New Zealand: Beyond Sauvignon Blanc

New Zealand is a country of superlatives, from the towering mountain peaks of the Southern Alps on the South Island to its crystalline glacial lakes, vibrantly green hillsides, gin-clear streams, and breathtaking seaside views. Its culture is deeply woven into its history and the natural environment, and producers fervently protect what they cultivate and harvest from the land. Yet for all its unsurpassed beauty, this virtually unspoiled landscape is welcoming and unpretentious, a quality reflected in its people, food, and wine.

While evidence of vineyard plantings in New Zealand dates back to 1819 and even to the 1800s in small pockets of the country, it wasn’t until the 1970s that the modern wine industry really began, with the widespread planting of Vitis vinifera. The effort was accelerated by the wine pull scheme of 1986, in which the government offered growers $5,000 per acre to replace vineyards—primarily of Müller Thurgau—with grapes such as Sauvignon Blanc and other classic European varieties. It was around this same time that Cloudy Bay Vineyards introduced Sauvignon Blanc to the global market, escorting the variety into its now well-known position as the premiere grape for New Zealand.

What began humbly, with only 400 hectares planted to vine in 1960, grew to more than 13,787 hectares by 2002, with 118,000 tons of grapes harvested. Since then, New Zealand has experienced a steady climb as a well-respected wine growing region with an increasingly more intricate breakdown of subregions and microclimates. In a little more than a decade, numbers have increased to 35,000 hectares of vineyards, with harvest over 326,000 tons in 2015, according to the New Zealand Winegrowers, the national organization for New Zealand’s wine sector.

Starting with Sauvignon Blanc

If you quiz the average wine enthusiast about New Zealand wine, their first response will almost certainly be something about Sauvignon Blanc, typically followed with a resolute opinion on whether they love it or hate it—there doesn’t seem to be an in-between.

Sauvignon Blanc has, indeed, reigned supreme for decades, with a particular style offering pungent aromas of white grapefruit, gooseberries, key lime, and tropical fruit heavily framed by grass, asparagus, and herbaceous characteristics. It owes its rise in global fame to larger producers such as Brancott Estate (Montana Wines), Kim Crawford, Villa Maria, and, of course, Cloudy Bay. Together, these producers solidified a consistency of style that consumers have come to readily recognize.

But, of course, there are those mid-sized and small producers who have refined an understanding of New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc with elements of nuance that reveal the character of the regions where these grapes are grown. A recent visit to Elephant Hill, situated just off the shores of Hawke’s Bay, offered a delicate Sauvignon Blanc with softer aromatics and a decided salinity. By contrast, North Island Sauvignon Blanc from Martinborough’s Ata Rangi winery has a ripe yet restrained style that is both complex and bracingly vibrant. And at Seresin Estate in Marlborough, winemaker Clive Dougall works with two vineyard sites in the clay-rich hilly soils of the Southern Valley subregion as well as in the stonier riverbed of the Wairau Valley to offer singularly unique bottlings of the variety, each with their own subtle characteristics. Throughout the country, remarkably different variations of style for Sauvignon Blanc emerge.

As with every noble wine region around the world, there’s a lot more to New Zealand than its most famous grape. It’s crucial to note that Sauvignon Blanc is still the country’s leading variety, accounting for more than 66% of the total vineyard acreage. But the 8% of Pinot Noir, 8% of Chardonnay, and 0.5% of Syrah in overall plantings are what most excite many in the industry.

“There are some really beautiful and distinctive Sauvignon Blanc wines coming out of New Zealand these days, but it’s exciting to see the strength in other varieties,” says MS David Keck, who recently returned from a two-week tour of the country hosted by New Zealand Winegrowers.

While these other varieties are still surprising to many, the truth is, winegrowers have been growing them for a quite a while. However, most of the production is so low, it rarely leaves the domestic market. “More than 85% of what we see from New Zealand in the United States is Sauvignon Blanc, which is about the same in New Zealand’s other export markets,” says Keck. “Fortunately, we’re also getting some great Pinot Noir from Central Otago and Marlborough, but it’s not as much as I’d like to see.”

Cool-Climate Pinot Noir

Pinot Noir has stepped out of the shadow of Sauvignon Blanc on the international market in the past decade. Its happy home in cool climate regions makes it an ideal candidate for success in New Zealand. Pinot Noir has found depth and character in places such as Marlborough, Martinborough, Canterbury, and Waipara. Martinborough's Ata Rangi, which is, as noted above, also admired for its Sauvignon Blanc, produces excellent examples.

But it’s the southernmost region of the country, Central Otago, where the grape has garnered most attention. Cut off from the ocean and nestled in among 2,000-meter peaks, Central Otago is, uniquely, the only semi-continental climate in the country. With a relatively short growing season, the alpine location of the region has long daylight hours in mid-summer along with hot temperatures during the day that shift dramatically to cooler nights.

“Our growing seasons vary greatly from year to year, but what Central Otago offers as its signature is a freshness and vibrancy in the wines,” says winemaker Paul Pujol of Prophet’s Rock. “With winemaking in Central Otago, you have to be on your game. There’s no paint by numbers here. The vineyards are always different each year, and we are very delicate in the winery. That’s the mark of Central Otago: the fruit is very transparent to what you do to it, and if you’re heavy handed in the winery, you’ll dominate whatever character was originally in the wine.”

Also notable in Central Otago is Burn Cottage Vineyards, where Ted Lemon of Littorai fame is winemaker. Burns Cottage Vineyards is owned by the Sauvage family, also owners of the Koehler-Ruprecht estate in the Pfalz. Felton Road is another notable producer. Along with Ata Rangi, it received a "grand cru of New Zealand" award in 2010 for its Pinot Noir.

Chardonnay: The Unsung Hero

Both Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir play an integral role with Marlborough producers such as Seresin Estate. But growing in strength are these other varieties that many wine growers in New Zealand have long seen as promising for the diversity of microclimates and soils that span the North and South Island.

“I think Chardonnay may be the unsung hero of New Zealand,” says Seresin’s Clive Dougall. “It’s actually what Seresin is best known for within the country. And for those not from here, it seems to be a variety that takes everyone by surprise when they first visit. When they taste some of the Chardonnay around Marlborough and other parts of the country, they’re in love.”

Indeed, thanks to a cool, maritime climate throughout much of the country, Chardonnay ripens during the growing season’s often sunny, moderately warm days, yet maintains ideal levels of acidity. It’s something winemaker David Roper of one of the country’s largest producers, Villa Maria, has long championed. “Chardonnay can certainly be world-class and confidently stands up against other noted Chardonnay-producing regions around the world. And it’s not just isolated to one area,” explains Roper. “We have excellent examples produced from the far north of the North Island, Auckland—Kumeu River [Wines] is a benchmark in my opinion—through to Gisborne, Hawke’s Bay, Martinborough, Marlborough, Nelson, Waipara, and Central Otago. The best wines show wonderful complexity, respectful use of oak, balanced acidity, richness, and length.”

Beguiling Syrah

Another rising variety is Syrah. Though geographically closer to Australia, New Zealand’s style of Syrah is much more akin to that of the grape’s original home in the Northern Rhône. Dougall describes New Zealand Syrah as the middle ground, “with a big, fat, and juicy New World character balanced by a refined, savory French character.”

Syrah particularly does well in the drier, sun-soaked soils of Waiheke Island northeast of Auckland in Hauraki Gulf. Here, wineries such as Man O’War Vineyards have leveraged the steep hillside slopes with clay-rich soils on numerous small sites and satellite islands to grow particularly intriguing Syrah and Bordeaux varietals. (They also planted white varieties along the exposed volcanic hilltops for optimal sea breezes.)

“We have really looked to Syrah here, with the volume turned up,” says Man O’War’s vineyard manager, Matt Allen. “We’ve been playing with different styles using whole cluster to give a different character to the wine. Though it’s been in New Zealand on a small scale, it’s being treated as the new kid on the block these days. It’s not a perfect grape, but you can do more with it than you can Bordeaux varietals in a bad year. It’s also been a great variety to entice some of those Pinot Noir drinkers. It’s spicy and rich, but not too big.”

In Hawke’s Bay, growing conditions are cool, but with a warm enough growing season to ripen Syrah and Bordeaux varieties. Here, Merlot has more vineyard acreage than Syrah, but Syrah seems to have found a happy home as well. Its unique subregion Gimblett Gravels was once considered the poorest, least productive land in Hawke’s Bay and had been written off as wasted space for warehouses, commercial centers, and suburbs before a handful of pioneering vignerons, including Chris Pask (Pask Winery) and Alan Limmer (Stonecroft), began experimenting. As it turned out, the gravely soil with lenses of sand, clay, and silt at various depths is ideal for grape growing, with excellent drainage that drives the roots down deep. It’s such an enticing growing area that Villa Maria has acquired approximately one-third of the entire subregion, home to what they bill as their finest Syrah and Bordeaux wines.

Craggy Range, another Gimblett Gravels winery, has one of their two wineries right in the heart of the winemaking district, while their second winery lies beneath the shadows of the iconic Te Mata Peak. Sommelier Michael Bancks of Craggy Range’s Terrôir Restaurant claims Chardonnay as one of his favorite Craggy Range selections. But it’s Syrah that he feels has the most potential. “Ever since our first release of our Le Sol Syrah, we’ve received attention from all over the world. I think the next few years for New Zealand Syrah will be interesting to watch,” he comments.

Sparkling is the New Black

Lately, the potential for producing spectacular traditional method sparkling wine in New Zealand has become a hot topic. While sparkling Sauvignon Blanc has been a rather common offering for fun and frivolity, it’s the méthode traditionelle—or simply “méthode wines,” as many colloquially call them—that are turning heads in the international community.

“There’s nothing I’m going to say that’s a surprise to people in country, but the méthode wines we’re seeing in New Zealand are absolutely exceptional,” says Dougall. “They’re made in the proper way and are simply amazing.”

At a recent gathering for the TexSom International Wine Awards, noted wine writer and educator Elaine Chukan Brown introduced a lunch sponsored by New Zealand Winegrowers while cradling a bottle of No. 1 Family Estate sparkling rosé in her arms. “These are wines we should be paying attention to because you can see the purposeful drive toward excellence in them,” says Chukan Brown. “We have a hard time getting wines like this back in the States, which means we’re missing [the] broader range of styles this country is producing, and traditional method sparkling wine is one of them.”

The No. 1 Family example was a perfect introduction to this classic style of wine in New Zealand if for no other reason than because this producer has been laser-focused on its production since the late 1970s. Daniel Le Brun of No. 1 Family Estate traces his roots in Champagne back to the late 1600s. Le Brun came to Marlborough when it was just sheep and grass and saw it was a perfect wine growing region set up shop.

“But Daniel wasn’t just going to put out any wine. He is committed to doing méthode traditionelle wines properly,” says No. 1 Family Marketing and Exports Manager Jane Tiller. No. 1 Family produces an annual 5,500 cases, of which 65% is sold within the New Zealand market. “We’ve been slow to grow into other markets like the UK, Australia, and the US,” says Tiller, who has recently enlisted the help of New Zealand wine consultant and Master Sommelier Cameron Douglas to help navigate the company’s export growth. “It can be so overwhelming, but we see the importance of getting our wines out in the international market.”

Other producers on the same track as No. 1 Family include Huia, whose 2010 Blanc de Blancs is an exceptional find, and Pask, whose Gimblett Gravels 2009 Declaration Méthode Traditionelle release is remarkably good.

When you look at the breadth of what the country has accomplished through its many regions, it’s easier to see that New Zealand may have been billed too soon as only having two varieties to applaud. Instead, had it simply been lauded for what it truly was—a classic cool climate region—it’s possible the ratio of plantings among more of these classic Vitis vinifera varieties may be more proportionate to one other.

Unfortunately, you can't turn back the clock. As such, the greatest thing New Zealand has going for it is its youth. And as it will no doubt continue to capitalize on its success with Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir, it stands to be seen if some of these other cool climate varieties will eventually share a leading role.

Getting the Word Out

Many things have been done to draw the industry together, including a cohesive move towards screw-cap closures and a massive effort by the New Zealand Winegrowers to certify all wine producers as sustainable. (As of early 2017, certifications were at 97%, with a goal to reach 100% by 2020.) Efforts such as these have drawn global attention to New Zealand as a progressive and innovative wine producing country. Yet for all its forward thinking, New Zealand is one of the world’s few countries without official geographical indications for its wine regions.

In November 2016, the Geographic Indications (Wine and Spirits) Registration Amendment Bill was passed, finally making progress on the issue. The bill will allow each of the current 29 New Zealand wine regions to further identify their official boundaries for viticulture and will allow the official delineation of subregions within those regions (i.e., within Central Otago, the six subregions of Wanaka, Cromwell Basin, Bendigo, Alexandra, Gibbston, and Bannockburn). Emerging regions such as Waiheke Island will be able to receive official recognition as formal GIs.

These established regional names, already in use on just about every bottle of wine the country makes, are technically considered “geographical indications” as defined in the 1994 TRIPS agreement between World Trade Organization nations.

“Although they have always been protected from misuse within New Zealand under domestic consumer protection laws, the need to provide formal recognition for those GI names within what is now the accepted international intellectual property framework for wine has become a more pressing topic,” says Jeffrey Clarke, General Manager of Advocacy and General Counsel for New Zealand Winegrowers. “Once New Zealand’s GIs are formally registered, it will also make them easier to cross-register within other countries’ formalized GI systems—and similarly, the act will allow other countries to register their own registered GIs in New Zealand.”

Some concerns have risen among wineries as to how these registrations will take place and whether it will be mandatory for wineries to apply to use a GI on their label. But according to Clarke, individual wineries don’t have to do anything to register the GIs they already use. Rather, the regional associations will apply to register all major GIs. Noting another important detail, he explains, “The act does not provide for the imposition of restrictions on the right to use the protected name; it just ensures that any wine bearing the GI originates in the claimed GI region.”

It’s a time-consuming process, but one Cameron Douglas, who travels internationally on behalf of various New Zealand producers, feels is worth the effort. “Overall, I think it’s a good thing for New Zealand wine,” he says. “With the legislation now in place, we can use the opportunity to further lend credibility to the regions and producers from which our wines come.”

Producers large and small agree. “It's absolutely necessary that we do this,” says Clive Dougall. “It's the only way we're going to break down the view that New Zealand is just one large, homogeneous wine region that makes one style of Sauvignon Blanc and one style of Pinot Noir. Giving an identity to our GIs gives an opportunity for people to begin exploring New Zealand more deeply. Ideally, consumers would begin identifying with producers specifically, but I think having an indication of where the wines are from helps connect those dots.”

At the same time, Dougall acknowledges the challenges of delineating specific subregions that producers can agree upon. “The fact is, when European countries were putting rings around their specific regions, it was for their own local reasons, rather than for a greater commercial benefit within a global market. Can you imagine if they tried to do that now? There would be riots!”

Having grown up in the wine world of Marlborough, Jane Tiller of No. 1 Family has listened to this conversation for decades. Like many of the smaller producers, she sees the value in adopting an official system for using GIs on labels. “We struggle with breaking into competitive markets like the States because our production size is so marginal,” she explains. “But rather than devalue the wines we make by lowering our prices to be more competitive, using specific geographic indicators helps give us a point of differentiation. It allows us to tell that story about the terroir and microclimates. That’s what adds value.”

What’s Ahead for New Zealand

Many in the industry anticipate progress on the GI project in 2017. The biggest challenge, though, will come next: getting these wines to market and kick-starting conversation about them.

“We have to remember how young the wine industry is,” says David Keck. “We were looking at vines that weren’t any older than 20 or 30 years. It was exciting to see where they’re making their identity with these wines. They’re no longer trying to follow a Burgundian or Loire Valley model. They’re charting their own path, and it involves more than what we’re used to seeing in the States and elsewhere.”

Indeed, New Zealand is at a pivotal time in its history as a wine region. And there are still questions to be answered. Will we see more New Zealand wine in international markets? Probably so. Can consumers rely on the quality of these wines and their ability to reveal the subtle nuances of their terroir? With the onset of GI recognition on the horizon, it’s likely. Will the opportunity to see more grape varieties and styles give the rest of the world a clearer picture of all New Zealand offers? To a degree, yes. But what New Zealand’s wine industry will need in the chapters ahead are wine professionals willing to help propel it forward, introducing these wines to a broader audience. Perhaps then New Zealand will receive the attention it deserves as a world-class wine region boasting a range of compelling wines.

  • Thank You Jessica! Great information.

  • Great, informative and well written article. Having spent many years living in both Marlborough and Central Otago I appreciate the vast regional variation across different parts of the country and the superb quality of the lesser known varietals.

  • 100% agree that Chardonnay is the unsung hero of NZ. It was in fact, the most widely planted grape in New Zealand until around 2002. The shift in planted acreage in 15 years to Sauvignon Blanc is testament to the power of market forces. Or in this case, powerful supermarket wine buyers. One can only hope the pendulum swings 15 years back one day (maybe not as far back as Muller Thurgau though....)