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New Zealand Wine, the rising stars of the South Island

Gillian Arthur

When most people think of New Zealand, wine is not the first thing that springs to mind. This is hardly surprising as New Zealand's entry onto the world wine stage is a fairly recent if meteoric event. Commercial vineyards were only planted in the South Island in 1973 and up until the 1950's virtually no-one in New Zealand drank wine except European immigrants. The national drink was considered to be tea or beer. However, times have changed and what New Zealand's wine industry lacks in history it more than makes up for in quality.

Two regions and two particular wines in New Zealand epitomize this meteoric rise to fame:

  • Marlborough and Sauvignon Blanc
  • Central Otago and Pinot Noir

It was the former that really put New Zealand on the world wine map and most particularly the wines of one vineyard; Cloudy Bay.

Marlborough and Sauvignon Blanc

Marlborough lies at the north-eastern tip of the South Island and enjoys a maritime climate. It is the biggest of New Zealand's wine producing regions and is expanding at an exponential rate to keep up with the ever-growing international demand. Vines were originally planted here in 1973 by Montana, one of New Zealand's biggest wine companies who established the first commercial vineyard. Since then there has been a steady expansion with total area under vine set to double over the next ten years.

Marlborough rocketed to fame in 1985 when Cloudy Bay's Sauvignon Blanc attracted international attention. Sauvignon Blanc is the regions best known and most widely planted varietal. It produces highly distinctive wines that are quite different to Sauvignon Blanc produced in other parts of the world. Fragrant and fruity with a distinctive gooseberry, tropical fruit nose the wine is generally vinified entirely in stainless steel without any addition of oak which enhances the wine's fresh fruity characteristics. These are wines made to be drunk young; within two years of vintage. Sauvignon Blanc seems to have a natural affinity with the Marlborough region and the wines produced here are quite unique.

Marlborough also produces good Chardonnay, usually barrel-fermented, to give the distinctive buttery characteristics of oak-aged Chardonnay. A small percentage of these grapes are used for an emerging sparkling wine production. Riesling also does well here particularly in its botrytis form (noble rot) producing sweet wines of great character known locally as "stickies". The latest arrival on the New Zealand wine scene is Pinot Gris which seems set to be the new fashionable grape in Marlborough. Quality at this stage would seem to variable but time will tell.

Wineries in Marlborough area worth visiting are Huia which is named for the now extinct Huia bird and produces hand-crafted wines of great character- particularly the Chardonnay, Riesling and Pinot Noir are outstanding. Seresin is a small organic winery making top quality Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Riesling. Highfield Estate is a little piece of Tuscany in the Blenheim hills, good wines and an excellent restaurant. Lawsons Dry Hills produces a wide range of reasonably priced wines and Fromm is a Swiss-owned winery that specialises in red wine notably Pinot Noir.

Central Otago and Pinot Noir

The other region making the headlines is Central Otago, located in the south of the south island and the only wine region in New Zealand that enjoys a continental climate. These are the most southerly vineyards in the world, some of which are located south of the 45th parallel. This means greater diurnal temperature variation and high seasonal temperature fluctuation. Both of these factors contribute to the intensity of the fruit flavors found in the wines produced here.

Central Otago accounts for only 5% of the country's vineyards managed by a handful of producers although this is changing rapidly. Vineyards are being planted at an astounding rate with producers like Felton Road aiming to triple their production in the next five years. Most of the producers here have very small areas under production and produce tiny quantities for the boutique end of the wine market.

In general yields are very low less than six tons per hectare which results in intense full flavored wines that command prices accordingly - there are no cheap wines here. In particular Pinot Noir has done for this area what Sauvignon Blanc has done for Marlborough. This difficult, disease-prone vine which is difficult to grow and whose wine so often disappoints seems to thrive in the dry moonscape of the Cromwell basin producing stunning wines of great concentration. For many wine growers Pinot Noir has come to represent the ultimate challenge in wine making, the winemaker's holy grail. What is even more remarkable is that, although Pinot Noir has only been produced here for around ten years, Central Otago has already become one of the most successful areas for Pinot Noir in the world. These wines can comfortably hold their own against the better known Pinots from Oregon and even against those of Burgundy. It is extraordinary to think what the future of Pinot Noir in this area may be.

Several wineries are worth visiting in the Central Otago region. Top of my list would have to be Felton Road one of the rising stars in the world of Pinot Noir. Felton Rpad produces truly great Pinot Noir in tiny quantities - their Block 5 and Block 3 are usually sold out before general release and are available on waitlist only. However, for those of us not fortunate enough or well connected enough to get our hands on a bottle of their top drop some of their other wines offer more than adequate compensation. The standard Pinot is excellent as is their Chardonnay in both its oaked and unoaked forms. Their Riesling is also very fine, and with its bracing acidity shows great potential for ageing.

Chard Farm has a marvelous mountain-side location and a quirky tasting room and is also making great Pinot Noir, especially the Finla Mor as well good Chardonnay. Also notable are Mount Maude, Peregrine Wines, Quartz Reef and Mt Difficulty, all producing Pinot Noir with pure varietal character and distinctive flavor.

Screwcaps vs. Corks

On a final note one thing that may surprise you is that many premium New Zealand wines are now bottled using Stelvin screwcap closures instead of cork. New Zealand has been a testing ground for this new technology and winemakers are so pleased with the results that they believe cork and corked wines will soon be a thing of the past. Traditionalists are yet to be won over and more time is certainly needed to evaluate the screwcap's potential for extended bottle ageing.


The Wines of Friuli - A tale of three grape varieties: Gillian Arthur's notes on wine from north-eastern Italy.

Gillian Arthur lives in Italy and runs Piccolo Walking Tours, guided tours to Italy, France, Scotland, and New Zealand.

© Gillian Arthur, 2004

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