New Zealand, the whimsically landscaped country in the southwestern Pacific Ocean, is known as the Land of the Long White Cloud. Formed by fire and ice, volcanic and glacial activity are almost nonexistent in modern times, but have left the country with excellent soil for the grape growing industry. Although technically located at temperate latitudes, being a narrow tract of land in the middle of the sea allows oceanic winds to blow across the islands making the climate cooler than it otherwise would be. This proves a challenge for wine making, but has not deterred the Kiwis, who have been cultivating a world-renowned wine industry there for almost 170 years.
New Zealand consists of two islands – North Island and South Island. The North Island features numerous high-altitude volcanoes that help to block rain and wind, creating favorable wine growing conditions on the eastern portions of the island. As it is closer to the equator, the North Island is warmer than the south, and can sustain small enclaves of warm weather loving red grape varietals such as Syrah and Merlot. The Hawke’s Bay and Gisborne regions located here are the warmest in the country and the largest producers of youthful, fruit-forward red wines other than Pinot Noirs. Additionally, both districts also happen to produce significant quantities of Chardonnay grapes as well. Wellington, the southernmost region on the North Island, is cooler and the only red grape local winemakers focus their attention on is the hardy, cold-resistant Pinot Noir. They excel in growing white grape varietals here as well, with Pinot Gris and Sauvignon Blanc selections from this area regularly receiving accolades.
Hopping over to the South Island… the northern tip is dominated by Marlborough, which is the largest wine producer in the country boasting 60% of total output (think New Zealand’s version of California). This area showcases the infamous New Zealand Sauvignon Blancs bursting with grapefruit flavors, grassy notes, hints of stone fruits and persistent minerality that make these wines a global sensation. Marlborough also cultivates large amounts of Pinot Noir that are made into light, fruit-forward sparkling wines. Its neighbors, Nelson and Canterbury, have similar varietals planted and their wines express comparable stylistic markers as well. Nelson, however, has the distinction of being the only wine producing region on the western portion of the island. A mountain chain runs vertically along the west coast of the South Island insulating vineyards on the eastern side. Nelson, though, takes advantage of abundant sunshine on the western exposures and yields stellar Rieslings among its portfolio. Finally, the southernmost wine region in the entire world, Central Otago, is found at the bottom of New Zealand. Known for bright, crisp, acidic Pinot Gris and Sauvignon Blancs, wine makers in this area also have a knack for light, rustic, herby Pinot Noirs.
New Zealanders like to keep things very straightforward and this is reflected in their approach to wine regulations. The only stated requirements, and they are strictly enforced, are that the label must contain no misleading information and “Product of New Zealand” must be announced. Beyond that, mentioning grape varieties, vintages, places of origin, etc. are at the wine maker’s discretion. Nonetheless, most wineries’ goals are to export their wares to eager oenophiles around the world, so they do voluntarily opt to conform to more stringent international labeling standards ensuring their wines will be accepted by customs at all countries’ ports.
Winemakers from New Zealand are dedicated to their craft. Although they have the advantage of great soil, they are also presented with weather-related challenges to tackle. These trials make the sheer variety of high-quality wines produced in the country very impressive. So, please continue to enjoy the nation’s stellar Sauvignon Blancs, but also make it a point to try some of the other great selections New Zealand has to offer as well. You will be glad you did!
By: MaryJane Baker Vu