par with the world’s best.
The Ceres “Composition” is fragrant and juicy on the nose, with notes of cherry syrup, cocoa, freshly cut herbs and turned earth. That core of red fruit carries through to the palate, where it’s met with firm tannins, tangy acidity and just a touch of savory spice.
New Zealand’s second-largest region, Hawke’s Bay, has a wide range of altitudes and soils, making it a varied region with varied wines. However, the region has established a reputation for high-quality, robust Bordeaux blends, buoyed by a warm climate that is tempered by cool Pacific influence. This is particularly true in the sub-region of Gimblett Gravels, where deep gravel soils create structured cabernet sauvignon, merlot and syrah wines.
A merlot-based blend with cabernet sauvignon, malbec, cabernet franc and petit verdot, this wine is rich yet fresh, with a core of black fruit accented by dark rock.
Wondering which region first put New Zealand on U.S. wine drinkers’ radars? It’s Marlborough, where the vast majority of the country’s vines are planted. Located at the northeastern tip of the South Island, sunny and mild Marlborough is home to many of the country’s best-known wineries. The abundance of archetypal sauvignon blanc wines means that the region’s other grapes, like chardonnay and pinot noir, often get overlooked.
Farmed organically and aged in barrels, this chardonnay is distinctly savory, with notes of toasted nuts and flint alongside green apple and lemon. Though it’s rich and complex on the palate, mouthwatering acidity lifts and lingers through the finish.
A subregion of Wairarapa, which is located at the southern tip of the North Island, Martinborough is home to a number of high-quality boutique wine producers. With a climate that is sometimes compared with Burgundy—but actually quite similar to Marlborough—it’s no surprise that pinot noir is a specialty here.
Though the nose of this pinot noir is all red fruit—sunny cherry, cranberry and strawberry—the palate is complex and savory, finely textured, with hints of earth and salt.Continue to 5 of 11 below.
While the northern reaches of New Zealand’s North Island have historical significance, generally, Auckland and Northland aren’t the country’s most prolific winegrowing regions. However, there is very good wine being produced in these warmer regions, though it rarely makes its way to the U.S.
One of the few producers that has emerged as a regional standout is Kumeu River, which takes a Burgundian approach to chardonnay. This single-vineyard wine is incredibly focused on the nose, with notes of lemon, apple, and a hint of tarragon. The palate is robust and laser-like all at once, with prickly, limestone-like acidity that accentuates this wine’s exceptional balance.
Like it does for its signature variety, Marlborough’s sunny, dry climate amplifies the aromas of other aromatic grapes—like pinot gris, for instance. While it can be made in a range of styles across New Zealand—from robust and textured to fresh and easy-drinking—pinot gris tends to have richer fruit, more akin to Alsatian styles.
The duo behind this pinot gris created one of New Zealand’s best-known brands, Kim Crawford, before selling it (a bit difficult, considering that winemaker Kim named the brand after himself) and starting Loveblock. Ripe apple and melon flavors are juicy enough to give the impression of sweetness, but it finishes fresh and clean.
Syrah accounts for less than 1% of New Zealand’s vineyard plantings, but it’s one of the country’s most exciting red grape varieties. It springs up in pockets all over the country, from the warm vineyards of Northland to mild Marlborough and all the way to chilly Central Otago. Styles can swing just as widely too, at times taking on the plump fruit of Australian shiraz or the peppery, floral balance of Northern Rhône syrah.
Despite ripening in the sun of Hawke’s Bay, this syrah has the subtlety and elegance of the latter, with notes of blackcurrant, pine and black rock on the nose. The palate is well-structured yet fine, with bright, tangy acidity.
Featuring New Zealand’s easternmost vineyards (not to mention some of the country’s best beaches), Gisborne is home to some of New Zealand’s most historic grapevine plantings. Today, this warm, sunny, breezy region is known for making high-quality chardonnay with full fruit flavors. At the same time, it’s also home to some of the country’s most interesting producers, like Millton Vineyards, New Zealand’s first organic and biodynamic winery. This chenin blanc—one of the few in the country—has ample honeyed fruit aromas and flavors balanced by waxy, creamy textures and zingy citrus.Continue to 9 of 11 below.
While riesling isn’t one of New Zealand’s most planted varieties, it’s quickly becoming one of the country’s most loved ones, particularly on the South Island. Winemakers craft this variety in a range of styles, from sticky sweet to bone dry. This Central Otago riesling leans toward the latter end of the spectrum, made with minimal intervention from organically farmed fruit. All of that southern sunshine creates juicy, vibrant fruit flavors of lime and white peach, but racy acidity soon washes over the palate for a tart, cleansing finish.
Nelson, Marlborough’s lesser-known neighbor, has been making wine for decades, but its smaller scale and close-knit feel have kept many of the wines from coming to U.S. shores. It shares a sunny, mild climate with its neighboring region and specializes in many of the same grape varieties, but the climate is a bit less extreme than areas on the eastern coasts. While sauvignon blanc comprises nearly half of Nelson’s production, it also produces top-quality pinot noir.
From one of Nelson’s pioneering producers, this pinot noir smells of fresh red cherries and strawberries, complemented by hints of wild herbs. Juicy and vibrant, it’s exceptionally easy-drinking.
While sparkling wine accounts for a tiny proportion of New Zealand wine, the country’s natural ability to produce aromatic grapes with high acidity offers great potential for high-quality sparkling wines. Sparkling New Zealand wines are almost always made using the traditional method of winemaking, and the traditional varieties of Champagne, especially chardonnay and pinot noir, are the most popular grapes of choice.
If this wine is reminiscent of Champagne, there’s a reason: Winemaker Daniel Le Brun was born in Champagne, inspiring him to tackle traditional-method sparkling winemaking in Marlborough. A blend of chardonnay, pinot noir and pinot meunier, it’s soft but balanced with a zip of citrus, with fine and elegant bubbles.