If you haven’t read through the New Zealand Overview, please do. There’s a lot of good basic information there that will help out before diving into the various regions. Here, we take a close up look at the North Island’s main wine producing regions.
A note about the maps: I realize they are quite small, but good news—they’re active links. Click on a map and it will take you to the Google Earth page for a zoomed-in experience. Enjoy!
For a simplified version of this material, please see the original Wine Region Overview: New Zealand. (More suited for WSET Level 3 Studies.)
Auckland is the largest city in New Zealand and was once a major hub for the wine industry. But as the Oxford Companion to Wine notes, today “winery visitors can be assured of finding wines made from grapes grown as far south as Canterbury in the South Island, and are more likely to be offered wine from Marlborough and Hawke’s Bay than the product of a local vineyard.”
That being said, Auckland has a few more recently established sub-regions that are now gaining some notoriety for their high quality Bordeaux-inspired blends. The Greater Auckland can be split into three sub-regions—listed below—all have a moderate, maritime climate with high humidity. You know what that means: There’s a fungus amongus. (In case that joke didn’t translate—there’s a high risk of fungal disease.)
- Wiheke Island specializes in red wine blends based on Cabernet Sauvignon or Syrah. The island is known to be the warmest part of Auckland and because its surrounded by a lot of water, there is a low diurnal range. This is idyllic for the mid to late ripening varieties for which it’s known, as it allows ( Cab Sauv and Syrah) to develop fully. Wines produced in Wiheke Island are typically medium to full bodied with black fruits and hints of oak spice. D2 INFORMATION AHEAD: Due to expansion and proximity to Auckland, land prices on the island are rising. Combine this with the expenses of transport to the island [located 40 minutes by ferry to the North Island] means the wines are generally premium in price.
- West Auckland: My text notes “a handful of producers still have vineyards in West Auckland,” but MORE D2 INFORMATION AHEAD: acreage is said to likely decrease due to increasing land prices and urbanization. Some wineries have cellar doors in West Auckland but, as the Oxford stated, these guys typically source fruit from other regions like Marlborough and Hawke’s Bay.
- Matakana produces wines from a range of grape varieties and producers mainly sell to the local tourist trade industry.
Gisborn is located on the east side of the North Island—it’s the most northernly of the eastern wine regions. (Does that make sense? See map.) SAD [BUT DELICIOUS] FACT: Between 2009 and 2019 Gisborne‘s area under vine halved because fruit farmers could get higher prices for kiwi fruit and apples.
According to the Oxford, most Gisborne grape growers sell their fruit to wineries, either long-term contract relations or to the highest bidder after harvest. And, to the point made above, the Oxford also states that several wineries in Auckland buy Gisborne grapes and have either the pressed juice or fermented wine delivered to their facility in order to avoid extraction of unwanted phenolics that might occur during shipping.
The grape growing scene looks like this: The majority of vines are located on flat, fertile floodplain floors containing clay, loam, and silt soils. The moderate, maritime climate with high hours of sun and warm breezes from the north mean there are few issues with frost and HARVEST FACT: Gisborne is one of the first regions to harvest each vintage. (My text doesn’t specify, and I didn’t find this in the Oxford, but I think this means in all of New Zealand, not just the North Island—anyone want to fact check me on that?)
Rain levels are actually quite high (about 1,000 mm annually for the number-oriented), so irrigation isn’t required BUT this along with all that fertile soil means that devigorizing rootstock, attentive canopy management, and proper picking time at harvest (to avoid dilution and/or rot) are all important considerations for growers in Gisborne.
GISBORN GRAPES TO KNOW:
Chardonnay—“Gisborne Chardonnay is certainly the country’s most distinctive regional example of the variety,” says the Oxford. According to my text, the grape makes up more than 50% of all plantings with a mix of boutique and high-end producers. NOTE: Those “high-end” Chardonnays are coming from hillside vineyards where the soils are poorer. Wine styles can range from simple, fruity, unoaked expressions to premium, full-bodied barrel-fermented with ripe stone fruit, creamy flavors and medium to medium (+) acids.
Pinot Gris—This is the second most planted grape and is produced both dry and medium dry. Like Chardonnay, Pinot Gris is made a variety of styles from simple/inexpensive to premium expressions where winemaking utilizes lees stirring and barrel maturation.
Others— My text simply lists: Sauvignon Blanc, Gewurztraminer, Viognier. But I’d like to point out that the Oxford gives a particular nod to Gewurztraminer, calling it the region’s “other claim to fame,” but ceases to expand on that.
Red Grapes—Red wine makes up just a small percentage of Gisborne wine production, but my text does note that Merlot is the most planted red grape.
FUN FACT: This is the oldest wine region in New Zealand and the second largest in terms of production.
SECOND FUN HAWKE’S BAY FACT: The moderate maritime climate along with gravelly, alluvial soils means that climate and terroir are similar to that of Bordeaux, specifically Medoc. Thus, Bordeaux-inspired Merlot-dominant blends are typical. [NOTE: A small amount of Cabernet Sauvignon is grown, but it struggles to ripen in cooler vintages. BUT quality during warmer vintages, along with improved planting materials and viticultural understanding, is showing potential for the variety.]
That being said, the Oxford notes, “Complex soil patterns and mesoclimates make it difficult to generalize about the wines of such adverse region, particularly when they are made by such an eclectic group of winemakers.” The Atlas expands on this notion, pointing out that there is a variety of those aforementioned alluvial soils and less fertile, gravelly soils distributed from the mountain ranges toward the coast. “Silt, loams, and gravel have very different water-holding capacities; one vineyard can be at saturation point, shooting forth vegetation at a furious rate, while another will perish if not irrigated.”
And so it is that we come to Hawke’s Bay two most important sub-regions, found further inland with less coastal influence. Though this means that, without the moderation of the ocean, frost can be a problem, it is here that we find the heart of New Zealand’s Bordeaux.
- Gimblett Gravels—“There is no soils poorer than the 2,000 acres of deep, warm shingle that remain where the Gimblett Road now runs,” states the Atlas. The sub-region is aptly named, as it’s known for its stony topsoils, which become very warm during the day, releasing that heat into the evening, allowing the heat-loving grapes Merlot, Syrah, and Cabernet Sauvignon to ripen fully. Further, the soils are very free-draining, meaning that irrigation is necessary and growers can use that to limit vine growth and control the water received, thus producing rich, concentrated red wines.
- Bridge Pa—Slightly to the south, this sub-region has a deeper topsoil of sandy and clay loam, which aids in water retention and limits need for irrigation. The Atlas specifies that the more desirable locations are on the hillsides of the Havelock North that contains limestone as well as a strip of shingle along the coast between Haumoana and Te Awanga.
As a bit of a footnote, my text adds that there are vineyard areas closer to the coast that receive more direct moderating influence from the Pacific: ocean breezes and cool daytime temperatures mean slower ripening and fresher expressions of Chardonnay and Syrah.
HAWKE’S BAY GRAPES TO KNOW:
Bordeaux varieties and blends—As mentioned, Merlot is the dominant variety, made in a range of styles, from simple/fruity varietal Merlot with little oak influence to premium blends combining Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon and expressing more concentration, deeper color, and oak influence (typically aged between 12 and 18 months).
The Oxford offers up a more precise tasting note: “Intense berry and cassis flavors, often with a gently herbaceous reminder of their moderately cool climate and origin and, sometimes, strong oak influence from up to two years’ maturation in new French barriques.”
My text notes that Malbec is on the rise as both part of Bordeaux blends as well as single varietal expressions.
Syrah—FUN FACT: 75% of New Zealand Syrah is planted in Hawke’s Bay. The wines are said to be concentrated with ripe black berry aromas and black pepper spice and floral characters with medium to medium(+) body and medium (+) acid. They’re typically matured in French oak with portion of new barrels for between 12 and 18 months.
Chardonnay—”Chardonnay may lack the seductive charm of the Gisborne equivalent but the best have intense citrus flavors and a brooding elegance that are seldom matched by the wines of other regions,” says the Oxford.
In keeping with that point, my text notes the white wine appears in a range of styles and prices. TASTING NOTE: Premium expressions are more restrained in its grapefruit and stone fruits tones and reveals a noticeable struck match character from reductive sulfur compounds. NOTE: Chardonnay grown closer to the coast will have higher acids, higher level of citrus fruit expressions and lower alcohols.
Others—My text puts Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Gris in the “other” category. But I do want to call out the Oxford’s note that the Sauvignon Blanc from Hawke’s Bay is more soft, “fleshier” than those found from the more popular Marlborough region on the South Island. “It often has a nectarine or stone fruit character, a useful indicator of regional identity.” If thinking about the slight differences in climate, this makes sense, as the North Island, being closer to the equator, is warmer, producing more ripe fruit expressions when compared to the wines of its Southern Island neighbor.
We’ve reached the bottom of the North Island—Wiararapa is the most southerly region of the North Island and, my text notes, is focused on premium wine production. The Oxford describes, “[Winemakers] are typically small-scale, lifestyle producers with quality-at-all-costs attitude to winemaking and a passionate faith in their region’s potential.” So, let’s all shop here!
D2 INFO AHEAD: Though Wairarapa accounts for 3% of the total area under vine in New Zealand, it only produces 1% of the country’s total volume, indicating low yielding vines and thus adding to the premium price point.
The sub-regions of Wairarapa is collectively known as Wellington Wine Country, and all three are known for Pinot Noir and perfumed, but not overly herbaceous, Sauvignon Blanc.
- Martinborough—Is the most renowned and so we’ll spend a bit of time here. The Atlas notes that Martinborough, which has an overall cool maritime climate, is one of the North Island‘s driest area, “giving…the chance to make some of the most vivid and Burgundian Pinot Noir, which is their dominant vine.” This is thanks to the mountain range to the west, which also offers to the region a large diurnal range which slows ripening and retains acidity in the grapes. Low yielding vines, my text notes, can be even lower due to the winds coming off the Cook Strait, which can effect flowering and fruit set. A known risk to the area is frost, which also negatively affects yields—wind machines help. Despite these natural factors that influence yield, the Oxford also notes human factors as well: in an effort to make refined wines, producers often crop the vines so that yields are below the national average (70 hL/ha). Grapes tend to develop small in size with thick skins, so Pinot has higher level of fine grained tannins than in other New Zealand regions; Sauvignon Blanc is also lower yielding, increasing production cost.
I want to leave this section with a bit of D2 knowledge from the Atlas if I may: “The Burgundian parallel extends to the structure of the wine business here, with wines typically made by the same people who grew the grapes.” I.E., it seems that, at least in Wairarapa, estates are the name of the wine business game.
WAIRARAPA GRAPES TO KNOW
Pinot Noir—Accounts for more than half of all plantings and typically express a range from red cherry, black plum fruit flavors with spicy notes to more concentrated tones with medium (+) acid, medium to medium (+) tannins. Most Pinot Noirs are matured in French oak barrels for between 12 and 18 months.
INTERESTING CLONAL FACTOID: The Abel clone, thought to have been propagated from a cutting taken from Domaine de La Romanee Conti in Burgundy is particularly suited to Martinborough’s climate. It flowers late and misses some of the worst weather periods that could reduce yields. It’s also a productive clone with large berries, but the strong winds naturally help restrict yields. [PS, Dijon clones 667 and 777 are also common.]
Sauvignon Blanc—As previously noted, Sauvignon Blanc from Wairarapa is more restrained in its herbaeceous and fruit notes than the South Island‘s Marlborough region, but with similarly high acidity. Lower yields equal more intensity and premium wines tend to use native yeast ferments, partial barrel ferments, and extended lees contact for greater texture and complexity.
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