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January 19, 2024 – Published in Design & Decor Autumn-Winter 2023 issue

Unearthing distinctive wines: From New Zealand’s trademark Sauvignon Blanc and beyond

Words Andrew Azzopardi


Known as the land of the ‘long white cloud’ amongst the locals, New Zealand is sometimes referred to as the Sauvignon Blanc capital of the world. Today, Sauvignon Blanc accounts for 85% of wine exported from New Zealand, due to its easy-to-drink nature and tropical flavours. New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc has been setting an international benchmark as one of the people’s favourite Sauvignon Blanc styles.

Winemaking and viticulture date back to New Zealand’s colonial era. But the defining moment in their wine industry only began in the mid-20th century, when a couple of New Zealand winemakers rescued Sauvignon Blanc cuttings from the University of California. At the time, this vine was not considered to be of commercial interest, but the winemakers thought that the variety would be strong enough to do well in New Zealand’s conditions. The vines were vigorous and grew well, and the grape was distinctly flavoured, aromatic, and juicy. By the mid-1980s, the characteristic Marlborough New Zealand style made a name for itself and has since gone on to become known as the most distinctively varietal Sauvignon Blanc style in the world – expanding rapidly in the early 21st century and growing by a whopping 17% a year from 2000 to 2020. 

However, the incredible success of the Sauvignon Blanc is a double-edged sword. The vines’ natural high yield, relative short ageing without the need of expensive oak made it easy for large wineries to jump on board and churn out big volumes of uninteresting Sauvignon Blanc. Unfortunately, these low-quality wines infiltrated the market, making it harder for consumers to decipher the quality wines from the mass-produced juice. On the other hand, many quality-conscious New Zealand winemakers are making wiser decisions on picking time as well as lees contact and choice of maturing vessels. Opting for extremely low yields, better selection of clones and yeasts, many Kiwi Sauvignons have incredible purity, engaging complexity and depth. 

Having built confidence in their wine-making abilities, quality-conscious wine-makers started looking at other regions and grape varieties on the Island. The maritime influence, mild climate, varied terrain, and well drained alluvial soils in many regions in both the North and South Island provided the perfect canvas for wine-makers to expand their product successfully. 

Today, New Zealand is not just about Sauvignon Blanc. Red wine varieties such as Pinot Noir, Grenache and Syrah are winning competitions the world over, as are other white wine varieties including Chardonnay, Pinot Gris, Riesling and even Albariño.

Just like Marlborough became synonymous with Sauvignon Blanc, other regions in New Zealand have become well known for other grape varieties and styles, making it easier for the consumer to purchase premium quality.

Below is a list of the most quality-driven regions in both North and South Island New Zealand that I suggest you look for when searching out quality wines.

Marlborough: Marlborough remains New Zealand’s largest wine and most significant region in terms of wine production. It is especially known for its Sauvignon Blanc, and most wine-drinkers associate New Zealand wine with Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc. The region is situated on the northeastern tip of South Island, in a natural bay, making it ideal for wine production. The region’s exceptional climate, characterized by high sunshine hours and moderate temperatures, alongside its varied soil composition, creates the perfect canvas for producing wines of extraordinary intensity and distinctive varietal character. While Sauvignon Blanc remains the star, the region’s winemakers also craft an excellent Pinot Noir.

Look out for Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir from the cooler Awatere valley.

Martinborough: Often confused with Marlborough but located at the southern end of the North Island, just facing Marlborough, Martinborough is one of the smallest but finest quality regions in all New Zealand, best known for its Pinot Noir, Sauvignon Blanc, and aromatic white wines. The region has a cool, dry climate, and the wines produced here are known for their complexity and structure. Their Pinot Noirs are particularly complex, earthy with a savoury touch, whereas their best aromatic whites have incredible finesse and minerality. 

Look out for Pinot Noir and Sauvignon Blanc from the famous ‘Te Muna’ terrace.

Hawke’s Bay: This is the oldest wine region in New Zealand and the second largest by production volume. Situated on the East coast of North Island, it is known for producing high-quality red wines, particularly Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot blends (often referred to as Bordeaux blends), and Syrah. The region has a warm, maritime climate often cooled by the sea breeze and a wide variety of soil types, making it suitable for several different red wines where their finest examples showcase age-worthy wines with deep, complex notes. Hawkes Bay Syrah is often compared to those from the northern Rhone due to its similar floral, pepper, and dark berry notes. The Chardonnays from this region are typically medium-bodied with citrus and clean stone fruit flavors.

Look for Merlot blends, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and Chardonnay from Gimblett Gravels and Bridge Pa Triangle.

Gisborne: Located on the northeastern part of New Zealand’s North Island, Gisborne is known for its fresh and fruity Chardonnay, Pinot Gris, Viognier, and Merlot wines. The region enjoys a warm, sunny climate that is superbly moderated by the Pacific Ocean. Known for the stunning beaches, deep history and sunny climate, Gisbourne is home to some of the large famous wineries, but is also an up and coming region for smaller boutique growers making exceptional wines. Gisbourne wines are praised for their good concentration and broad palate with lush tropical and stonefruit characters.

Look out for rich and aromatic Chardonnays and almost saline Pinot Gris.

Central Otago: This is the world’s southernmost commercial wine growing region. Divided into 6 wine-making regions, each with their own unique characteristic, Central Otago has a semi-continental climate with cold winters and hot summers. The region’s high altitude (between 220 and 300 metres above sea level) helps cool the temperatures down slightly, thereby lengthening the ripening and hang time. This climate provides the perfect conditions for the production of excellent Pinot Noir wines. Though mainly known for its fruity and full-bodied Pinot Noir, other varieties such as Riesling, Pinot Gris, and Chardonnay are also grown successfully in this region. 

Look for Pinot Noir and Chardonnay from Alexandra or Cromwell areas within Central Otago.

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