Regional Wine Profiles

Please note: These regional profiles were originally published in Michael Cooper’s Wine Atlas of New Zealand (2nd edition, 2008). The regional profiles will be updated following the launch of Michael’s New Zealand Wine: The Essential Guide.

 


Northland

Northland is the minnow of New Zealand’s wine regions. Stretched out over 300 kilometres of rolling hill country, its almost subtropical climate — abundant rainfall, high humidity and relatively warm winters — is less well suited to viticulture than the drier regions to the south.

In contrast to the younger, more rugged landforms of the South Island and central North Island, Northland has the less dramatic topography of older landscapes. The land climbs to over 600 metres above sea level in its central ranges, but most of the region lies below 150 metres.

Its northern location and closeness to the sea give Northland a mild climate, warm, sunny and humid. The mean annual temperature is the highest in New Zealand, especially in eastern and northern parts of the region. In February, the warmest month, Northland’s temperatures are no higher than in Auckland, but winter temperatures are higher than elsewhere (hence the popular expression, ‘the winterless north’), and day/night temperature variations are relatively minor.

Relative humidity is high throughout the year, due to the proximity of the sea (nowhere more than 50 kilometres away). The abundant rainfall is heaviest in the ranges, but decreases by almost half in low-lying coastal areas in the east. Tropical cyclones can bring tremendous downpours in summer, but dry spells of two weeks or longer also occur during late summer and early autumn.

The most common winds are from the south-west, especially in winter and spring, but in summer easterlies are equally common, and are typically very moist. Cooling sea breezes are common during summer and autumn.

‘The maritime influence on the growing season is quite profound,’ reports Doubtless Bay Wine Company, on the Karikari Peninsula. ‘We simply do not have the highs or lows of temperatures. . . . [As a result] we do not get especially high sugar levels by harvest time, while acid levels remain at the higher end of normal.’

During an average growing season (October to April) Northland’s vineyards receive twice as much rain as Marlborough’s and three times as much as Central Otago’s. Sloping, well-drained sites, sea breezes and good canopy management can reduce rain-related problems. However, the challenge facing Northland viticulturists is well summed up by Mario Vuletich, of Longview Estate: ‘Give me good sprays, a good raincoat, a good sense of humour and thick-skinned grapes, and I can make very good red wines from this property.’

`The geology of Northland is patchy and complex, with a great variety of rocks and landforms. Heavy, greyish-brown, clay-rich loam soils are the most common, over a sub-soil of compact clay.

‘The forests of the past have left their imprint on the soil,’ observes Les Molloy in Soils of the New Zealand Landscape. ‘In particular, kauri produced deep layers of highly acidic litter . . . that have contributed to the poor physical properties of many of the region’s soils.’ At Kerikeri, where several wine producers are based, the principal soils are friable volcanic clays.

In Northland’s mild, moist climate, plant growth is almost continuous. For quality winemaking, well-drained soils that give the vines a balanced, rather than excessive, uptake of water are the most sought after.

Northland’s small plantings are not recorded separately in the annual national vineyard survey, but are instead added to those for the Auckland region. As a result, there are no authoritative figures available for the total area now in vines or the plantings of individual grape varieties.

In the best (relatively dry) vintages, some of New Zealand’s best white wines flow from Northland — full bodied, ripely flavoured and soft Chardonnay and Pinot Gris. However, the region is best known for its reds: claret-style and substantial, warm, spicy Rhône Valley look-alikes. Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon are well established, but the highest hopes are held for Syrah.

Principal grape varieties: Chardonnay, Syrah, Merlot, Pinot Gris, Cabernet Sauvignon

Auckland

Many of New Zealand’s largest wine companies — including Pernod Ricard NZ, Nobilo, Delegat’s, Villa Maria, Matua Valley, Babich and Coopers Creek — have their headquarters in Auckland, processing grapes grown all over the country. A unique feature of the Auckland wine trail is the opportunity to taste wines from several regions, especially Auckland, Gisborne, Hawke’s Bay and Marlborough.

With Auckland’s high rainfall and humidity throughout the growing season, disease control is the major challenge for the region’s grape-growers. Its warm temperatures assist the ripening of late-season grape varieties, but Auckland is also a cloudy region, with sub-optimal sunshine hours for viticulture (especially in the west).

The rainfall, highest in the Waitakere Ranges, is significantly lower in eastern districts. Frosts are infrequent and generally light.

Leigh, on the east coast, has a mean daily temperature range of 6°C, compared to 10°C inland at Henderson, showing that Auckland, although sprawled across a narrow isthmus, does experience some continental temperature effects.

Auckland’s bedrock is up to 250 million years old. Many of the young volcanic soils on the narrow isthmus between the Waitemata and Manukau harbours have been formed by volcanic activity over the last 150,000 years. However, layered sandstone and mudstone are the most common rocks in the region, uplifted from the ocean floor many thousands of years ago and since weathered to clay-rich soils. Most Auckland vineyards are planted on heavy clays, often with poor natural drainage.

Auckland’s relatively warm temperatures favour Bordeaux-style reds, increasingly based on Merlot rather than Cabernet Sauvignon, which in the heavy clay soils often struggles to achieve full ripeness. Auckland’s claret-style reds are typically less bold, dark and vibrantly fruity than those of Hawke’s Bay, with savoury, earthy notes that add complexity and interest. Syrah is also fast-expanding, especially on Waiheke Island, where the leading examples are powerful, sweet-fruited and opulent. Pinot Gris is the second most popular white-wine variety, but Chardonnay is still far ahead, producing weighty, ripe, tropical fruit-flavoured wines with rounded acidity. ‘In Auckland, on the vine Chardonnay matures early enough to ensure that it is always ripe enough to make quality wine,’ says Michael Brajkovich of Kumeu River, ‘but late-season varieties [such as Cabernet Sauvignon] can be difficult in cool years.’

Sub-regions: Matakana/Mahurangi, Kumeu/Huapai, Henderson, Waiheke Island and South Auckland. In the absence of high mountains and frequent strong winds, Auckland’s sub-regions have relatively similar climates. All five districts have the warm temperatures and high rainfall typical of Auckland, although the east coast areas — which have attracted most of the recent vineyard expansion — are slightly drier.

Principal grape varieties: Chardonnay, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Gris, Syrah, Cabernet Franc

Waikato / Bay of Plenty

Vineyards and wineries are scattered very thinly across the Waikato and Bay of Plenty regions, yet two important wine companies are based there, Morton Estate and Mills Reef.

The northern and middle Waikato, where most of the vineyards are found, is a region of gently undulating lowlands, with broad valleys and rolling hills. Grass is the main crop and the dairy cow rules. To the east, in the Bay of Plenty, there is a sharp contrast between the inland volcanic landscapes and heavily forested ranges, and the coastal lowlands bordering the Pacific Ocean.

Warm summer temperatures and mild winters are typical of the Waikato, with high humidity levels and an ample, year-round supply of rain.

With its high temperatures, humidity and rainfall, the Waikato shares the Auckland region’s strengths and weaknesses for viticulture. Te Kauwhata has an almost identical heat summation figure to Warkworth, north of Auckland, but is marginally drier on average during the growing season than most of Auckland’s wine districts.

The Bay of Plenty is sunny, very warm and mild in coastal areas, with higher rainfall and a greater temperature range inland, where frosts can be severe. Sheltered by the ranges from the prevailing westerly winds, the coastal Bay of Plenty records high sunshine hours, but it is also exposed to rain-bearing winds from the north and north-east.

The clay loam soils common in the Waikato are generally deep and free-draining. Derived from a type of tephra (volcanic rock) known as Hamilton Ash, these lightly textured clays have a good structure for plant growth, provided organic matter levels are maintained. Due to the high soil fertility, good viticultural management is needed to control the vines’ vigour and keep their canopies open and airy.

Volcanic loams are also widespread in the coastal Bay of Plenty, where their high soil temperatures and good water-holding capacity are ideal for citrus and kiwifruit growing.

Mouthfilling and rounded, with substantial body, ripe flavours and moderate acidity, the wines of the Waikato reflect the warm growing conditions of the upper North Island. The Chardonnays and Sauvignon Blancs are soft, with tropical-fruit flavours, and the claret-style reds are typically full-bodied, spicy and earthy.

Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon are the most extensively planted grapes, but the latest national vineyard survey also revealed a significant presence of hybrids, Sauvignon Blanc, Merlot, Malbec and Chenin Blanc.

Principal grape varieties: Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Sauvignon Blanc, Merlot

Sub-regions: Te Kauwhata, in the north, was the hub of the Waikato wine industry from the 1890s. More recently, other clusters of vineyards have emerged south of the city of Hamilton — as far south as Te Awamutu — and at Cooks Beach, on the eastern Coromandel Peninsula. There are also isolated plots of vines in the Bay of Plenty and at Lake Taupo.

Gisborne

Gisborne is New Zealand’s third-largest wine region, in recent vintages producing an average of 13 per cent of the country’s wine. Chardonnay accounts for over half of all plantings and has enjoyed glowing competition success, and aromatic white varieties such as Gewürztraminer, Viognier and Pinot Gris are also coming to the fore. The region’s wine output, however, is dominated by Pernod Ricard NZ, and there is only a small cluster of quality-focused ‘boutique’ producers.

The hilly East Cape of the North Island is dominated by the Raukumara Range, leaving limited lowland areas suitable for viticulture. Grapegrowing is largely confined to the Poverty Bay flats near Gisborne city, which at just over 20,000 hectares form the largest of the coastal alluvial plains, and a much smaller one further north at Tolaga Bay.

The richness of its soils, warm summers and mild winters make Gisborne an ideal place for growing maize, grapes, kiwifruit, citrus and subtropical fruits. In the hill country, sheep, cattle, deer and goats are farmed and huge forests have been planted in radiata pine.

This is one of the most unstable landscapes in New Zealand. The soft, easily eroded mudstones and clays of the back country are drained by the narrow, silty Waipaoa River, which meanders across the western side of the plains to the coast at Poverty Bay. In the past, the river frequently flooded, inundating the plains with clay and silt sediment up to 7.5 centimetres thick. A flood control scheme was introduced in 1953, and since then the plains have rarely been flooded.

At the lower end of the Waipaoa Valley, the Gisborne plains are shaped roughly like an isosceles triangle, with its apex near Te Karaka, 20 kilometres from the coast, and its base running 13 kilometres along the coast from Young Nick’s Head to the mouth of the Turanganui River. On the north-east side of the valley — where the first vineyards were planted — 5 kilometres inland steep, strongly sculpted hills rise to 370 metres. On the western side of the valley, within 10 kilometres of the city, the hills climb to 450 metres.

At least half of the vines are clustered at Patutahi, north-west of the city, where Montana (now Pernod Ricard NZ) expanded its plantings so markedly in the late 1990s that the locals dubbed the area ‘Montanaland’. With its relatively low rainfall and heavy clay soils that drain well because the land is gently sloping, Patutahi has considerable advantages for viticulture, but a less obvious factor in the surge of investment was simply that the largest land holdings available for purchase were at Patutahi.

The second major grapegrowing district lies north of the city, in the Ormond, Waihirere and Hexton areas, where Gisborne’s first commercial vineyards were planted. Here, on the eastern edge of the plains, at the foot of a long, irregular escarpment, lies the ‘Golden Slope’ or ‘Slope of Gold’, a gentle, clay-based slope with 20–30 centimetres of sandy topsoils which has given rise to many of Gisborne’s top Chardonnays.

The Golden Slope faces south-west — rather than the preferred northerly aspect — but its soils are more free-draining and drier than those on the flats. There is also a crucial human factor in the medal-winning success of wines from the Golden Slope — some of Gisborne’s most dedicated grape-growers, such as Geordie Witters and Paul Tietjen, are based there. Some local winemakers see the district name as frivolous (Côte d’Or, the name of the heart of the Burgundy wine region, translates as ‘golden slope’), arguing it should be Hexton Hills.

Closer to the coast, there are also substantial vine plantings in fertile, sandy soils at Riverpoint, where afternoon sea breezes keep temperatures relatively cool.

The hunt for new, more favourable sites up off the valley floor is gathering pace, although the ruggedness of the hill country makes it difficult to find north-facing slopes large enough for vineyards. At its McDiarmid Hill Vineyard at Patutahi, Villa Maria has close-planted 6 hectares of Chardonnay in low-vigour pumice soils. This elevated, sloping site yields fruit for the company’s acclaimed Reserve Barrique Fermented Chardonnay label. Villa Maria has also planted 11 hectares of Chardonnay and Gewürztraminer at the gently sloping Katoa vineyard in a warm, sheltered bowl at Manutuke, surrounded by low hills.

At Clos de Ste Anne, James and Annie Millton have planted Chardonnay, Viognier, Chenin Blanc, Pinot Noir and Syrah on a steep, north-east facing hillside at Manutuke, and grape-grower Chris Parker also has a hillside vineyard, Parklands Crucible, at Patutahi. James Millton refers to these elevated, sloping sites as ‘grand crus’ (superior vineyards).

Reservations about Gisborne’s viticultural potential have centred principally on the fact that although the vines get ample amounts of sunshine and heat, the typically highly fertile nature of the soils and plentiful autumn rains can easily combine to produce excessive vine-foliage growth and bumper crops. The rainfall during the critical February–April harvest period averages 60 per cent higher than in Marlborough, and 35 per cent higher than in Hawke’s Bay.

Today, however, many vineyards are achieving grape quality far above the norm of the past. By careful site and variety selection; choosing devigorating rootstocks; using cover crops to reduce vine vigour; planting healthy, virus-free vines and new, improved clones; shoot-thinning and leaf-plucking to reduce shading of the fruit and the risk of disease; bunch-thinning to increase ripeness and flavour depth; harvesting later to advance fruit ripeness; and a range of other approaches, many Gisborne viticulturists are exploring their region’s fine wine potential. Such outstanding wines as Clos de Ste Anne Naboth’s Vineyard Chardonnay, Clos de Ste Anne Viognier Les Arbres, Montana ‘O’ Ormond Chardonnay, Millton Te Arai Vineyard Chenin Blanc, Montana ‘P’ Patutahi Gewürztraminer and Vinoptima Ormond Reserve Gewürztraminer show what can be done.

One of the sunniest regions in New Zealand, Gisborne has also recorded some of the highest temperatures, with 38°C at Gisborne city. Such early-ripening grapes as Reichensteiner and Müller-Thurgau (of which 50 hectares survive) are typically among the first in the country to be harvested, and Chardonnay ripens in Gisborne up to six weeks ahead of southern regions.

That Gisborne is warm enough to mature its grapes early is of critical importance — especially in wet seasons — because its rainfall figures are relatively high. High hills at the coast collect moisture from easterly and south-easterly winds, making the region markedly wetter than Hawke’s Bay. The western side of the Gisborne plains, however, is drier than the east. Over a period of five growing seasons, 30 per cent less rain fell on Pernod Ricard NZ’s vineyards at Patutahi than at Ormond.

Gisborne’s climate is strongly influenced by the surrounding mountains, with the North Island high country and nearby hills providing much shelter from westerly and northerly weather systems. The prevailing north-westerly winds are usually warm and dry and southerlies, although cold and wet, are generally of short duration. However, Gisborne is highly exposed to easterly winds and the coastal hills intensify the precipitation, bringing lengthy spells of wet weather.

Sea breezes are common in summer, especially in the afternoons, cooling the vineyards in the Riverpoint area but having less effect on the more extensive plantings further inland.

In Gisborne’s relatively wet climate, the challenge facing viticulturists is to ripen their grapes fully in clean, rot-free condition. Bunch rot, especially botrytis, is the chief disease threat and a much greater problem than in the drier regions to the south.

A major plus-point for Gisborne, however, is its ability, at least in drier years, to fully ripen grapes on vines carrying ‘commercial’ (that is, heavy) crop loads. In the cooler regions to the south, smaller crops are necessary to achieve ripe fruit flavours. Gisborne’s ability in favourable years to fully ripen relatively heavy crops is a bonus for companies seeking to produce moderately priced wine of sound, average quality.

The young alluvial soils of the Gisborne plains, derived from the soft, sedimentary rocks of the back-country, rank among the most naturally fertile soils in New Zealand.

James Millton, the region’s leading winemaker, sees two key soil types in the lower Waipaoa Valley for grapegrowing. ‘The fine silt loams closest to the river produce aromatic wines, whereas the heavier clay soils on the edge of the plains give a fleshier character.’ At Patutahi, the widespread kaiti soils are principally clay loams with near-white sub-soils and black topsoils that dry out and crack in summer.

Soils of the Waipaoa type, found close to the Waipaoa River, include silt loams near the river banks and clay loams further afield. These are the newest soils on the plains, deposited by floods during the twentieth century after heavy erosion of the river’s catchment area. Waipaoa soils are the least popular with viticulturists; they are the most flood-prone and in Pernod Ricard NZ’s view produce less richly flavoured grapes and wines.

Matawhero and Waihirere soils lie on the rarely flooded, higher parts of the plain. Deep, friable and well-drained, with an ample supply of nutrients, they are regarded as the finest all-purpose soils and are widely used for viticulture. Matawhero soils have distinctly organic topsoils, with some areas possessing a layer of humus-enriched sediment up to 100 centimetres thick; Waihirere soils are chemically similar and are again highly fertile.

Gisborne’s greatest asset is the enormous drink-young appeal of its Chardonnays. Fragrant and soft, with lush, ripe citrus and tropical-fruit flavours, they can knock your socks off barely six months after they were a bunch of grapes.

Gisborne Chardonnay can also mature gracefully. Revington Vineyard Chardonnay 1989, the champion Chardonnay of the 1990 Air New Zealand Wine Awards, was in magical condition in 1999 and could easily have been taken for five, rather than 10, years old. The classy, tightly structured Montana ‘O’ Ormond Chardonnay has a proven ability to mature gracefully for up to a decade.

Gisborne is largely white-wine country. In the 2007 vintage, the region produced virtually all of New Zealand’s Reichensteiner; 80 per cent of the Muscat varieties; 76 per cent of the Müller-Thurgau; 63 per cent of the Chenin Blanc; 60 per cent of the Gewürztraminer; 53 per cent of the Sémillon; 43 per cent of the Viognier; 39 per cent of the Chardonnay; and 20 per cent of the Pinot Gris.

Plantings are expanding of Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Gewürztraminer, Viognier and Pinot Gris. The region has produced some of New Zealand’s most strikingly perfumed, rich and well-rounded Gewürztraminers, most recently under the Montana ‘P’ Patutahi, Vinoptima Ormond Reserve and — in favourable vintages — Revington Vineyard labels.

Gisborne Sauvignon Blancs are typically less aromatic and punchy than those grown further south, with non-herbaceous, tropical-fruit flavours. Pinot Gris has to date yielded solid rather than exciting wines, but Clos de Ste Anne Viognier, backed up by TW Viognier, has shown how deliciously weighty, sweet-fruited and lush Gisborne Viognier can be.

Gisborne is not viewed as a sparkling wine region, but two-thirds of the grapes for Pernod Ricard NZ’s hugely popular Lindauer Brut are grown there. The Chardonnay and Pinot Noir grapes are harvested early, while they retain the desired high levels of acidity, and the region’s high grape yields are suitable for such a low-priced wine.

Few Gisborne reds stand out, although good examples of Merlot, Malbec, Pinotage and Syrah can be found. The region has sufficient heat to grow later-ripening red-wine grapes, but rain is the bugbear, swelling the berries at the cost of flavour and colour intensity. Thin-skinned Pinot Noir is too susceptible to Gisborne’s autumn rain to make quality reds. Rich, ripe Merlots have been made in drier seasons, but the variety performs better in Hawke’s Bay. Steve Voysey, of Pernod Ricard NZ, predicts Syrah, now starting to attract attention, will enjoy greater success than Merlot: ‘It’s easier to manage, with wide, open bunches.’

Principal grape varieties: Chardonnay, Pinot Gris, Merlot, Gewürztraminer, Muscat varieties, Pinot Noir, Sauvignon Blanc, Sémillon, Viognier, Reichensteiner

Sub-regions: Gisborne winegrowers identify nine sub-regions: Waipaoa, Ormond, Ormond Valley, Golden Slope, Central Valley, Riverpoint, Patutahi, Patutahi Plateau and Manutuke. The most heavily planted district is Patutahi, a relatively cool and dry, slightly inland area north-west of Gisborne city, where Pernod Ricard NZ has extensive Chardonnay vineyards. The older-established, warmer Ormond area, more affected by rain-bearing easterlies, lies on the other side of the plains. Compared to the weighty, peachy, honeyed and soft Chardonnays from Ormond, those from Patutahi are more elegant and lemony, with higher acidity. Closer to the coast, afternoon sea breezes cool vineyards in the Riverpoint district, long the source of outstanding Gewürztraminers.

Hawke’s Bay

Hawke’s Bay is the aristocrat of New Zealand’s wine regions. In the 1890s a source of pioneering white and red wines made from classic vinifera varieties, it has largely preserved its traditional importance, despite the recent flurry of plantings further south, and with such prestigious grapes as Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Syrah, its regional reputation is the highest in the country.

In 2008, with 4798 hectares of bearing vines, Hawke’s Bay ranked second to Marlborough in the extent of its vineyards. In the decade from 1998 to 2008, although the region’s area of bearing vines expanded by over 160 per cent, its share of the national vineyard declined from 24.1 to 17.5 per cent, but the ranks of wine producers expanded from 35 to 68. After a lull in the mid-1980s, when few new wineries emerged, the Hawke’s Bay wine scene has of late been abuzz with the emergence of new sub-regions, new varieties and new labels.

Apart from the relatively flat Heretaunga Plains, which surround the twin cities of Napier and Hastings, most of Hawke’s Bay is rolling hill country, ascending inland to over 1600 metres in the rugged Ruahine and Kaweka Ranges, which form the backbone of the North Island. Fast rivers, notably the Tutaekuri, Ngaruroro and Tukituki, run west-east, from the mountains to the sea. In this sheltered environment, protected from the prevailing westerly winds, agriculture thrives: pastoralism, process cropping, orcharding, market gardening and viticulture.

To the north and south of the plains, the steep hill country and wild coast are sparsely populated. There are isolated vineyards in the north of the region — at Nuhaka, near the Mahia Peninsula, Wairoa and Raupunga, on the Mohaka River — and to the south, at Takapau in upland, central Hawke’s Bay. But the vast majority of the vines are on the Heretaunga Plains.

Once an inlet of the Pacific Ocean, the lowlands cover 35,000 hectares, all within 20 kilometres of Napier and Hastings. At first, grain-growing flourished on the plains, followed by intensive pastoralism, but after the Second World War the Heretaunga Plains became the most specialised cash cropping and horticultural district in the country. As orchards and market gardens (and eventually vineyards) spread, Hawke’s Bay acquired the tag ‘the fruit bowl of New Zealand’.

The early Hawke’s Bay winemakers battled prohibition, the phylloxera aphid, imported wines and public apathy. Today, the greatest challenge facing Hawke’s Bay’s flourishing wine-growers is far more benign yet highly complex: the extreme diversity of the region’s climate and soils. Across the Heretaunga Plains, Chardonnay harvest dates vary by more than a month and Te Mata Estate’s best and worst Cabernet Sauvignon sites lie less than a kilometre apart at Havelock North. ‘The defining characteristic of Hawke’s Bay is the extreme variation within the region,’ says Dr Alan Limmer of Stonecroft. ‘But that’s what makes it possible to produce styles ranging from cool-climate bottle-fermented sparklings to Bordeaux-style reds.’

Hawke’s Bay is one of the sunniest areas of the country, with vineyards on the Heretaunga Plains basking in an annual average of over 2200 hours of sunshine.

The heat summation figures for Napier, Hastings and Havelock North suggest that those parts of Hawke’s Bay, at least, are warmer than Burgundy, but some districts are cooler than Bordeaux (which has 1350 growing degree days). This evidence is supported by Hawke’s Bay’s regular success with Chardonnay but its struggle to consistently ripen Cabernet Sauvignon, except on the warmest sites.

In the past, Hawke’s Bay was often described as a sort of Antipodean Bordeaux, but viticulturist Steve Smith, of Craggy Range, believes that ‘in general Hawke’s Bay is slightly cool for making red wines from the Bordeaux red varieties and Syrah. The lack of real heat during berry development is the limiting factor. The cause of this lack of really hot summer days is the sea, less than 15 kilometres from most vineyards, which generates a cool sea breeze from about lunchtime on most summer days.’

Yet most Hawke’s Bay sites — other than in the southern hill country — are too warm for Pinot Noir. Compared to regions further south, Hawke’s Bay cools down slowly at night. Pinot Noir grapes therefore ripen swiftly and miss out on the extended ripening period necessary to retain skin colour and sweet, varietal fruit characters.

On the Heretaunga Plains during summer, afternoon temperatures typically climb to 23–25°C. Along the coast, maximum temperatures are lower and minimum temperatures are higher, due to the moderating influence of the sea.

Further inland, away from the ocean breezes, sites are typically hotter. In 1998, the Mission recorded mean temperatures for January (usually but not always the warmest month) at several of its vineyards. At Meeanee, nearest the sea, the mean temperature was 19.1°C, rising to 19.7°C at Taradale, 20.5°C at Gimblett Road and 21.0°C at Moteo, in the lower Dartmoor Valley. Further inland again, for each 100-metre rise above sea level, air temperatures typically fall by 0.6°C, gradually limiting the potential for viticulture.

On clear nights in the lowland areas, frosts are a risk. Low-lying, frost-prone areas, such as the Heretaunga Plains near Havelock North, each year have an average of almost 100 ground frosts.

A devastatingly widespread –4°C frost on 20 November 2000 caused a tiny harvest in 2001, and three spring frosts produced another small crop in 2003.

Sheltered by the high country, Hawke’s Bay is less windy than many other coastal regions of the country, with a high frequency of light winds. During spring and summer, when westerly winds prevail, hot, dry nor’-westers can cause droughts, inhibiting the vines’ canopy growth.

Spells of cold, wet, southerly weather are frequent during the growing season; more than half Hawke’s Bay’s rain comes from the south or south-east. Gales from the east and north-east bring warm, humid weather, conducive to botrytis bunch rot, and Hawke’s Bay is also vulnerable to periodic tropical cyclones. Disease control can be a challenge to the region’s grape-growers after consistent wet spells, but vines with open canopies and small crops are least at risk.

The pattern of rainfall across the region is closely linked to its orography. In both westerly and easterly winds, rain increases towards the high country. Over most of the Heretaunga Plains, the mean annual rainfall is 800–1200 mm, less than half the 2400 mm in the ranges.

The quality of each vintage is largely determined by the rain, which is highly variable in Hawke’s Bay. The driest period of the year is usually spring and early summer, when the warm, dry nor’-westers hold sway. Dry spells (less than 1 mm of rain daily for at least 15 days) occur on average three times per year, and at least one drought (with no measurable rain for at least 15 days) can also be expected.

For the quality of the vintage, the timing of the rains is critical. March and April are the key period. Autumn rains can cut short the ripening period, especially for late-season varieties, but in favourable years an Indian summer allows the grapes to reach full maturity.

A distinguishing feature of Hawke’s Bay is its extreme diversity of soils. The Heretaunga Plains consist mainly of fertile alluvial soils over gravelly sub-soils, deposited by the rivers and creeks that drain the uplands. As the rivers have meandered across the plains, they have laid down a patchwork of soils. Of the dozens of categories of soil on the Heretaunga Plains, ranging from stones to hard pans to heavy silts, each has a profound influence on the wine.

The mosaic of soils varies widely in texture, depth and water-storage capacity. Loamy, clayey Hastings soils, deep and fertile, with a very high capacity for storing plant-available water, are ideal for orchards but not for vineyards. Havelock soils, consisting of sandy loams over a clay pan, are moderately fertile and dry out rapidly.

Twyford soils (including the famously arid and free-draining soils of the Gimblett Gravels Winegrowing District, see page ??), range from stony gravels that dry out swiftly to more fertile, silty and sandy loams. Takapau soils, with a layer of fine alluvium overlying greywacke gravels, are similarly free-draining and dry.

In the past, Hawke’s Bay’s vineyards were often established on very fertile soils with a high water table, such as those between Hastings and the sea. ‘A guy would diversify by ripping out peaches and putting in vines on a site originally chosen as ideal for orchards,’ says Dr Alan Limmer of Stonecroft. ‘Those sites were only good for servicing the bulk-wine industry.’

A comprehensive regional study published in 1985 by the Hawke’s Bay Vintners stated frankly that ‘many soils on the Heretaunga Plains are quite wet and vines grow too vigorously, giving large yields of grapes with poor balance and insufficient ripeness [notably the areas of fertile silty loams having a high water table].’

Most of the expansion in the past 20 years has been on lower fertility sites, inland from Hastings, where the vines grow less vigorously, yielding lighter crops with riper, more concentrated flavours. Wines grown in these districts, including Gimblett Gravels and the Triangle, vary much less in quality from one vintage to the next than those from lesser areas.

To complicate matters, soils often vary markedly within a single vineyard (in one 8-hectare Hawke’s Bay vineyard, 17 different soil types were identified). ‘We go through our vineyards and break each block down by its soil types,’ says John Hancock of Trinity Hill. ‘Then we manage the vines on those soils differently, with more or less irrigation or shoot removal.’

How much impact do the different soils have on wine quality? In 2001, growers and winemakers at a workshop on ‘making red wine in the vineyard’ tasted a quartet of 2001 Hawke’s Bay Merlots, from vines grown in gravel and silt soils. The consensus was that, although the grapes had all been harvested with similar sugar levels, the gravels produced the most substantial, tannic and ripely flavoured wines.

A doctoral thesis by Dejan Tesic showed that the ‘soil factor’ (defined as the interaction between soil temperature, soil moisture, soil texture and rooting depth) has a significant effect on vine performance and wine quality. According to Steve Smith of Craggy Range, ‘the sites with the highest soil factor score were the Gimblett Gravels and, in the driest years, those with shallow pan soils around Havelock North and on the gentle slopes adjacent to the Tukituki River’.

Few Hawke’s Bay vineyards are in the high country, where limestone and clay are found, often clothed in volcanic ash from the Taupo eruptions. Winemakers are divided on the potential of the hills. Some are put off by their steepness and relatively high rainfall (as well as the need for hands-on viticulture and the problem of hard pans); others argue that the drainage and heat benefits from planting on hillsides are simply not needed in Hawke’s Bay.

Others are excited by the hills. Esk Valley’s steep, 1-hectare Terraces vineyard at Bay View has produced some stunningly concentrated blended reds and on its hill sites at Havelock North, Te Mata grows its finest Cabernet Sauvignon. Several other vineyards have been planted on hillsides, but rather than large developments, the prospect is for a trickle of premium quality, high-priced wines.

Hawke’s Bay’s two most important wine styles are Chardonnay and Merlot-based reds, which dominate the region’s production. The Chardonnays are fragrant, full-bodied and ripely flavoured, while retaining elegance and varietal intensity, and the top wines mature gracefully for several years.

In New Zealand, only Hawke’s Bay produces large volumes of high-quality, claret-style reds. Cabernet Sauvignon has only ripened consistently on the warmest sites in the Bay and its plantings now lag behind Merlot, but both varieties (and their blends) are producing distinguished reds.

A fast-rising star is Syrah, which ripens ahead of Cabernet Sauvignon and is yielding notably dark, aromatic, weighty and flavour-crammed wines. Arguably the most exciting red wine now being produced in Hawke’s Bay, Syrah offers great potential for the development of a distinctive New World wine style.

Hawke’s Bay’s mouthfilling, tropical fruit-flavoured, often oak-aged Sauvignon Blanc is arguably New Zealand’s most underrated wine style — the best wines show a harmony of ripeness, moderate acidity and full dryness that eludes most Marlborough versions. Some outstanding Viogniers, Gewürztraminers, Pinot Gris, botrytised Sémillons and rosés have been produced, a highly impressive Tempranillo, and there are also good examples of Chenin Blanc, Riesling, Sémillon, Pinot Noir, Gamay Noir, Malbec and bottle-fermented sparklings.

Sub-regions: From the Esk Valley in the north to central Hawke’s Bay in the south, Mangatahi and Matapiro inland to Te Awanga on the coast, the wines of Hawke’s Bay are strongly influenced by soil types, proximity to the sea and elevation. Vineyards near the coast are cooled by afternoon sea breezes, but 10 to 20 kilometres inland the more sheltered sites are significantly warmer. Further inland again, on more elevated land, the daily temperature range increases, the nights are cooler and the climate is more continental. These climatic differences, coupled with the extreme soil variation characteristic of Hawke’s Bay, produce a notably diverse array of wines, from crisp, delicate bottle-fermented sparklings to robust, richly flavoured, claret-style reds.

Of the dozen or so sub-regions (moves are currently underway to formally identify the key grapegrowing districts and define their boundaries), the most publicised in recent years has been Gimblett Gravels, at the base of Roys Hill on the outskirts of Hastings. Here, in exceptionally free-draining soils and high summer temperatures, the vines’ vigour is reduced and their typically light crops harbour ripe, concentrated flavours (see page ??). Gordon Russell, of Esk Valley Estate, views the area as ‘the ultimate spot in the Bay for Cabernet Sauvignon. It’s hot during the day, the shingles radiate the heat at night and it’s very free-draining.’

On the south side of the plains, within a roughly triangular area formed by Maraekakaho Road, State Highway 50 and Ngatarawa Road, lies the ‘Triangle’ (in the past often called the ‘Ngatarawa Triangle’, and sometimes the ‘Redmetal Triangle’ or ‘Bridge Pa Triangle’.) The soils, slightly more fertile than around Gimblett Road, have a 30–50-centimetre layer of sandy silt overlying red metal gravels. ‘Infertile, dries off’, is the succinct description of these ‘Ngatarawa sandy loam gravels’ on a Hawke’s Bay soil map from the 1930s. So well-drained are the soils that the vines are all irrigated, otherwise they would be unlikely to survive.

In the ‘Triangle’, where the grapes typically ripen four to seven days later than at Gimblett Road, according to Grant Edmonds of Sileni Estate and Redmetal Vineyards, Merlot has been the big success so far. ‘In a hot, dry season, we may perform better than Gimblett Gravels,’ says Edmonds, ‘but in a cooler year, they’ll have the advantage.’ Jenny Dobson of Te Awa Farm, who worked for a decade in Bordeaux, believes vineyards in the ‘Triangle’ yield ‘softer, rounder wines, plummy and less tannic than those from Gimblett Road’.

Te Mata Estate — Hawke’s Bay’s top-rated producer of Cabernet Sauvignon-based reds since the early 1980s — believes that the hills of Havelock North are the region’s finest Cabernet Sauvignon country. ‘They’re our hottest sites,’ says proprietor John Buck. ‘They’re angled to the sun, they don’t get frost and they’re sheltered from the south, where the coldest winds come from. We can get Cabernet Sauvignon fully ripe there eight years in 10 — as often as they do in Bordeaux.’

The Esk Valley, which runs inland from Bay View, on the coast north of Napier, is a relatively cool area. Buck refers to it as ‘Carneros-like’ (a reference to the foggy, coastal California wine region renowned for its Chardonnay and Pinot Noir). With its cooling sea breezes and relatively fertile soils, Gordon Russell sees the Esk Valley as ‘white-wine country’.

In the Dartmoor Valley, behind Taradale, vineyards are draped alongside the Tutaekuri River for many kilometres. The sandy, silty soils have yielded some very fine Chardonnay, but ‘it’s generally too wet in autumn for top reds,’ according to Steve Smith of Craggy Range. At Moteo, near the village of Puketapu, Pernod Ricard NZ planted its McDonald Estate in Chardonnay, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon. Te Mata has planted mainly Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc in its Woodthorpe Terraces vineyard, with Merlot the principal red variety.

Along State Highway 50, from Fernhill to Taradale, where Pernod Ricard NZ has its extensive Korokipo Estate and Fernhill Estate plantings, the silt loam soils suit white-wine grapes, according to viticulturist Jim Hamilton. Closer to the sea, the heavy, high-fertility soils at Meeanee are not well suited to quality viticulture. At Te Awanga, right on the coast, afternoon sea breezes cool the vineyards, preserving the grapes’ aromatics and favouring earlier-ripening varieties, such as Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Merlot.

In the inland, elevated Mangatahi sub-region, about 100 metres above sea level, where Morton Estate has its famous Riverview vineyard, temperatures at night are markedly lower and the grapes are usually harvested 10 days later than at Maraekakaho. A relatively frost-prone area with stony river terraces, Mangatahi has produced brilliant Chardonnay and high hopes are held for Pinot Gris. On the other side of the Ngaruroro River, the Crownthorpe district (site of Pernod Ricard NZ’s Matapiro vineyard) is proving ideally suited to crisp, aromatic white wines, including Sauvignon Blanc.

An hour’s drive south of the plains, small plots of vines have been established at Waipukurau and Takapau, in central Hawke’s Bay. Montana reputedly came close at buying land here in the early 1970s, before investing in Marlborough. These inland, high-altitude (300 metres above sea level) vineyards are yielding a trickle of racy, high-acid white wines and fresh, appley, lively bottle-fermented sparklings. Pinot Noir is a possibility.

Principal grape varieties: Chardonnay, Merlot, Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris, Syrah, Cabernet Franc, Malbec, Gewürztraminer

Wairarapa

The Wairarapa is a small wine region with a big reputation. If you mention the Wairarapa to most wine buffs, the first thing they think about is Martinborough Pinot Noir. Yet there’s far more to Martinborough wine than Pinot Noir — and a lot more to the Wairarapa than Martinborough.

Farms run up and over the hills that flank the Wairarapa Plains. To the west lie the rugged, bush-tangled slopes of the Rimutaka and Tararua ranges. Between the plains — where the vineyards are clustered — and the east coast is rolling country, ascending in the south-east to the steep but not high Aorangi Mountains, on the edge of Cook Strait. The major river system is the Ruamahanga, which flows from the Tararuas down the eastern side of the plains, entering the sea south of Martinborough, at Lake Ferry.

The Wairarapa’s first vineyards of the modern era were clustered in and around Martinborough, but planting has since spread south of the township to Te Muna Road, further north to the Gladstone and East Taratahi areas, near Masterton, and even further north to Opaki. (Not in the Wairarapa at all, but to the west, on the Kapiti Coast, there are also growers at Te Horo, where for many years Te Horo Vineyards and Monarch Wines produced a trickle of idiosyncratic, occasionally good wine.)

The Wairarapa is a region of mostly tiny vineyards; its consistently small crops deter the big wine companies from investing. Only 3 per cent of New Zealand’s vines are planted in the region, and from the 2007 vintage, the Wairarapa’s 57 companies produced an average of just 2500 cases of wine.

The Wairarapa enjoys long sunshine hours during summer and warm temperatures, reaching over 25°C in sheltered inland areas of the plains. The Rimutaka and Tararua ranges provide some shelter from the strong, warm, north-westerly winds which prevail in spring and summer. East of the ranges, the rainfall declines steeply and droughts and dry spells are common. Southerly or south-easterly winds, forced to rise over the ranges, are the main rain-bearers.

Shallow silt loams with gravelly sub-soils are a prized asset of the Martinborough Terrace, although deep, imperfectly drained soils just south of the terrace are less suitable for viticulture. The vineyards in the East Taratahi/Dakins Road district are planted on river terraces with free-draining, stony silt loams.

The Wairarapa is the driest and coolest of the North Island’s wine regions, but slightly warmer than Marlborough. The result: wines that show the flavour intensity and tangy acidity typical of Marlborough, yet also some of the sturdiness and warmth associated with Hawke’s Bay.

Pinot Noir has been the great success story in the Wairarapa, yielding sturdy, warm, richly flavoured wines with pronounced varietal character and the ability to mature well. The finest Sauvignon Blancs are strikingly scented, vibrantly fruity and intense, and this versatile region has also produced some top-flight Riesling, Chardonnay, Pinot Gris and Gewürztraminer (plus very promising Syrah and even a solitary, outstanding blend of Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc, from Benfield & Delamare).

Principal grape varieties: Pinot Noir, Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Pinot Gris, Riesling, Cabernet Sauvignon

Sub-regions: At first, most of the Wairarapa’s vineyards were clustered around the small town of Martinborough, but the latest developments are further afield. In Te Muna Road, 5 kilometres south of the township, substantial vineyards have been planted on gravelly, free-draining soils similar to those in Martinborough itself. Vines are also sprouting 45 minutes’ drive up the Wairarapa Valley, to the south and north of Masterton. In a district variously known as East Taratahi or Dakins Road, hundreds of hectares of vines have been planted on terraces above the Ruamahanga River, which meanders down the valley to Martinborough.

Nelson

Overshadowed by Marlborough’s glamorous, bustling industry over the hills to the south-east, for many years Nelson wine was dominated by two producers: the pioneering, middle-sized Seifried Estate and the small but brilliant Neudorf Vineyards. After a flurry of plantings over the past 15 years, Nelson still has only 3 per cent of the country’s vineyard area, but it consistently produces a greater volume of wine than the other small regions and boutique wineries are mushrooming, with some creating truly exciting wines.

Nelson has some of the most stunning vineyard settings in the country. High land prices, a shortage of large holdings suitable for viticulture and the region’s distance from key transport routes in the past slowed the spread of vineyards. Lately, the plunging profitability of apple-growing — orcharding was for long a mainstay of the Nelson economy — and the growing scarcity of suitable land in Marlborough have stimulated a surge of vine planting. Between 1997 and 2007, the number of wine producers in Nelson rose from 15 to 28.

Nelson’s topography accounts for its temperate, mild and sunny climate. Mountain ranges to the west, south and east protect it from weather extremes. The Tasman Mountains to the west, climbing to 1775 metres, act as a barrier to the prevailing westerly winds, and ranges to the south and east protect the region from cold weather systems.

Close to the sea, and less windy than most parts of the country, Nelson has a calmer, more temperate climate than most parts of the South Island. On a typical summer’s day, temperatures peak at around 25°C, with an overnight low of 14°C. Nelson is often called ‘the sunshine capital of New Zealand’, a title for which it vies with Blenheim.

Frosts are rare after mid-October, but the region’s advantages for viticulture are reduced by the risk of damaging autumn rains as harvest approaches. In this respect, Nelson parallels most of the northern wine regions more closely than other parts of the South Island.

Rainfall during the October–April growing season is much higher than in Marlborough, exceeds Hawke’s Bay and even matches Gisborne. According to Fruitfed Supplies, ‘Nelson is among New Zealand’s most botrytis-susceptible viticultural areas, due to its relatively high rainfall and warm climate.’

The gravelly silt loams of the Waimea Plains are in many ways similar to Marlborough, although their higher clay content gives greater water-holding capacity. The clay-based soils of the Upper Moutere hill country contrast with the lighter soils found on the flats.

Nelson’s wine identity has not been aided by the fact it does not have a dominant wine style, along the lines of Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc or Central Otago Pinot Noir. A versatile region, it is succeeding with several varieties. Sauvignon Blanc from the Waimea Plains can be distinctly Marlborough-like, and Riesling and Chardonnay perform strongly throughout the region. Some highly aromatic, richly flavoured Gewürztraminers and Pinot Gris are also produced, and Pinot Noir is yielding superb wines at Upper Moutere and on the edge of the plains in heavier, clay-based soils at the base of the hills.

Sub-regions: The majority of Nelson’s vineyards are on the flat, silty Waimea Plains, south-west of the city, but there are also extensive plantings in the Upper Moutere hills. Wines from less elevated parts of the plains tend to be aromatic, light and fresh, with vivid varietal characters, while those from the hill-country clays are weighty, rich-flavoured and often distinctly minerally. Vines are also expanding to the north-west, into the rich, alluvial soils at Motueka, where Torrent Bay, Nelson’s first contract winemaking facility, opened for the 2008 vintage. There are also tiny producers 60 kilometres north-west of Nelson city, near Takaka, in Golden Bay.

Principal grape varieties: Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Pinot Gris, Riesling.

Marlborough

Sheer youthfulness is the striking feature of the Marlborough wine scene. In geological terms, the Wairau Plains is a very young landform — most of the soils were laid down within the last 14,000 years — and since Montana harvested its first grapes in 1976, just 33 vintages have passed. Yet with Sauvignon Blanc, one of the world’s few classic grape varieties, Marlborough has wrested the crown from French hands.

With 13,811 hectares of bearing vines in 2008, Marlborough is by far the country’s most heavily planted wine region. Its wine trail features some of the great names of New Zealand wine, including Montana, Cloudy Bay, Hunter’s, Oyster Bay, Villa Maria, Saint Clair and Wither Hills, and Marlborough enjoys a far higher international profile than any other New Zealand region. Hugh Johnson, the great British wine writer, has summed up Marlborough’s key claim to fame: ‘No region on earth can match the pungency of its best Sauvignon Blanc.’

Marlborough, the north-eastern edge of the South Island, contains the inland Kaikoura Ranges, which reach an elevation approaching 3000 metres. Rugged mountains and snow-fed rivers make up the great expanse of Marlborough, with farms and pine forests extending far up the valleys, deep into the high country. The Wairau River, draining the ranges of silt and gravel, descends from the back country to the Wairau Plains, where Pernod Ricard NZ and a host of others have planted the majority of their vines. The original grape plantings were on the southern fringes of the Wairau Plains, but vines have since spread north to the stony river flats of the Rapaura district, west to the Waihopai and upper Wairau valleys, east to the coast, south into the Awatere Valley, and recently even further south, to Blind River, Tetley Brook and down to the Ure Valley, half-way between Blenheim and Kaikoura.

Prior to human settlement, the Wairau Plains was a vast swampland, periodically inundated by floodwaters from the Wairau River and its tributaries and covered in flax, raupo, toetoe and cabbage trees. Maori were attracted by the eels and birds of the lagoons, by the plentiful sunshine for cultivating kumara, and by the area’s closeness to the fisheries and forests of the Marlborough Sounds.

During the nineteenth century, in order to create dry land for settlement the swamps were drained and the rivers were stopbanked, channelled and diverted. In 1848 E.D. Sweet was the first European to settle with his family in the Wairau Valley, and by 1855 the town of Blenheim (then known as ‘the Beaver’, because it was originally built on stilts), was starting to take shape. Sheep early inhabited the Wairau Plains and later mixed farming, apples, olives and cherries flourished. Today, the sheep farms and orchards are in retreat and marching across the pebbly, pancake-flat plains are endless rows of vines.

At the end of a typically hot and sun-baked day, I dined at a friend’s house in the upper Awatere Valley. It was the last day of January. Around midnight, I stepped out into the darkness — and an important lesson on Marlborough’s grapegrowing climate. On this perfect mid-summer night, it was freezing.

Isolated by high mountain ranges, Marlborough has one of New Zealand’s sunniest and driest climates. The Marlborough Sounds provide some protection from north-westerly gales, the Kaikoura Ranges block cold southerlies and the North Island shelters the region from north-easterly storms. The cities of Blenheim and Nelson are long-term rivals for the title of New Zealand’s sunshine capital.

Marlborough’s sunny but not excessively hot climate gives the grapes a long, slow period of ripening. The average daily maximum temperature during summer is nearly 24°C, but clear, cold nights keep acid levels high in the grapes, even when their sugars are rising swiftly. The region’s marked diurnal variations of temperature (at least 10°C, on most days) are a crucial climatic influence, retaining the grapes’ fresh, vibrant fruit characters, promoting the retention of crisp, herbal characters in Sauvignon Blanc and enhancing colour development in the skins of Pinot Noir.

During summer, easterly sea breezes frequently cool the vineyards from mid-morning until early evening. The prevailing north-westerly winds bring much of the region’s rain, but Marlborough is also regularly swept by hot, dry nor’westers, which by putting extreme transpiration demands on the vines force them to shut down, stopping their photosynthesis and fruit ripening. So much water is lost by the region’s land and plants under extreme north-westerly conditions, most vineyard owners install a trickle irrigation system.

Due to Marlborough’s location east of the Main Divide, the vines are cultivated in a significant rain shadow area. Summer droughts are common and in autumn the pre-harvest weather is more reliably dry than in most North Island regions, although in some years autumn rain is a problem. Humidity levels, slightly lower at Blenheim than at Auckland or Christchurch, are highest near the coast. Botrytis bunch rot poses a challenge in rainy seasons, but is generally less of a threat than in the wetter regions of the north.

Frosts are a danger, having been recorded at Blenheim as early as 28 March and as late as 1 November. In November 2000, some vineyards in low-lying areas of the Fairhall and Waihopai valleys lost their entire crop. A heavy frost in the autumn of 1990 turned the Wairau Valley black overnight, cutting the ripening season short by three weeks. The frost risk is highest away from the river, on the south side of the Wairau Valley.

During the past two million years, glaciers in the high country eroded masses of rock debris, later carried down to the coast by melt-water rivers. As the Wairau River snaked from north to south across the Wairau Valley and its developing plain, the finer particles were separated from the deposits, leaving strips of gravel in the old river channels.

Along Rapaura Road, shallow, stony ‘Rapaura Series’ soils of low to moderate fertility exist side by side with deep, sandy loams (‘Wairau Series’) possessing far greater water-holding capacity. In the middle of the Wairau Valley are substantial areas of shallow, stony ‘Awatere Series’ soils, and the south side has extensive areas of deep ‘Wairau Series, Mottled Phase’ soils, including sandy loams and silt loams over very stony layers. In the Awatere Valley, the most common soils are ‘Dashwood gravelly silt loams’ and deep, free-draining ‘Seddon silt loams’.

Not all the soil types suit viticulture. Large areas of deep silt loams are very fertile, with a high water-storage capacity. The preferred sites are of lower fertility, with noticeably stony, sandy loam topsoil overlying deep layers of free-draining shingle with sand infilling. These shallow, stony soils reduce the vines’ vigour by improving drainage and reducing the soil’s fertility.

Marlborough’s keynote wine is its famous Sauvignon Blanc, which can simply explode with ripely herbal aromas and flavours, garden-fresh and zingy. For sheer leap-out-of-the-glass intensity, very few wines, from anywhere, can match it.

That Sauvignon Blanc thrives in Marlborough’s coolness was demonstrated nearly 30 years ago by Montana. Winemakers are now eagerly exploring the effects of the region’s individual terroirs. Pernod Ricard NZ views the Rapaura district as producing Sauvignon Blancs with ‘tropical’ flavours; the Brancott Valley as yielding more ‘herbaceous’ characters; and the Awatere Valley wines as having ‘a distinctive flavour our winemakers describe as “tomato stalk”’.

Riesling is another long-term success: scented, crisp and lively, with strong citrus/lime varietal characters. The Chardonnays are leaner and less opulent than the top North Island wines in their infancy, but compensate with excellent freshness, vigour and acid spine, and the finest wines mature gracefully for several years.

James Healy, of Dog Point Vineyard, believes that Marlborough is ideal for ‘any variety where fruit intensity is a key part of its makeup, such as Sauvignon Blanc, Gewürztraminer and Pinot Noir. However, it is less suitable for grapes such as Chardonnay, Pinot Gris, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, where texture or tannin ripeness is really important.’

Most of New Zealand’s top bottle-fermented sparkling wines and botrytised sweet Rieslings flow from the region. The climate is too cool to consistently ripen Cabernet Sauvignon and the Merlots are typically green-edged, but over the past decade Marlborough has emerged as New Zealand’s most important region for Pinot Noir, in terms of the large volumes produced — half of the country’s total Pinot Noir output — and the superb, show-stopping quality of the top wines. Pinot Noir grown on shingly sites is concentrated and tannic, contrasting with a more floral and supple style from soils with a higher clay content.

Sub-regions: The majority of Marlborough’s wine still flows from the Wairau Valley, where Montana planted its first vines in 1973. Thirteen years later, viticulture spread south-east into the smaller, slightly cooler Awatere Valley, now heavily planted. When the supply of available land in the Wairau Valley dried up between Blenheim and Renwick, vines expanded into the upper reaches of the Wairau Valley and its southern side valleys (Brancott, Omaka and Waihopai); to Kaituna, on the north side of the Wairau River; and out to the coast, at Marshlands and Rarangi.

Principal grape varieties: Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Pinot Gris, Riesling, Merlot, Gewürztraminer, Sémillon

Canterbury

According to the late humorist A.K. Grant, ‘Canterbury is coming to be symbolised not just by its [rugby] colours, which are red and black, but by its wines, which are red and white.’

Canterbury is New Zealand’s fifth largest wine region. From Kaikoura in the north to south-west of Timaru, Canterbury has over 5 per cent of New Zealand’s total vineyard area (more than the Auckland, Wairarapa or Nelson regions) and nearly 10 per cent of its wine producers. From 35 hectares in 1986, plantings have expanded steadily, reaching 325 hectares in 1995 and 1436 hectares of bearing vines in 2008.

The Canterbury Plains are the most extensive lowlands in New Zealand. Crossed by wide, braided rivers flowing to the east from the high peaks inland, they were originally clothed in tussock rather than dense forest, so were settled early and farmed for lamb and grain. The rolling downlands of North and South Canterbury and the steep, volcanic hills of Banks Peninsula add diversity to the landscape.

The highly dispersed nature of the region — with vineyards up to 300 kilometres apart — has hampered the development of a cohesive Canterbury wine image. The winegrowers of Waipara, in North Canterbury, tend to carefully distance themselves from the older wine industry near Christchurch.

‘Low rainfall, drying winds and droughty soils’ is how R. Mayhill and H. Bawden, co-authors of New Zealand Geography, summed up Canterbury’s climate and soils. With an average of 2000 hours of sunshine per year, Christchurch has a moderately sunny climate. During summer, temperatures often exceed 25°C, but fronts moving up the east coast also bring cold, subantarctic air.

Commercial viticulture on the Canterbury Plains is more challenging than in regions further north, because in cool seasons there may be insufficient heat to bring the grapes to full ripeness. However, in terms of temperatures over the growing season, the vineyards at Waipara are more comparable to those in Marlborough. (North Canterbury winegrowers like to describe the difference in temperatures between Waipara and the Canterbury Plains on any particular day as: ‘There’s a jersey in it.’)

Cooling sea breezes penetrate large areas of the plains from the east. After losing most of their moisture in the Southern Alps, hot north-westerly winds blast Canterbury, drying out the soils. Droughts are common and in many vineyards irrigation is essential. Canterbury, however, enjoys one crucial advantage over most North Island wine-growing regions — low rainfall. During Canterbury’s long dry autumns, the warm days and cool nights enable the fruit to ripen slowly, with high levels of acidity and extract.

The key distinction in Waipara is between the gravelly deposits close to the Waipara River, and the heavier, limestone-derived clays on the hills on the east side of the valley. Across the Canterbury Plains, most of the soils are shallow, stony and very free-draining, with varying depths of fine alluvial material over gravels.

Pinot Noir, Sauvignon Blanc and Riesling dominate plantings in Canterbury, backed up by Pinot Gris and Chardonnay. Sauvignon Blanc is common at Waipara, even outstripping Pinot Noir in terms of vineyard area, but is not widely planted on the plains. By far the biggest plantings of Pinot Gris and Riesling are also in Waipara. Pinot Noir and Riesling are Canterbury’s most distinguished wines. During the mid-to-late 1980s, the rich, spicy and honeyed Robard & Butler Amberley Riesling (grown at Waipara and from 1993 sold under the Corbans Private Bin label) proved the region’s ability to produce top-flight Riesling. Canterbury Rieslings are typically scented and light-bodied, with strong lemon/lime flavours and racy acidity. Many of the region’s early Pinot Noirs lacked real ripeness and depth, but the arrival of new, improved clones and reduced crop levels have produced a modern breed of far richer and rounder Canterbury Pinot Noirs, mostly from Waipara, that rank among the greatest in the country.

Sub-regions: Canterbury’s vineyards and wineries are clustered in two principal zones: the pancake-flat plains surrounding Christchurch; and an hour’s drive north, at Waipara, where nearly 80 per cent of the region’s plantings are now located. Hot, dry nor’westers buffet vineyards in both areas, but the North Canterbury vineyards are protected from the province’s cooling coastal breezes by the Teviotdale Hills to the east. You can taste the difference in ripening conditions: the wines from the south are typically leaner and more racy; those from Waipara are more robust and rounder.

Principal grape varieties: Pinot Noir, Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling, Pinot Gris, Chardonnay

Otago

Central Otago dominates Otago’s wine industry, but vines are also now sprouting in the Waitaki Valley, in North Otago. The Waitaki River marks the provincial boundary between Otago and Canterbury.

Over 100 hectares of vineyards have been established on north-facing slopes in the Waitaki Valley, and further significant plantings are likely. The initial flurry of activity was between Kurow and Duntroon, but planting has since extended further inland (and also into the Hakataramea Valley, across the Waitaki River from Kurow, in South Canterbury.)

The push southwards of viticulture is unrelenting. At Waitati, north of Dunedin, within the city boundaries, Malcolm and Helena Sims have planted a vineyard at Dons Creek, overlooking Blueskin Bay. Their first full crop of grapes is expected in 2010.

 

North Otago/Waitaki Valley

The Waitaki River (also known as ‘the tears of Aorangi’), drains Lakes Tekapo, Ohau and Pukaki, before flowing through the Benmore, Aviemore and Waitaki power stations on its long journey to the sea, north of Oamaru. One of the South Island’s great braided rivers, well stocked with trout and salmon, it slices through vast stretches of wool-growing country, with dairy farms and orchards flourishing along its banks for the past 25 years.

‘Major Plan for Vineyard Unveiled’, trumpeted the front page of the Otago Daily Times on 5 December 2000, announcing the purchase of ‘up to 2000 hectares’ of farmland east of Kurow, to be planted for the most part in Pinot Noir. An unnamed spokesman for an unnamed company linked to Howard Paterson predicted this would make the Waitaki Valley ‘the third or fourth largest grapegrowing area in New Zealand by 2003’.

Often described as the richest man in the South Island, who made his fortune by ‘converting land to its highest economic use’, Paterson died in 2003, but earlier he and his partner, Auckland investment banker Stephen Cozens, had secured contracts over much of the suitable grapegrowing land. Colin Reynolds, the founder of Chase Corporation, a listed property development company which crashed in 1989, was brought in to assist with the development of the project.

The largest grapegrowing venture in the valley has been the 255-hectare Waitaki Valley Estates subdivision at Otiake, between Kurow and Duntroon. Many of the blocks were sold to wine companies and other investors.

Prevailing north-westerly winds warm the valley, but when cool easterlies funnel in from the coast in the afternoon, temperatures can drop. ‘We have more of a maritime than a continental climate here,’ says viticulturist Geoff Turner.

‘The Upper Waitaki Valley mesoclimate is mainly influenced by the narrowing of the valley below Duntroon,’ says viticulturist Steve Harrop. ‘This funnel keeps the air constantly moving, reducing the incidence of ground or air frosts.’

‘For the hottest sites,’ says viticultural consultant Dr David Jordan, ‘I estimate the total heat accumulation to be about 920–940 Growing Degree Days (where the Cromwell figure would be about 1010 GDD). This is most suitable for successful commercial grapegrowing.’

According to Greg Hay, of Peregrine Wines in Central Otago, ‘the Waitaki sites are warmer than Central Otago from October to December, slightly cooler in January and February, and then warmer again in the critical ripening period of March–April. With the cooler January and February preventing fruit coming in too early, before physiological ripening has occurred, this ability to keep ripening at a slow rate during autumn will be a huge advantage.’

However, there are real risks. Prospects of a normal crop in 2007 were crippled by ‘the constant south-easterly throughout the December and January flowering period’, reports winemaker John Forrest, who ended up harvesting nothing. Frosts at the start and finish of the growing season are a danger at many sites. Winemaker Michelle Richardson describes the Waitaki Valley as ‘not the easiest place to grow grapes’.

Limestone soils — quite different from Central Otago’s slate and schist — help to create a distinctive terroir. The terrace underlying the Waitaki Valley Estates subdivision is a large alluvial fan, where gravel soils have been loaded with limestone washed from chalk ridges to the east and west.

The Pinot Noirs from the Waitaki Valley are floral and supple, with cherry, plum and spice flavours woven with fresh acidity and often a distinctly herbal note. There are those who believe the valley’s reputation will ultimately be based on its aromatic white wines — Ostler’s deliciously rich 2006 Audrey’s Pinot Gris supports the case.

 

Central Otago

Is it the romantic pull of living in such a lovely, lonely and lofty landscape? The pioneering urge or even mundane economic factors, such as the availability of large blocks of land? Or the proof in the glass of those seductively perfumed, buoyantly fruity and supple Pinot Noirs?

For these and other reasons, Central Otago has been the country’s fastest-expanding wine region over the past decade, with a 625 per cent leap in the bearing vineyard area between 1998 and 2008. With 1526 hectares of producing vines (some unofficial estimates went much higher), Otago (including North Otago) ranked as New Zealand’s fourth-largest wine-growing region, ahead of Canterbury, the Wairarapa, Nelson and Auckland. On Central Otago’s arid, tawny ranges, pastoral sheep farming — especially for fine merino wool — has long been the foundation of the economy, but the region is also acclaimed for its stone-fruit: apricots, nectarines, peaches, cherries and plums.

‘Central Otago means many things to many people,’ the Central Otago Winegrowers Association admits, ‘and there is no legal definition of what constitutes the area.’ They advocate using the territorial boundaries of the Central Otago District Council (which includes the Cromwell Basin and Alexandra), and the Queenstown Lakes District Council (including Wanaka and Gibbston). The four distinct viticultural sub-regions of Wanaka, Gibbston, Cromwell Basin and Alexandra are discussed separately here. There are also experimental vineyards in the south-west, at Te Anau, in Southland.

At 45° south, Central Otago’s vines are cultivated in the world’s southernmost wine region. At 200 to over 450 metres above sea level, Central Otago is also the country’s highest wine region and the furthest inland.

In the semi-continental climate, the daily and seasonal temperature variations are greater than further north. This is a region of climatic extremes — the country’s highest (38.7°C) and lowest (–21.6°C) temperatures were both recorded near Alexandra. The marked diurnal (day/night) temperature swings (11 to 15°C in the major winegrowing valleys) are believed to enhance the grapes’ flavour and colour intensity. Summers are typically hot (with temperatures often soaring to 30–35°C), dry and short; autumns cool and dry, with clear, cold nights; and winters icy, with snow often covering the vines.

The ‘heat summation’ figures for most parts of Central Otago (see below) are low for commercial winegrowing, and spring (especially late November) and autumn frosts are a constant threat. Site selection is therefore of major importance. In such a relatively cool viticultural region, a warm and sunny, north-facing slope with a low frost risk is a critical asset.

Sunshine hours exceed 2000 per year, although the basins can lose up to two hours of sun daily, due to the obstruction from surrounding mountains. However, solar radiation levels are higher in Central Otago than in northern winegrowing zones in Europe, as the earth is closer to the sun during the southern growing season.

The winds on the valley floors, mostly from the south-west and north-east, are strongly influenced by the mountains. The northwest, föhn wind, which results in spectacular cloud formations, can be very strong and destructive.

Much of Central Otago is semi-arid. Rainfall is spread fairly evenly through the year, with severe soil moisture deficits during the growing season. Dry autumn weather (especially in the east) is a key viticultural asset, encouraging the winemakers to leave their grapes late on the vines, often into May, to ripen undamaged by autumn rains. Due to the relatively low humidity (declining from approximately 65 per cent in the morning to 30 per cent in the afternoon), there is a low risk of fungal diseases and ‘noble rot’ is rare.

From broken schist and clays to heavy silt loams, gravels and light sands, Central Otago’s vines are planted in a wide range of soils. Most have stony sub-soils, which promotes good drainage; irrigation is essential, at least when the vines are young. Schist is the major bedrock, with smaller areas of greywacke. The Central Otago Winegrowers Association describes the region’s soils as ‘low in vigour but high in mineral richness’ Built up by glacial outwash, mixed by the rivers and wind-blown, the soils’ impact on wine styles is only beginning to be understood.

Central Otago grapes often attain high sugar levels while retaining high acidity. The region’s greatest wines are its arrestingly perfumed, seductively rich and supple Pinot Noirs. The warmer sub-regions, notably the Cromwell Basin, yield reds with ripe plum/spice flavours, while those from the cooler, higher sub-regions have a hint of dried herbs. Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Gewürztraminer have shown some potential, but the best white wines are the fresh, intensely aromatic, appetisingly crisp Rieslings and vibrant, citrusy and spicy Pinot Gris. The high acid levels of the region’s grapes also points to a strong future in bottle-fermented sparklings.

Sub-regions: Far from being a small, homogeneous wine region, Central Otago’s vineyards are far-flung. The Mount Maude vineyard at Lake Wanaka lies 100 kilometres north of Black Ridge at Alexandra. Another 75 kilometres of mountains and gorges divide the most westerly plantings at Lake Hayes, near Queenstown, from Alexandra in the south-east. Over two-thirds of the region’s vines are clustered in the Cromwell Basin.

Principal grape varieties: Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris, Chardonnay, Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc