New Zealand was one of the last countries of the New World to begin producing wine. Like Australia, its early immigrants were from the British Isles and therefore far less experienced at making wine than drinking it. Not until 1819 were the first vines planted by an Anglican missionary. Twenty years later, a Scotsman eventually produced New Zealand’s first wine. Despite the country’s initial appearance as ideal for producing grapes for winemaking, the initial years of its burgeoning wine industry saw drastic climactic changes and conservative laws that limited demand.
Much as in Australia, later immigrants from Southern Europe added new rigor and quality to New Zealand’s winemaking – only to be quashed within a few years by the outbreak of phylloxera. With most of the vitis vinifera vineyards of the islands decimated, New Zealanders replanted with hybrid grapes from the United States that produced poor-quality, sweet and fortified wines, much of which were watered down to stretch their volume. Today’s wine industry in New Zealand has benefited from new influxes of capital and technology from the U.S. and Australia, as well as a culture and legal system evermore hospitable to wine consumption. Currently, 75% of New Zealand’s wines are white, but red varietals like Pinot Noir are quickly growing in popularity and volume.
New Zealand’s winemakers share their Australian counterparts’ affinity for intensity. However, being an almost exclusively coastal and high-latitude region, New Zealand’s intensity comes in a completely different form as that of Australia. New Zealand is best known for its bracingly acidic Sauvignon Blanc wines characterized by bold green aromas of grass and bell peppers, balanced by uniquely tropical fruit flavors like mango and passion fruit.
Also given its high latitude, New Zealand is prone to cold and rain, which affects many vintages. In the 1980s, the country widely adopted new technology geared toward smoothing variations between vintages. Most notably, Dr. Richard Smart introduced a system of trellising in an effort to minimize mold and maximize sun exposure. This system has been adopted around the world in other cool-climate regions.
New Zealand, comprised of a number of islands, has a maritime climate, with no vineyard more than 80 kilometers from a coastline. By far, it has one of the coolest growing seasons of any major wine-producing region, allowing grapes to hang on the vine longer and ripen more slowly than any other region. This allows its famous Sauvignon Blanc wines to develop the intense aromas and flavors they are known for, all the while maintaining a high level of acid. On the flip side, the land is often plagued by high winds, rain and frost.
The country straddles its two largest islands – the South Island and the North Island. The South Island is the better known of the two, producing higher-quality, more intense wines that are also subject to greater vintage variations. The Marlborough region of New Zealand’s South Island produces greater than 40% of all the country’s wine, and is by far the most famous region. Characterized by rolling hills of mostly clay that cascade from the New Zealand Alps down to the Pacific coast, this is a cool region that produces Sauvignon Blanc wines of remarkable intensity. High winds coupled with ample direct sun exposure tend to keep the berries in this region small and concentrated.
While white wine dominates in New Zealand, red wines, especially Pinot Noir from the Central Otago region of the South Island are gaining notoriety for their exquisitely balanced and nuanced styles. Central Otago is further south than Marlborough, but further inland and therefore achieves enough heat to ripen heartier red varietals.