Of all things, it was a gold rush that complicated New Zealand’s winemaking journey. Though British transplant and “father of New Zealand wine” James Busby brought vines to the country in the 1830s and and there were Roman Catholic missionary-run wineries by the 1850s, the discovery of gold in the 1860s swept up the attention — and land — of New Zealanders with a fury just as ferocious as the one Americans had experienced 10 years before in California. It took another hundred years before New Zealanders rediscovered that fruit-based treasure, and their winemaking didn’t gain international acclaim until the 1990s. But unlike the search for gold, it doesn’t look like peak wine will hit Kiwis any time soon.
The opposite, in fact. New Zealand’s 11 wine regions are growing in popularity; wine is now one of the country’s top ten exports. Certainly sauvignon blanc, the country’s mainstay wine, is to thank for that. But more exciting for wine drinkers worldwide is the growth of other styles — syrahs, chardonnays, reislings and especially pinot noirs — within vineyards that are focused on biodynamic, renewable growing. These are some of the best the Kiwis have to offer from both the North and South islands.
Hawke’s Bay: Taizo Osawa, a Japanese civil engineer who loved wine, decided to travel to America, Australia and New Zealand to choose a place to start his own winery. He ended up at a sheep farm in Hawke’s Bay, on the east side of the North Island, where he planted his first vines in 2006. With the help of Rod McDonald, named New Zealand’s winemaker of the year in 2006, Osawa has established a fine winery with 11 varieties; the most renowned are their pinot noir (cherry, strawberry, brown spices) and chardonnay (bright and creamy).
Hawkes Bay: Trinity Hill’s concrete compound-esque design have borne architectural awards, and the winery’s location in the former bed of the Ngaruroro River have borne it great wines. It’s another of the Hawkes Bay’s biggest names, and packed with wine industry veterans producing a wide range of varietals that show the region’s great range. If you have to choose, go for a chardonnay, cab blend or syrah.
Central Otago: Rippon is an unusual vineyard. It’s situated in the southernmost wine growing region in the world, Central Otago, and produces organic wines using biodynamic processes, which rejects chemical fertilizer and pesticides and relies on a holistic understanding of wine agriculture. Central Otago is known for its pinot noir, and Rippon makes some of the best, along with a bright riesling and an osteiner — a refreshing and rare varietal.
Burn Cottage Vineyard
Central Otago: In the quality of its pinot noir, the Burn Cottage Vineyard is very much like other Central Otago wineries, but its American owners’ heritage in Kansas farming and Colorado bar ownership is not. Nor was its decision to run entirely biodynamic in 1990; nor is its label artwork, which features characters from a Goethe poem and is reminiscent of American craft beer. The 10-hectare vineyard is situated alongside a 20-hectare farm filled with highland cattle, sheep and an olive grove, all of which lend a hand for fertilizer.
Marlborough: Its name comes from New Zealand’s most common sandstone, found aplenty by owners Kevin and Kimberly Judd in the soil of the vineyards where they source their grapes in Marlborough, where 73 percent of the country’s wine is produced. But the stony soil has borne great fruit, in particular the sauvignon blanc that was for so long synonymous with New Zealand wine; they also make a “wild sauvignon” using wild yeast that tastes of “thyme and toasted sesame”.
Marlborough: Founder and winemaker John Belsham has what you’d call a resume: he learned wine in Bordeaux, then returned to his native New Zealand and fostered great winemaking (and wine consulting) for years before opening Foxes Island in 1992. What began with a single chardonnay vintage expanded to include the area’s biggest new star, pinot noir, which now takes up 70 percent of the vineyard’s plantings, and a top-rated reisling.
Marlborough: Hans and Therese Herzog were well-established winemakers in their native Switzerland before they decided to make the jump to New Zealand in 1990. Their pinot noir, merlot-cabernet sauvignon and Montepulciano are all rated five stars, which they credit to low-yield, non-interventional winemaking. Drink them in the winery’s Michelin-starred restaurant and bistro during an exorbitant but memorable three- or five-course dinner.
Nelson: One of New Zealand’s smallest wine regions is also one of its most beautiful, nestled in the sunny, central north of the South Island. A day of driving gets visitors to most of the region’s best wineries — and Neudorf is a must. Its owners, Tim and Judy Finn, began work on their winery in 1978 and built the first structure (described as an “elegant shed”) by hand in 1980; today they host concerts in the backyard. High points at their cellar door store are the pinot noir (they say it’s on the “European edge” of New Zealand’s pinot’s) and a complex, subtle chardonnay that thrives in the gentle sunshine of the Nelson hills.
Canterbury: Opened in 1997, Bell Hill was the first NZ vineyard outside of Central Otago and Marlborough to receive a five-star score in the Great New Zealand Pinot Noir Classification. That cemented Canterbury’s place as a great region, and Bell Hill’s as a powerhouse; it’s also vindicated their approach, which focuses solely on pinot noirs and chardonnays.
Martinborough, Wairarapa: Palliser’s been making wine in the well-regarded town of Martinborough since 1989, making it a veteran in the industry. The estate includes conference facilities and a small cooking school, but those only complement the wines: award-winning pinot noirs and chardonnays, plus a beautiful sparkling Methode Traditionnelle made of a 51/49 percent blend of the two, respectively.