Food and drink are highlights of any good vacation, and you’ll find few experiences more accommodating, in terms of savouring good wine, than a New Zealand tour.
This Oceanic nation might produce less than one percent of the world’s wine, but it’s only 0.0006 percent of the world population, so it’s not like the country isn’t carrying its weight.
To be clear, New Zealand does not loom as largely over wine culture as France, Italy, or even Australia, but its unique climate makes it predisposed to wine-making. The abundance of sunshine helps the vines thrive, while the cool evening breezes extend the ripening period and help balance the acidity of the grapes. The unique temperature means that grapes grow much slower in New Zealand than in other countries. The soil and temperature also provide the grapes with a unique acidity, which is largely responsible for their sweet flavour and balanced palette.
If you’re heading on a trip to New Zealand, it’s worth taking a few days to explore the distinct flavours and vintages of its many wine regions.
Wine Regions and Grape Varieties
There are 11 main wine regions in New Zealand, six on the North Island and five on the South Island. The North Island’s regions are Auckland, Gisborne, Hawke’s Bay, Northland, Waikato & Bay of Plenty, and Wairarapa (Martinborough). The South Island has Canterbury, Central Otago, Nelson, Marlborough, and Waipara Valley. Marlborough is the most plentiful of these regions, while Northland was the first to grow grapes. The missionary, Samuel Marsden, who introduced New Zealand to Christianity, first planted over 100 varieties of grapevines near Kerikeri in 1819, beginning New Zealand’s celebrated wine-making legacy.
These 11 regions produce over 300,000 tonnes of grapes each year, with the vast majority of grapes (almost 70 percent) being of the Sauvignon Blanc variety. However, New Zealand also produces significant amounts of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris, Merlot, and Riesling.
The Celebrated Sauvignon Blanc of Marlborough
Situated along the northeastern coast of the South Island, near Blenheim, Marlborough is New Zealand’s largest wine region, producing around 77 percent of the wine in the country. While there are many varieties of grapes grown in Marlborough, the region is particularly celebrated for its Sauvignon Blanc vintages, which began appearing on the world wine market in the seventies and eighties, garnering much praise and claims for being the best in the world. The region’s low soil fertility forces the vines to concentrate their grape yields, while the blend of hot days and cool nights extends the grapes’ ripening period. Sauvignon Blanc makes Marlborough famous, but the region also produces Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.
When visiting Marlborough on your New Zealand tour, it’s essential to explore the wineries and try the balanced flavours of New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc for yourself. With over 65 wineries, you have plenty of places to choose from, but be sure to visit the Cloudy Bay Vineyards, as it’s one of the region’s most iconic wineries. Foxes Island, Greywacke, Hans Herzog, and Palliser Estates are some of the other wineries that garner international attention and are well worth visiting.
The region has plenty to recommend aside from the wineries. Cruise out onto the Marlborough Sounds, starting at Picton, to appreciate the natural beauty of the island’s northern tip and the sea-drowned valleys that make it so distinctive. Depending on the season, you might be able to visit a mussel farm to see how these seafood delicacies are grown.
In Blenheim, the region’s council seat, you can visit the Marlborough Museum, which charts out the region’s history of wine-making, as well as its Maori history. The town has also undergone a recent renovation, connected to the rise in wine tourism, so you can easily spend an afternoon strolling its charming streets and sipping wine in its bistros.
The Abundance of Southern Wines
While Marlborough dominates the New Zealand wine scene, there are other regions on the South Island that contribute to the industry. Central Otago is the second largest wine region on the island, producing around three percent of the country’s wines. It might be smaller than Marlborough, but it’s possibly even more scenic than its northern cousin. It also has the honour of being the southernmost wine region it the world and it is best known for its Pinot Noirs. Amisfield Winery, Gibbston Valley Winery, and Chard Farm are some of the most popular in the region. If you need a change of pace from the wine tours, hit up Queenstown, where you can satisfy your wildest ambitions. As New Zealand’s adventure capital, the city lets you skydive, bungie jump, or jet-ski to your heart’s content.
Nelson and Waipara also each produce around two percent of the national yield. Nelson is two hours south of Marlborough and is known for being a hippie region, full of potters, painters, foodies, artists, and all manner of creative types liable to spend the days outdoors, enjoying the fresh air with a glass of Chardonnay. While wine is a large part of the economy, the area also attracts a large number of tourists because of its sandy beaches and abundance of sunshine. Tour the wineries to taste the Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling, and Pinot Noir produced in the region, but don’t forget to hit the beaches, on this New Zealand tour, and take advantage of the laid back pace.
Waipara is often considered a sub region of Canterbury, but it warrants mentioning as its long, hot autumns make it a popular destination early in the year. The region is best known for Pinot Gris, Chardonnay, and Sauvignon Blanc.
Food and Drink on the North Island
While the North Island has no “Marlborough” of its own to dominate the country’s wine production, it does boast the second and third most prosperous wine regions – Hawke’s Bay and Gisborne. Hawke’s Bay sits on the east coast of the North Island and is its leading wine region. As it’s been producing wine since the 19th century, the region’s wines are among the country’s best. Most popular among its varieties are Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, and Syrah. Tour wineries like Mission Estate and Moana Park to sample the vintages, but keep in mind that the region is also the island’s main food tourism spot. Spend a few days around Hastings and Napier to get a full taste of its many flavours and comforts.
Gisborne is the most easterly portion of the North Island and one of the country’s most distinctly Maori areas. It’s where Captain James Cook first landed on the island and where many of the first European settlements were built. The region specializes in white wines, so head to Milton Vineyards or Bushmere Estate to sample Chardonnay, Chenin Blanc, Gewurztraminer, and Riesling.
It’s almost unfair that New Zealand has great food and wine in addition to a stable economy, incredible culture, friendly citizens, and gorgeous landscape. Luckily, the country’s splendour is open to the world. From its mountains to its beaches, its food festivals to its wineries, it’s yours to explore and enjoy on a New Zealand tour.
A Guide to New Zealand’s Wine Country