New Zealand—or Aotearoa in the Māori language (which translates to the “land of the long white cloud”)—is relatively young in the wine industry. But while iconic wineries like Cloudy Bay have been established as recently as 1985, New Zealand wine-making techniques have been pulled from the long-established dairy industry: The use of stainless steel in particular has been critical to preserving the pure, cutting character of the fruit grown in this part of the world, helping shape the country’s definitive style.
Three varieties dominate the plantings in the country—sauvignon blanc, pinot noir, and chardonnay—but there are plenty of others to explore. Its range of growing conditions, from subtropical in the north to high desert in the South Island’s Central Otago, have allowed a wide variety of grapes to shine. Better yet, New Zealand has also been leading the way with its sustainability efforts from grape to glass, with more than 96 percent of its vineyards certified according to its national Sustainable Winegrowing NZ standards.
Here are six of the must-visit regions to discover on your next visit, from north to south.
The Auckland wine region in New Zealand’s north encompasses several subzones—Kumeu, Waiheke Island, and Matakan—all united by their volcanic soils and subtropical climate. This environment may seem counterintuitive for wine production, but cloud cover tempers the otherwise sunny region and ocean breezes provide even ripening conditions.
The largest city on the North Island, Auckland has one of the country’s oldest wine regions, with early settlers planting vineyards in proximity to the major city. Many of these were immigrants from the Dalmatian coast, and Croatian last names still abound.
The wines to try in Auckland
Babich, established in 1916 and since a pioneer in organic winegrowing across the islands, still has a tasting room near the city to visit, and the Brajkovich family owns Kumeu River, one of the benchmark chardonnay producers in the world, known for its steely yet textural whites.
2. Hawke’s Bay
The red wine capital of New Zealand, Hawke’s Bay is where first cabernet sauvignon and now syrah have found their greatest expressions, for this is where the grapes can best ripen. Located on the east coast of the North Island, it is protected from the western winds by several mountain ranges and benefits from the temperate maritime climate. However, it’s what’s beneath the surface that holds the key to the region’s success: The slow weathering of rock as water has moved for millennia from the mountains to the sea has created a rich alluvial plain. These gravelly soils are the hallmark of some of the best vineyards the world over, highlighted by Hawke’s Bay’s most renowned subzone Gimblett Gravels.
The wines to try in Hawke’s Bay
While many well-established wineries like Craggy Range and Te Mata are better known on the international stage, Hawke’s Bay is also home to a range of diverse projects, including Māori winery Tiki Wine & Vineyards, the Responsible Hedonist, with its spunky labels and blends, and Amoise Winery, focused on minimal intervention wines.
An hour’s drive through mountainous terrain from the nation’s capital, Wellington, Wairarapa is protected from intense wind and rains; it’s a very cool place, but also dry, which lends itself well to the production of pinot noir. Wairarapa is small; most of the premium wineries cluster around the town of Martinborough, which makes visiting tasting rooms easy.
The wines to try in Wairarapa
The region’s most famous export is Ata Rangi, with its plummy yet earthy pinots, which, along with wineries like Dry River, count among some of the first to be established. Exciting newer projects like Schubert Wines and On Giants’ Shoulders prove there’s still great potential to be found here.
For most of the world, New Zealand wine is associated with Marlborough, home to the country’s definitive style of sauvignon blanc. On the northern end of the South Island centered on the town of Blenheim, it’s by far the country’s largest wine-growing region, producing upwards of 80 percent of its crop. Marlborough is defined by its long and sunny days, followed by crisp nights, and its wines are a distillation of this climate in the bottle.
The wines to try in Marlborough
Producers with a careful eye toward farming, like biodynamic Seresin and organic Hans Herzog, believe careful stewardship of the land is paramount to achieve the best expressions of this place. Yet Marlborough produces more than sauvignon blanc. In addition to chardonnay and pinot noir, some of its best wines are made from aromatic white grapes like riesling, pinot gris, and grüner veltliner. Both helmed by female winemakers, Te Whare Ra and Jules Taylor make top-notch wines.
5. North Canterbury
Outside of Christchurch, North Canterbury is cool, windy, and dry. Unlike Marlborough, its neighbor to the north, this is not a densely planted region; most wineries are centered around Waipara, including female-run Black Estate, and have a robust tasting room business, luring visitors from the city and beyond.
The wines to try in North Canterbury
It’s also worth venturing off the beaten track to projects like Bell Hill and Pyramid Valley, established near a limestone quarry and producing rather nervy wines reminiscent of Burgundy, as well as to one of the region’s early pioneers Pegasus Bay, which made a name with its rieslings from dry to sweet, some of New Zealand’s finest.
6. Central Otago
The world’s southernmost wine-growing region, and a haven for ski enthusiasts, Central Otago is synonymous with world-class pinot noir. But these aren’t delicate wines—they are intensely ripe and deeply flavorful, with firm tannins, high alcohol, and higher acidity. This climate is high desert; the moderating influence of several rivers and lakes makes growing grapes possible. The style of wines directly correlates to these conditions: dry, brilliantly bright summer days, cold nights, and constant risk of frost produce grapes with thicker skins and immense concentration.
The wines to try in Central Otago
Iconic producers like Felton Road, a pioneer in biodynamics, and newer estates like Te Kano, with its focus on regenerative farming and restoration of native plants, showcase an intentional focus on respectfully farming this beautiful landscape.