A guide to New Zealand's wine regions
If you’re planning a trip to New Zealand, perhaps you’ve been drawn by the vast natural beauty on offer and the wealth of experiences and activities available. For those who appreciate life’s simple pleasures, an additional drawcard exists. New Zealand’s reputation for producing excellent wine is growing year by year and, despite our diminutive size, we’re boldly pitting ourselves against some very heavy hitters in the wine market. Enthusiastic and resourceful by nature, our Kiwi winemakers are rightfully proud of their achievements and deeply passionate about sharing their work with appreciative visitors from around the globe.
Here at New Zealand Trails, we think there’s nothing better than relaxing in the sunshine after a beautiful walk or hike and enjoying a delicious picnic lunch while sampling some local wines. That’s why we’ve included vineyard and winery stops into our itineraries to complement the day’s activities. If you’re something of a connoisseur, you’ll enjoy the chance to chat with producers at the cellar door and if like many of us, you’re more of an enthusiastic novice, then it’s a chance to learn a few things and perhaps find a new favourite to impress your friends back home with.
A wee bit of history
Way back in 1819, the first vines were brought to New Zealand and planted in Northland by Anglican missionary Samuel Marsden. From there, it was Scotsman James Busby who went on to become New Zealand’s first recorded winemaker. Widely regarded as the father of antipodean viticulture, Busby also established Australia’s very famous Hunter Valley wine region. Fast forward to 1851 in the North Island’s Hawkes Bay, where a small group of pioneering French missionaries founded New Zealand’s first winery. The aptly named Mission Estate Winery is still open to visitors today and is heralded as our “oldest winery and the birthplace of New Zealand wine”.
From these humble beginnings, New Zealand winemakers have worked hard to carve out a presence on the world stage. Wine exports shone a light on New Zealand in the 1970s and 80s, with Sauvignon Blanc putting us firmly on the map. We’ve never looked back since. From the beginning of the 21st century, the number of wineries in New Zealand has tripled and today there are over 700 dotted around the country. Some 200 years ago, Samuel Marsden wrote that “New Zealand promises to be very favourable to the vine” and he was certainly right about that!
A unique environment
Stretching some 1,600km (994 miles) from sub-tropical Northland to rugged Central Otago, New Zealand’s wine regions are as diverse as they are beautiful. From lush rolling vineyards with ocean views to vines snaking their way up seemingly harsh terrain under the shadow of craggy rocks, it’s not just the wine that’s impressive here. With such stunning backdrops, you might be forgiven for forgetting to taste the wine while you take in the views.
New Zealand takes the title of world’s southernmost wine-producing region, with Central Otago home to the most southerly of vineyards. New Zealand is a long, thin country, with no vineyard further than 120km (80 miles) from the ocean. The cooling sea breezes and temperate maritime climate, combined with our long sunshine hours and unique soils, make for ideal growing conditions and the production of a diverse range of very enjoyable wines.
New Zealand has 12 main wine growing regions and various sub-regions, each offering something a little different. Most vineyards are on the East Coast where the latitude, soil type and climate come together to produce a wide variety of grapes. Typically harvested over a six to seven week period, the exact harvest time varies up and down the country. Grapes grown in the far North are picked in late summer (around February time) as temperatures are warmer the further up the country you travel. In contrast, at the bottom of the South Island, it’s much cooler, so harvesting typically doesn’t happen until late April. It’s our milder temperatures that allow for a long, slow ripening period resulting in a delicious depth of flavour, while still retaining the fresh acidity that makes New Zealand wine so unique.
New Zealand’s wine regions
Northland, as the name suggests, is a lush sub-tropical region at the top of the North Island, bordered closely by the Pacific Ocean and Tasman Sea. Home to white sand beaches, secluded bays and blue seas, it’s a stunning area. It’s a relatively small parcel of land compared to our other wine regions and Northland’s sub-tropical climate means that it’s perhaps less well suited to wine growing than other areas further south. Humidity and rainfall are relatively high and average temperatures are the warmest throughout New Zealand. Despite these challenges, some of our best white wines come from Northland with full-bodied and ripely flavoured Chardonnay and Pinot Gris produced. Northland is best known for red wine however – Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon, as well as an up-and-coming interest in Syrah.
Auckland / Waiheke Island
Our largest city, Auckland, is home to many of New Zealand’s biggest wine companies, including Villa Maria and Matua Valley. Auckland and the surrounding area have slow-draining clay soil and must contend with relatively high temperatures, humidity and rainfall. But New Zealand’s plucky wine growers are undeterred - their persistence has been rewarded with delightful Chardonnay, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Gris and Syrah all in successful production.
Waiheke Island is classed as a sub-region of Auckland, but it’s one of our favourite places so we think it deserves its own region! Sitting just off the coast of Auckland in the beautiful Hauraki Gulf, Waiheke is a tranquil escape from the bustle of the city. Seemingly permanently sunny and eternally picturesque, Waiheke harbours many charming wineries that are worth writing home about. One such is Cable Bay where we enjoy lunch on the first day of our Sweet North tour. Set against the backdrop of a bright blue sea, the rolling green vineyards of Cable Bay produce award-winning wines to rival the views. They specialise in handcrafted wines using the finest fruit grown in two small-batch vineyards on the island itself, as well as further south in the Marlborough region. And if you enjoy a sweet treat, you might be interested to know that as well as wine, they’ve also recently started producing their own honey. It’s certainly a fitting way to kick-start your Sweet North trip!
Gisborne is New Zealand’s third largest wine region and produces around 13% of the country’s wine, with Chardonnay accounting for over half of that. Located on the East Coast of the North Island, Gisborne’s rich soils, warm summers and mild winters make for ideal growing conditions, resulting in bumper crops; useful for companies wanting to produce a high volume of relatively low-cost wine. Largely a white wine region, Gisborne is best known for its fragrant, citrus fruit flavoured Chardonnay, as well as aromatic Gewurztraminer, Viognier and Pinot Gris.
Bay of Plenty/Waikato
Despite its size, the Waikato region is a somewhat small player in the grand scheme of things. Sitting below Auckland, the Bay of Plenty (named by Captain Cook for its abundance of supplies) and Waikato are home to a small number of vineyards and wineries. Similar in climate to Auckland, winegrowers contend with the challenges of humidity and rainfall to produce well-rounded wines, with the principle grape varieties being Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon.
Known equally for its beaches as its vineyards, Hawkes Bay’s association with wine is long and prestigious. Located on the North Island just below Gisborne, New Zealand’s second largest wine producing region is one of the sunniest spots in the country with an annual average 2,200 hours of sunshine. With a diverse array of soils, the sub-regions and wine varieties produced are abundant, but the region’s most important wines are Chardonnay and Merlot-based Reds, which make up most of the wine produced here.
Located in the southeastern corner of the North Island, Wairarapa is a quiet area with a small population. Its tiny vineyards are most famous for the production of Pinot Noir, with some 20 boutique vineyards in Martinborough known for producing high-quality wines in small quantities. The driest and coolest of the North Island’s wine regions, biking is a popular and practical way to explore the vineyards here.
Situated at the top of the South Island, Marlborough is an area of outstanding natural beauty. Turquoise seas, tranquil bays, abundant marine life and achingly beautiful vistas await visitors keen to explore (we recommend paddling out in a kayak to make the most of this area). When it comes to wine production, Marlborough is New Zealand’s champion heavyweight. The largest and most successful wine region is known primarily for its Sauvignon Blanc varieties that are popular on a global scale. In fact, Marlborough wine production accounts for over 75% of New Zealand’s wine! Famous wineries include Saint Clair, Wither Hills, Yealands, Cloudy Bay and Giesen. On a personal, and possibly somewhat predictable note, Sauvignon Blanc is my absolute favourite wine and I enjoy nothing more than sipping a chilled glass over dinner with friends.
If you’re thinking, “stop talking, get me there already!”, then the good news is we visit the Marlborough region on both our Kiwi Classic and Masterpiece tours. On both trips, we make a stop at the beautiful Wairau River Wines estate. Established by pioneers of the industry Phil and Chris Rose, the estate is 100% family owned and run, with a commitment to quality over quantity. In addition to an outstanding Sauvignon Blanc, they also make Pinot Gris, Rose, Pinot Noir, Syrah and a variety of other impressive wines. It’s the perfect opportunity to rest, relax and enjoy a sample of the fruits of the Rose family’s labours!
The sunniest place in New Zealand, Nelson is a colourful town with a thriving arts scene and an enterprising philosophy. Its proximity to Marlborough can mean that it’s overshadowed in the wine stakes, but nevertheless, it still produces a large volume of wine. Boutique vineyards are blossoming, and local artisan wineries are creating some ‘very exciting’ wines, as the experts would say. Shielded by the Tasman Mountains, the region is protected from weather extremes, resulting in a versatile growing region. There isn’t one principle grape variety, but that means that the Nelson growers aren’t pigeon-holed and are free to express their creative spirit.
Nelson is a great place to explore. During our tours, we make sure that you have a free day to really delve into what makes Nelson such a locals' favourite. One option for your free day would be to jump on a half-day wine tour around the Nelson area. Knowledgeable wine guides will explain the various wines and provide tasting notes, as well as a lot of background information. Your Trails Super Guide will be able to help you book a day trip, so you can fully appreciate the Nelson wine region on your travels.
Waipara is a small town on the banks of the Waipara River in North Canterbury on the South Island, about an hour’s drive north of Christchurch. One of New Zealand’s fastest-growing wine regions, there are over 75 wineries to be found here. It’s renowned for producing rich and spicy Pinot Noir as well as Riesling, Pinot Gris, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc.
New Zealand’s fifth largest wine region stretches 200km from the towering Southern Alps on the Kaikoura coast, down to the wide-open Canterbury Plains inland. During Canterbury’s long dry autumn season, the warm temperatures during the day and the cooler air at night allow for a slow ripening process. Pinot Noir, Sauvignon Blanc and Riesling are widely grown in Canterbury, backed up by Pinot Gris and Chardonnay.
The Waitaki Valley vineyards reach from the limestone cliffs above the village of Duntroon, up the South bank of the Waitaki River and inland to the township of Omarama. The reputation of this region is growing day by day, with highly distinctive wines being produced due to the unique terroir of the area. Prominent varieties include Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris, Riesling, Chardonnay and Gewurztraminer.
Towering snow-capped mountains, deep glacial lakes, rushing rivers and rugged terrain collide to form a truly unique wine growing region. The mountain resort of Queenstown provides the ideal base from which to explore the surrounding vineyards. While the comparatively extreme climate can create challenges for growers, for those who put the work in, the rewards are well worth it. Known primarily for producing Pinot Noir, there are many excellent wineries dotted throughout Central Otago. A popular cluster is contained in the Gibbston Valley (also known as the ‘valley of vines’) including Amisfield, Chard Farm, Peregrine, Waitiri Creek and Gibbston Valley Winery itself. If you’re in a celebratory mood, a few of these wineries produce very good sparkling wines using the méthode traditionnelle – perfect to toast your time in New Zealand.
During our World Heritage tour, we take time to visit the Gibbston Valley and sample a selection of locally-produced wines over a leisurely lunch. Kinross is one of our favourite places to relax and explore, offering a warm welcome at the cellar door and a chance to sample a variety of world-renowned and internationally awarded Central Otago wines. It’s the ideal place to learn more from the locals and enjoy a taste of some of New Zealand’s best wine.
Cheers to that!
While this has been something of a whistle-stop tour of New Zealand’s wine regions, it gives you a taste of what you can look forward to on your travels. From the Far North to the Deep South, New Zealand wine is as varied and delightful as the landscape it flows from. And there’ll be plenty more to uncover when you arrive. Here at Trails, we also seek out the freshest New Zealand cuisine to complement our local wines. We love introducing guests to new flavours and culinary experiences – it’s all part of creating the very finest small group tours in New Zealand.
Both connoisseurs and novices alike will relish the opportunity to sample the local offerings and perhaps uncover a new favourite to enjoy with friends and family as you recount tales of ocean-facing vineyards in the sun and swirling wine in your glass with the mountains as a backdrop. We’ll certainly cheers to that!
If you'd like to visit some of the regions above, request your free brochure here for more information on our 5 multi-day, all-inclusive, guided adventure tours of New Zealand.