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New Zealand Wine Regions
Introduction to New Zealand Wine Regions
New Zealand Wine – From small beginnings to the global stage, it is easy to see why the British have fallen in love with New Zealand wines in recent years. From the world renowned Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc to Central Otago’s Pinot Noir – New Zealand’s diverse wine regions each express different characteristics worth exploring.
Auckland Wine Region
In many ways the New Zealand wine industry began in Auckland. Croatian immigrants, escaping the depression in Europe, settled in West Auckland in the 1930s and 40s. Many of them planted vineyards in addition to orchards and vegetable gardens and began to make wine. Having set their sights on rivalling fellow winemakers from the Hawke’s Bay region, some of the biggest wineries in the country were formed.
Accounting for only 2% of New Zealand’s production, Auckland is split into 5 very distinctive sub- regions “Waiheke Island, Kumeu, Clevedon, Henderson and Matakana, all with similar climatic conditions, and all subject to the high rainfall – a common hindrance in this region during the spring and summer months. The heavy clay soils struggle with the rain fall and are not as free draining. The 80’s saw the arrival of smaller, privately owned boutique vineyards, which increased sale prices and firmly established Auckland on the wine map. Auckland produces a variety of styles, however the plentiful sunshine hours mean Bordeaux style wines and Chardonnay flourish here.
The Bay of Plenty and Waikato
The Bay of Plenty is a fairly small region in comparison to other wine growing regions of New Zealand, with dairy cows ruling the land in this area. A sharp contrast between inland volcanic landscapes and heavily forested ranges to the long coastal lowlands that rest on the Pacific Ocean. With high humidity and an all year round supply of rainfall it shares many attributes with Auckland. An upside to the area is the benefit of free draining deep clay loam soils. Known as Hamilton Ash, the light clay is great for plant growth and allows wines to show soft tropical fruit flavours with good weight, texture and moderate acidity.
Canterbury and Waipara Wine Region
The Canterbury region spans almost 200km of the eastern coast of the South Island, with Waimate located in the most southerly position to Cheviot in the north. This cool climate region is blessed by a long steady ripening period. Crucial to successful grape ripening is sunlight, of which Canterbury normally gets plenty and the infamous northwest wind also dries out the vine canopy, helping minimise the risk of disease and helps increase the total heat accumulation. The cool climate also helps to retain the aromatics and provides good levels of natural acidity – which in warmer climates is often lost. The typical cooler nights and warm days of the Canterbury region contribute to good flavour intensity, however, a cool climate also carries a frost risk. Late spring frosts or early autumn frosts can damage a vineyard drastically. Techniques such as crop thinning are used to speed up the ripening process to combat autumn frosts.
Waipara Valley is the main sub-region of Canterbury, however plantings are expanding around the Canterbury Plains and as far south as the border of Waitaki Valley. The Waipara Valley is situated in North Canterbury, only 40 minutes drive north of Christchurch city, the capital of the South Island. Climatically this is slightly warmer than the rest of the Canterbury region. As one of the fastest growing sub-regions with more than 80 vineyards over 1,200 hectares, Waipara is starting to produce a range of internationally acclaimed wines. The Waipara Valley nestles at the base of the Teviotdale hills, and these provide protection from cool easterly winds and open to the warming northwest winds. The unique terroir is made up of three soil profiles in the Valley “ the valley floor, hill slopes and river terraces all contribute to the unique wines produced from Waipara Valley.
Central Otago Wine Region
Central Otago has been the country’s fastest-expanding wine region and at 45 south it is home to the most southerly vineyards in the world, with the most extreme climatic conditions and dramatic landscapes you could imagine. Central Otago’s economy is famed for fine merino wool production, however the last decade has seen most land converted to grape vines. The region now has more than 100 vineyards in comparison to only 11 vineyards in 1996. Pinot Noir from Central Otago is notorious for exquisitely balanced and nuanced styles and became the first region in the world to rival Burgundy in Pinot Noir production.
The four main sub-regions, Wanaka, Gibbston, Bannockburn and Alexandra all lie within close reach of each other, however the distinctive snow-capped mountainous terrain means each occupies a unique combination of climate, aspect and altitude. Soils do vary considerably within each sub-region, though a stony free-draining base is common to all, thus promoting good drainage and retaining increased mineral richness. Autumn frosts are a constant threat in this region and a warm, sunny north-facing site is an asset. Often producing slightly higher sugar levels but still managing to retain high acidity means some of the most impressively perfumed and seductively rich Pinot Noirs are produced. Waitaki Valley, in North Otago has over 100 hectares of vineyards and also marks the provincial boundary between Otago and Canterbury. Mostly vineyards are established on north-facing slopes in the Waitaki Valley, the past five years have seen a decline in vineyards from this sub-region, however further plantings are likely.
Gisborne Wine Region
Gisborne is where Captain James Cook first stepped ashore in New Zealand in 1769, however it wasn’t until the 1850’s when vines were first planted, and now its New Zealand’s third largest wine region. Aromatic grape varieties thrive in this area thanks to its remote easterly location and long sunshine hours, Gisborne is the first place in the world to see the sun rise. The soil is comprised predominantly of loam, silt and clay, which favour varietals such as GewÃ¼rztraminer and Chardonnay. Gisborne suffered early on from the phylloxera outbreak that affected the New Zealand wine industry in the early 80’s. However, managing to recover from the phylloxera with a mass of replanting, Gisborne managed to alleviate its reputation as a bulk grape-buying region.
The Gisborne region is often over-looked and doesn’t have a powerful profile, considering over a quarter of New Zealand wine is produced in the Gisborne area. There are three sub-regions of Gisborne – Patutahi, Manutuke and Ormond. Patutahu is the warmest of the three, thanks to its inland location. Relatively low rainfall and heavy clay soil, provide fertile well draining soils due to the gentle sloping of the area. Manutuke enjoys a more coastal location with well-drained sandy, silt-soils with some heavier complex Kaiti clay to the hillier west, suiting Chardonnay. Ormond is further north of the Gisborne township and is home to Gisborne’s first commercial planting. The clay based slopes of the area with sandy topsoils have helped paved the way for many of Gisborne’s top Chardonnays. The warmer temperature of the region allows Chardonnay to ripen up to six weeks ahead of their southern counterparts. The climate is heavily influenced by the surrounding hills which provide shelter from the northerly weather systems, however the somewhat wet climate conditions causes challenges in the vineyard trying to ripen grapes in rot free conditions.
Hawke’s Bay Wine Region
The firstwinery in New Zealand, The Mission Estate, was established in Hawke’s Bay in 1851. As well as being the oldest wine region in New Zealand, Hawke’s Bay is New Zealand’s second largest wine producing region and one that produces a 50/50 split of white and red wines. Vineyards in Hawke’s Bay are mostly family owned and wine tourism has provided plentiful trails that showcase the regions Art Deco architecture and artisan producers. Traditional techniques and ethos have led Hawke’s Bay into an acclaimed position as one of the country’s most prestigious regions with plenty of new sub-regions, complex soil compositions and exciting new varieties contributing to their success. The best reds planted in the area are Merlot, Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon, with an intense berry/cassis flavour backed with a subtle herbaceous note.
In 2001 the wine producers and winegrowers of the Gimblett Gravels sub-region formed theGimblett Gravels Winegrowers Association, an association that was able to collectively promote wines from this unique area to the world. The Gimblett Gravels brand is a based on the French concept of terroir, and their classification rules, governed by soil type. Gimblett Gravels was the first district in the New World that was able to give their wine and region this designation. The Gimblett Gravels Winegrowing District, covers 800ha and is strictly determined by the gravelly soils laid down by the old Ngaruroro River, which were exposed after a huge flood in the 1860’s.
Marlborough Wine Region
New Zealand’s most famous wine region which, thanks to the Sauvignon Blanc varietal, firmly landed New Zealand on the international wine stage. With plenty more on offer than just Sauvignon Blanc. Marlborough’s increasing interest in varieties and terroir led to global recognition which fuelled the region and soon winemakers were planting grapes in the slightly cooler sub-regions of the Awatere and Southern Valley’s. During the 1980’s local farming and forestry made the switch to viticulture as the potential started to unfold. Winemakers and consumers were attracted by pungent, fruit-driven wines and an award-winning reputation quickly followed.
Marlborough lies at the top eastern corner of the South Island, and with consistently long sunshine hours and clear cool night climates, the grapes have the advantage of a long, slow flavour-intensifying ripening period, whilst acidity levels are retained by the cool nights. Marlborough consists of three sub-regions – Wairau Valley, Awatere Valley and the Southern Valley’s.
The Southern valley’s lie to the south of the Wairau Valley and are home to the original sites of Marlborough. These original sites are the Omaka, Fairhall, Brancott, Ben Morven and Waihopai Valleys and all traditionally have heavier clay content and cooler growing conditions which provide a broader range of styles, flavours and minerality.
The Wairau Valley covers the more inland sites and with the Wairau River running through the centre, means irrigation is often not needed. The Wairau Valley has many sub-regions, all with varied soil profiles, a mixture of alluvial gravel, wind borne loess and greywacke. The wines produced here reflect the individuality of the vineyard, all with the hallmark fruit intensity.
Awatere Valley is the most distinct sub-region of the three as its close proximity to the coast provides a cooler and windier situation. Lower yields produce wines with distinct character, (think herbaceous and flinty minerality) producing attractive examples that truly reflect this unique terroir. The soils within the Marlborough sub-regions are free-draining and moderately fertile producing expressive wines across a wide range of varieties, all of which produce good aromatics thanks to the decrease in the vines vigour. These diverse soils and meso-climates are revealing many new varieties, which are flourishing, and thanks to this, Marlborough has a truly exciting future.
Nelson Wine Region
Nelson is an attractive town that lies at the top of the South Island, a mere two hour drive from Marlborough. Nelson is also the gateway to the popular Abel Tasman National Park and the Kahurangi National Park which provide an abundance of excellent hiking trails and nature walks. Unfortunately Nelson has been mostly overlooked as Marlborough has dominated the wine industry and taken centre stage. With only 3% of the country’s plantings, Nelson is minuscule in comparison to its neighbouring region, however the last 20 years has seen a steady increase in plantings, as land in Marlborough became scarce, and the local economy witnessed a downturn in profitably from their local orchards.
Nelson has a unique topography which sees it enveloped by mountain ranges to the west, south and east. These ranges protect the sites from the prevailing westerly winds, moderating the temperature and providing a calm climate in comparison to most other regions within New Zealand. Nelson has a suitable amount of rainfall and is amongst New Zealand’s wettest and warmest regions.
The two sub-regions lying within Nelson are the Waimea Plains and Upper Moutere hill country. The Plains have similar attributes to that of Marlborough, although the gravelly silt loams have a higher clay content, thus providing good water retention and a core minerality ensuring light, fresh and aromatic wines are produced. The heavier gravel-threaded clay-based soils of the Upper Moutere hill country produce rich and complex wines with great texture. Nelson will likely remain small as the lack of growing areas and isolation from transport centres is its only downfall.
Northland Wine Region
The first vines were planted in Northland in 1819, however it wasn’t until the last decade that has seen Northland officially arrive on New Zealand’s wine map. With a sub-tropical climate not found anywhere else in New Zealand, the long hot days contribute to wines of great depth and complexity. Here you’ll find Bordeaux blends flourish along with more subtle interpretations of aromatic varieties.
Northland typically experiences the country’s warmest ripening conditions which explains the popularity of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Chardonnay, the region’s three most widely planted grape varieties. Vineyards are situated mainly on the flat or gentle slopes and soils vary throughout the region from shallow clay soils over sandy-clay sub soils to free-draining volcanic structures.
Wairarapa | Martinborough Wine Region
A small wine region with a large following, thanks to the arrival of some of New Zealand’s most acclaimed Pinot Noir’s. In 1883 the first vines were planted, however it wasn’t until the 1970’s when the wines of Martinborough landed firmly on the global map. The area has three sub-regions; Martinborough, Masterton and Gladstone, all planting similar grape varieties but offering a slightly different terroir.
The silt loam and gravelly sub soils of the Martinborough Terrace ensure that Pinot Noir and Sauvignon Blanc grapes thrive here. The region has a diverse selection of wines – with a number of varieties on offer from Pinot Noir to Sauvignon Blanc. Wairarapa accounts for only 3% of New Zealand’s total production with yields on these vineyards cropping well below the country’s national average, a significant factor which contributes to the regions success. Martinborough is a small colonial village and has a reputation as the wine hub of Wairarapa, with many family-owned producers based here. Martinborough is a short scenic drive north of New Zealand’s capital city, Wellington.
The Gladstone region is just south of Wairarapa’s largest town, Masterton and is one of the fastest growing wine regions, with plenty of room for expansion. The area of Wairarapa is the coolest and driest of the north island, and with a climate and soil profile similar to Burgundy, it is no wonder this region produces some of New Zealand’s most acclaimed wines.