Sauvignon Blanc makes up 58% of New Zealand’s wine production, and is the style that started the country’s love affair with winemaking. Marlborough is the local pioneer and primary producer of all varietals, but especially the Sauvignon blends. The first grape of this kind were planted in 1973, and by the 1990s it had become New Zealand’s flagship, both within the local market as well as the international stage.
A surge in Chardonnay cultivation happened in the 1990s, though the fashionable style is not as strong of a player in New Zealand’s industry. Full-medium bodied Chardonnays are a speciality in Hawke’s Bay and Gisborne, as these North Island regions enjoy a warmer climate than most. Once again, Marlborough is the key player in the South Island’s Chardonnay production — theirs are usually medium to light bodied with a distinct citrus flavour.
Pinot Gris is another variety that quickly gained traction after the 1990s. It is cultivated throughout New Zealand and makes up 7% of the local wine production.
Pinot Noir is a prominent feature among the colder winemaking regions, and makes up 8% of New Zealand’s overall production.
The South Island is renowned for its incredibly diverse range of reds. Marlborough’s Pinot Noirs have a fuller body and fresh aromatic flavours; Nelson’s reds are fragrant, earthy and textured; Canterbury and Waipara Valley’s reds are known for their firm structure and savoury characteristics; and the Central Otago region is famed for producing a bit of everything — Gibbston Valley is the place for soft, fruity reds, Bannockburn produces richer, more tannic wines, and Alexandra’s varietals are known for their exquisite thyme undertones.
Key locations in the North Island that produce Pinot Noirs include Hawke’s Bay (known for their aromatic reds) and Wairapapa (where Pinots are characterised by darker fruit aromas).
Cabernet Sauvingon blends also have a long history in New Zealand, dating as far back as the 1800s. Its cultivation is not as widespread as Pinot Noir, however: more than 80% of its production is concentrated in the Hawke’s Bay and the Auckland/Northland regions.
Riesling has been around since the 1800s, though mass production didn’t begin until the 1980s. 90% of New Zealand’s Riesling is grown in the South Island, particularly in the Canterbury/Waipara Valley region.
While Syrah/Shiraz is a prominent player in the Australian industry, it failed to gain as much traction in this much smaller neighbour. Hawke’s Bay is the place with the largest production of the varietal, but even then, the grape only makes up 1% of New Zealand’s entire winemaking output.
A small amount of the fragrant Gewürztraminer style is made in wineries across the country, while sparkling wines are produced primarily in Marlborough, Hawke’s Bay and Gisborne.
Over the years, New Zealand’s vineyards and wineries have become a popular tourist attraction in their own right. The Classic New Zealand Wine Trail, which starts in Hawke’s Bay and finishes in Marlborough, is one of the favourite routes for self-guided wine tasters. Auckland’s Waiheke Island is another North Island hotspot, and the Central Otago region is a darling among Queenstown-based travellers.
There are quite a few famous wines to please the passing crowds. Cloudy Bay is New Zealand’s most iconic brand, and was a key player in popularizing the classic Marlborough style. A surge in popularity for Waiheke Island’s Cable Bay allowed the winemaker to expand into multiple locations – including Marlborough and Central Otago. Similarly, the esteemed Villa Maria Estate, which started in South Auckland, expanded its scope into the Hawke’s Bay and Marlborough. Other prominent New Zealand brands include Carrick Wines from Wanaka, White Cliff from Hawke’s Bay, and Kahurangi Estate from Nelson.