New Zealand’s tiny size—once a vulnerability in the turbulent global wine market—has become its superpower as a wine producer. The remote island nation in the South Pacific accounts for only about 1 percent of the world’s wine production, but the maturing wine industry in New Zealand (“Aotearoa” in Maˉori) thrives on creativity in close quarters.
Vines were first planted in the North Island’s fertile soil in the early 1800s, with European immigrants laying much of the groundwork, but it wasn’t until the 1970s that the commercial industry began in earnest. Today, the country’s 11 major wine regions, which became eligible for geographical indications in 2017, demonstrate remarkable diversity yet share a commonality. “The majority are situated in the east,” says Edmundo Farrera, sommelier and owner of Auckland wine and mezcal bar La Fuente. “All with proximity to the seas for natural pest protection. Behind them, the mountains and hills, for shelter from the wild weather coming from the west and south.”
White grapes are particularly well-suited to the country’s cool climes and intense sunshine, producing wines with crisp, precise acidity, and Sauvignon Blanc—first planted in 1975 and now the most abundant variety—dominates the country’s exports. “Strangely enough, the only place that New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc is not [popular] is in New Zealand,” says Farrera.
While entry-level Sauvignon Blanc provides the industry’s financial muscle, varieties including Chenin Blanc, Chardonnay, and Pinot Noir from small-scale producers appeal to local palates. The ingenuity of this tight-knit, synergistic winemaking community has helped propel the industry forward. New Zealanders have a penchant for travel, and many work in wineries from Alsace to Burgundy, Germany to Sicily, then return home to apply and share their knowledge, says Farrera. Additionally, the country’s reputation for wines with a precise sense of place has lured foreign winemakers, including from Japan and Austria. “You have that combination of winemaking techniques and understanding in one tiny country, and I think that’s why the New Zealand winemaking scene is so vast, so diverse, and so exciting,” says Farrera. “The next chapter will be those smaller producers putting a lot of passion into their juice.”
5 Bottles to Try
2019 Huia Brut Rosé
Made from 100 percent estate-grown Pinot Noir from the organic, biodynamic Huia vineyard in Rapaura, Marlborough, this sparkler is crisp and creamy, with summer berry notes. Huia prides itself on new-world wines made with appreciation for old-world traditions, and this release was hand-riddled over five weeks before disgorgement. $33.99, apexwinesolutions.com
2018 Black Estate “Home Vineyard” Pinot Noir
Black Estate is a family-owned winery, farming three organic and biodynamic hillside vineyards in North Canterbury. Made from fruit grown in the sedimentary clay soils of the winery’s Home Vineyard, this unfiltered Pinot Noir is compelling and complex, with wild rose and earthy aromas. $34.99, wine.com
2018 Millton Te Arai Vineyard Chenin Blanc
Millton Vineyards selected four parcels of hand-harvested grapes from the biodynamic Te Arai Vineyard in the Gisborne region on New Zealand’s North Island for this Chenin Blanc. With a robust, concentrated mouthfeel, the wine bursts with grilled pineapple and a tangy finish. $27.99, marketviewliquor.com
2019 Seresin Sauvignon Blanc
Seresin Estate winemaker Tamra Kelly-Washington was raised in Marlborough as the region’s viticulture took off. Using estate-grown Sauvignon Blanc blended with 8 percent Sémillion, Kelly-Washington creates a prime example of the region’s reigning varietal, with characteristics of guava and lemon curd balanced by Sémillon’s savory qualities. $17.99, merchantofwine.com
2018 Fromm “Cuvée H” Pinot Noir
“If you can access the premium Pinot Noir or Chenin Blanc, you are in for a treat,” says Farrera of the wines of Fromm, located in Marlborough’s Wairau Valley subregion. With an emphasis on terroir, Swiss-born winemaker Hätsch Kalberer uses a blend of single vineyard Pinot Noirs for this premium blend that is rich with dark cherry and peppered with dried herb flavors. $34.99, klwines.com