For two small, remote islands in the South Pacific which together barely span 1600 kilometers, New Zealand’s ascendance on the international wine landscape has been nothing short of meteoric. Both North Island and South Island have become leaders in viticulture in a mere few decades, sharing ten winemaking regions, 2,000 vineyards and over 700 wineries among them. And although New Zealand only produces approximately 1% of the world’s wine, it is nonetheless a vastly desired percentage, particularly when it comes to the country’s beloved and celebrated Sauvignon Blanc.
While New Zealand’s wine industry didn’t take hold until the latter 20th century, vines were first planted in Northland, the northernmost region of North Island, in the early 1800s by British engineer John Busby. (If the name sounds familiar, it’s because his son, James Busby, has long been considered the father of the Australian wine industry for bringing the continent its first vines
For the next several decades, local winemakers continued production, but sadly, only for local consumption. Thankfully, things began taking a turn in the late 20th century, and quickly. In 1960, New Zealand had slightly more than 400 hectares dedicated to vineyards, mostly concentrated in Auckland. Twenty years later, it had expanded its vineyards to nearly 6,000 hectares, and today, New Zealand boasts a vineyard surface of nearly 33,000 hectares across its two islands. The catalysts for change were smart, innovative winemakers who were inspired by the growing wine industry transpiring a thousand miles north in Australia. Transitioning the country’s production mindset from local consumption to international export, they began to cultivate fruit that flourished in New Zealand’s maritime climate. Their focus paid off: the country’s uniquely lush, assertive yet tropical Sauvignon Blanc soon captivated the global market, prompting the vintners to test their skills with other varietals such as Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. Luckily for wine aficionados, there was no turning back: New Zealand was well on its way to becoming a major wine presence.
Given its oceanic climate, geography and location, it seems surprising that it took New Zealand so long to get serious about winemaking. As the southernmost wine region in the world, it enjoys cool, temperate weather for much of the year, allowing varietals such as its signature Sauvignon Blanc and the temperamental Pinot Noir, its second most cultivated grape, to ripen at their own easy pace. Most of its primary wine regions are located on the east coast, where they are safely protected by multiple mountains and ideally-placed elevations from the Tasman Sea’s strong winds and rain. North Island is peppered with volcanic peaks, while South Island benefits from its centrally located Southern Alps. Even its rich, volcanic soil is blessed by the country’s position between the Pacific and Indo-Australian tectonic plate.
While New Zealand has ten highly productive winemaking regions, five share the spotlight. Auckland, situated at the bottom of North Island’s narrowest northern stretch, is known for its rich and diverse soils, allowing it to successfully grow multiple varietals including Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Chardonnay. On the southeast coast lies Gisborne, the country’s third largest wine producing region, with 50% of its vineyards dedicated to Chardonnay. This predominant grape yields a particularly fruit-forward wine, separating it from many of its global competitors. Pinot Gris and Viognier are grown across Gisborne’s other 50%, but the coastal climate prevents any significant cultivation of red fruit. Farther south is Hawke’s Bay, New Zealand’s second largest wine region known for having one of the country’s oldest winemaking histories. Graced with a varied terrain, Hawke’s Bay is able to produce an equally varied array of wines, including robust, Bordeaux-inspired reds to creamy, full-bodied Chardonnays. Pinot Gris also thrives along with Merlot, both carefully used for blending.
South Island is home to Marlborough, the jewel in New Zealand’s winemaking crown. The country’s most recognized wine region as well as its largest, Marlborough, which rests on South Island’s upper northeast coastline, had built its rousing reputation on its clean, crisp Sauvignon Blanc which inhabits over 80% of its vineyards. Its signature grape is closely followed by Pinot Noir, which delivers a uniquely silky yet structured product. The region’s amenable climate of generous sunshine, cool nights and a more than ample drainage provide the perfect environment for these varietals and encourage distinctive flavors that hint at the tropical. In short, Marlborough is almost single-handedly responsible for catapulting New Zealand onto the global wine market. In the southcentral part of the island lies Central Otago, the world’s southernmost wine region with also presents the highest altitudes in the entirety of New Zealand. The region’s mountainous landscape and somewhat extreme climate has ushered in levels of Pinot Noir production that rival those of Marlborough’s Sauvignon Blanc. Over the years, its offerings have transitioned from locally popular to truly respected within the international wine arena.
New Zealand is famous for its dynamic and inventive yet welcoming approach to life. These qualities are clearly represented in the country’s wines as well. It’s rise among its global competitors is well-deserved, and the future of its wine industry is sure to hold an abundance of riches for wine lovers everywhere.