Welcome to New Zealand‘s South Island. If you haven’t yet read the New Zealand overview, or made a stop in the North Island yet, please do before moving on.
The South Island has significantly more terroir to cover, so strap in and enjoy the ride.
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.)
Let’s start at the top in Marlborough, New Zealand‘s largest grape growing region, responsible for two-thirds of total plantings in the country. FUN FACT: The Maori name for the region, kei puta te Wairau means “the place with the hole in the cloud.” An apt name, as Marlborough is marked as a very sunny region. Though the overall climate is considered cool, it’s noted for moderately warm summers, mild winters, and is protected on all sides by mountain ranges, meaning low annual rainfall. That low rainfall in conjunction with the free draining alluvial soils that span the region means that irrigation is needed—my text notes that underground aquifers provide the main source of irrigation water.
The Oxford elaborates there are a number of soil patterns found throughout the valley (sometimes even within a single vineyard),which means variances in wine style and quality depending on the very specific location. As you well know, those more shallow, stony soils that increase drainage are typical for the higher quality wines. But, according to the Oxford, “some of the region’s best Pinot Noir is from heavier, clay-rich soils at the base of the Wither Hills.
Machine harvesting is common in Marlborough, especially in those vineyards on flatter landscape. INTERESTING FACTOID: machine harvesting promotes the flavor precursors that generate the passionfruit and green bell pepper aromas that are typical to Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc. According to my text, research has shown these aromas can be 5 to10 times higher when grapes have been machine harvested compared to when hand-harvested BECAUSE of the short ‘maceration’ on the skins that happens during transport. (i.e., the grapes get a bit squished at picking, starting the juice-to-skin contact a smidge early)
There are three main sub-regions in Marlborough:
- Wairau (the largest) runs along the Wairau River to the mouth of Cloudy Bay. Depending on where you are along that river, climactic influences differ—WEST SIDE/inland has less moderating influence from the ocean, warmer days, and colder nights (ie: greater diurnal range); vines here are at greater risk of frost.
The valley is a former riverbed so soils are a combination of gravel, silt, sand, loam and clay soils that vary in composition according to site. According to the Oxford, the northern Wairau Valley has lighter, stonier soils that produce riper and “more pungent” wine, compared to Awatare and the Southern Valleys (listed below). These free draining soil mean irrigation is needed but they also provide the warmth needed to extend the overall growing season—hence the intensity of aromas and flavors in resulting wines, as they are allowed to develop slowly over time.
Sauvignon Blanc is the most planted grape and, depending on soil type, can vary from fruit forward and tropical to more grassy and herbaceous. Other grapes grown include Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and Pinot Gris.
- Awatere: Interestingly, the Atlas notes: “If the Awatere Valley were treated as a region in its own right—rather than as a part of Marlborough—it would rank as the second-largest in the country, behind only the Wairau Valley and ahead of Hawke’s Bay.”
The region is significantly cooler and windier than Wairau, due to its proximity to the coast and higher elevation. My text notes that harvest here is later than in the rest of Marlborough.
Sauvignon Blanc from the Awatere is going to be more herbaceous and less tropical than that found in Wairau due to the cool, windy climate. Wines in general will have a higher overall acidity and the windy weather means Pinot Noir grapes develop smaller berries and thicker skins, thus more deeply colored and concentrated wines than those from the Wairau.
- Southern Valleys is a collective name for many north-south running valleys located south of the main plain of Wairau. The soil here is richer with more clay inclusion than the rest of Marlborough, which helps retain water and has an added cooling influence. Thus ripening is slower and harvest can be up to two weeks later than in Wairau. A long cool growing season is perfect for Pinot Noir, the most popular grape in the valleys. Resulting wines have pronounced aromatics, tannins and flavors.
MARLBOROUGH GRAPES TO KNOW
Sauvignon Blanc makes up 70% of all plantings in Marlborough. According to the Oxford, the variety accounts for 80% of the country’s exports and Marlborough is home to 90% of the country’s vines. Most wine produced is dry in style with high acid and intense aromatics and mixture of herbaceous, floral, and tropical notes (specifically passionfruit) and quality levels can span the spectrum.
The Atlas notes that most large producers blend grapes from different sub regions or vineyard sites with different soil types and climatic conditions in order to create a range of aromas and to “differentiate their produce in what risks being a rather monotone category.” (I wager, this is also helpful for volume.) However, the Atlas does go on to say that there is an increasing number of single-vineyard expressions.
The larger volume, mixed-vineyard Sauvignon Blancs are typically produced with cool fermentation temperatures in neutral vessels, utilizing cultured yeast and no ML.
However, according to the Atlas, there are more “ambitious” and experimental expressions being made from hand-picked, low-yielding vineyard sites that are using some oak inclusions (“perhaps barrel fermentation“), native yeasts, and lees aging to create complexity.
Pinot Noir accounts for 10% of all plantings, but is becoming more popular due to the quality of the fruit coming from Southern Valleys—an area that’s becoming increasingly populated with growers, as land prices are cheaper than the neighboring Wairau Valley. You can find three main styles of Pinot Noir across the Marlborough subregions:
- Wairau Valley: vines planted along the alluvial plains produce light-bodied, juicy red-fruited wines intended for early drinking and fall in the mid-price range.
- Southern Valley: vines planted along clay and loess slopes results in wines that have a medium to full body with more intense fruit aromas of red cherry and red plum with notes of oak maturation; these wines range from good to outstanding and fall into the premium-price range.
- Awatere Valley: because of its windier conditions and cooler climate Pinot Noir grapes have thicker skins and deeper colors; the wines are said to be more floral and herbal in character with fruit notes of red plum and oak maturation; the quality ranges from good to outstanding and fall into the premium-price category.
Chardonnay, simply put, is produced in a range of styles: un-oaked, medium bodied, with simple stone and citrus fruit flavors all the way to complex examples with intense stone and citrus aromas as well as struck match (from reductive winemaking) and spicy notes of toast (due to barrel maturation), gentle use of ML, and yeast tones from lees aging; the latter will command a premium price.
Pinot Gris, again, is produced in two main styles: light-bodied, youthful, with fresh fruit flavors that can range from dry to off dry and is typically fermented in stainless steel at cool temps with little lees contact; full-bodied with riper fruit which may have undergone barrel fermentation using all-native yeasts, lees aging and stirring, as well as oak maturation.
Others include Riesling, Gewurztraminer, and Viognier.
I always remember Nelson because he’s the guy that’s not protected from the Southern Alps, thus the climate is cool, wet, and he gets a lot of wet wind from the west. INTERESTING FACTOID: My text notes that most of that precipitation falls in sudden heavy storms, which means that despite higher levels of rain compared to Marlborough, the area receives a similar amount of overall sunshine hours. The region is classified as a maritime climate (makes sense) and the moderating influence of the ocean means cooling breezes during the day and relatively warm nights (again, makes sense).
The Atlas notes that vineyards here are clustered along the coast of the Tasman Bay, which includes both “gravel-threaded” clay soils from the Moutere Hills and stony alluvial soils of the Waimea Plains.
Winemaking business is focused on small-scale production because FUN FACT: according to my text, when vines were first established (not sure when that was), land prices were significantly higher than vineyard land in neighboring Marlborough.
Nelson sub-regions go like this…
- Moutere Hills, as mentioned, include clay based gravelly soils with sandy loam topsoils on an “undulating terrain.” FUN(NY) FACT: Despite the name “hills,” Mourtere is more of a plateau (as can be seen if you click to expand the map above) and elevation only reaches 50-150m above sea level. Read: altitude is NOT a moderating factor. The soils are said to be low in nutrients but have high water retention meaning dry farming is both possible and common. Wines from Moutere Hills tend to be fuller bodied and more concentrated than those from Waimea Plains (below).
- Waimea Plains is a low-lying former riverbed consisting of alluvial soils with fine silt and clay loams said to be of moderate fertility. These soils are noted as being very free draining so, in complete contrast to Mourtere Hills (above), irrigation is needed despite the high rainfall experienced by the region. The wines of Waimea are said to be lighter in body with fresh fruit characters.
NELSON WINES TO KNOW
Sauvignon Blanc from Nelson is said to be more restrained when compared to the flagship region of Marlborough. The wines express gentle stone fruit, tropical fruit and herbal nuances. Since this is small-production-land, barrel fermentation and maturation as well as lees stirring is often used to create increased complexities in the wine.
- From Moutere Hills tends to be full-bodied with fine, ripe tannins. The wines emit expressive fruit notes, while the use of French oak maturation adds spice notes.
- From Waimea tends to be fresher with red fruited tones. Wines have a light to medium body and are typically un-oaked.
Others: Chardonnay, Pinot Gris, Riesling, Gewurztraminer
Canterbury sits along a flat, open plain facing the Pacific Ocean. As such, the region is quite cool. As the Atlas states, “too cool to ripen Bordeaux grapes.” The Atlas further notes that summers are long and dry due to consistent winds “whether the hot, dry nor’wester that can be so strong it can damage vines, or the much cooler wind from the south.”
The major threat to the region is frost, typically during September through to early November. Irrigation is common, utilizing “artesian wells.”
Greater Canterbury is split into two principal sub-regions
- North Canterbury includes two smaller sub-region Waipara Valley and Waikari. In keeping with the Canterbury theme, the area has a cool climate, but is sheltered from even cooler weather by Southern Alps. But a high number of sunshine hours and warm daytime temperatures during the summer season means grapes have adequate heat and light to grow. Nights tend to be cooler and in spring frost can be an issue. As mentioned above, hot, dry northwest winds also act as a warming influence, but in some cases winds can be strong enough to damage green parts of the vine. It’s noted that in order to combat these detrimental winds, some growers plant trees as wind breaks…BUT THE BIRDS!!!! …. Because the region lies in the rain shadow of the Southern Alps, North Canterbury experiences low annual rainfall – together with those hot winds means increased evapotranspiration rates and, thus, irrigation is necessary. (But, good news: fungal disease not an issue, so grapes can be left on vine until desired harvest time.)
D2 KNOWLEDGE AHEAD: According to the Atlas, cellar door sales are significantly important for the producers of North Canterbury, particularly in Waipara which, the Atlas explains, was cut off from the coastal road during the 2011 earthquake. Today, you can find the vineyards and wineries lined along roadside locations in order to entice tourists and tasters.
- Waipara Valley is said to be warmer than the rest of the region due to the Teviotdale Hills that protect form cold east-blowing winds. Grapes are grown on the flat valley floor containing gravelly sandy loam. As a result, wines tend to be lighter bodied and less intense than those made from grapes grown on north and north-west facing slopes, which consist of clay loams with varying percentages of limestone inclusion.
- Waikari is located in hills just inland from Waipara Valley. Here is where we find those clay and limestone soils.
- Canterbury Plains has just a small number of vines planted outside the town of Christchurch and on Banks Peninsula.
CANTERBURY GRAPES TO KNOW:
Pinot Noir: ranges from delicate, red berried styles to full-bodied, dark fruited examples. Either way, the wines tend to have high levels of acidity due to the dry, sunny summers and cool nights which allow fruit to ripen slowly and fully, retaining natural acidity but developing those pronounced expressions.
Riesling: it’s noted that Riesling, specifically from Waipara Valley, produces expressive, intense, ripely fruited styles of wine with high levels of acidity due to the high diurnal range as well as the long growing season, as mentioned above. Wines are made in a range of styles from dry to sweet, including late harvest expressions, thanks to the region’s extended growing season which includes dry autumn weather.
Sauvignon Blanc: this is a widely planted variety and wines produced express a variety and range of style. As in Marlborough, many producers are experimenting with complex winemaking techniques.
FUN FACT: Central Otago is the most southerly wine growing regions in the world at 46° Latitude. It’s other claim to fame: Central Otago is the only wine region in New Zealand with a continental climate. This is due to the fact that it is completely surrounded by Southern Alps and thus protected from any marine influence. This means that it has the most seasonal temperature variability and largest diurnal range than any other New Zealand wine region as well. As a result, the Oxford notes, most vines in Central Otago are planted on hillsides to allow for better sun exposure and reduced risk of frost.
Another effect of the surrounding protective mountain ranges is that there’s none of those rain-baring winds. A low annual rainfall means irrigation is necessary, but fungal disease pressure is quite low and, in effect, grape growers can practice organic and biodynamic viticulture.
A high diurnal range means cold nights—this is when and where spring frost may become an issue. INTERESTING FACTOID: According to my text, some producers use helicopters to mix colder and warmer atmospheric air to prevent frost damage. (I imagine that’s quite costly and not too common…)
In the summer, Central Otago has the opposite issue: with high UV radiation and high temperatures, growers need to practice careful canopy management, such as providing shade on the WEST SIDE to protect from sunburn.
Central Otago is home to a range of soils, including gravel, clay with schist as the parent rock. My text notes that most of these soils are low in organic matter, so many growers utilize organic compost and cover crops as a means of naturally inserting the needed nutrients.
Central Otago has six sub-regions:
- Alexandra is the furthest south of all the sub-regions. It’s noted for its hot summer temperatures with a wide diurnal range that means night time temps are quite cool, leading to wines with fresh fruit aromas and medium (+) levels of acidity.
- Gibbston is marked as the highest in elevation and the coolest of all the sub-regions. Vines here are planted on north-facing slopes above the Kawarau Gorge. As a result, grapes ripen later and resulting wines have a notably fresher fruit expression and high levels of acidity.
- Bannockburn, my text notes, is the most “intensively planted” sub-region of Central Otago. Here, vines are planted on the southern banks of the Kawarau River, which contain a diverse range of soils. As one of the warmest and driest sub-regions, wines produced are noted for ripeness and concentration.
- Cromwell/Lowburn/Pisa are clumped together as one. The series of vineyards start in the south near Cromwell and extend north toward the western side of Lake Dunstan. Vines are planted on “semi-arid moraines, fans, and terraces.” I’m not going to lie, I had to look that first word up. According to dictionary.com moraines are “a mass of rocks and sediment carried down and deposited by a glacier, typically as ridges at its edges or extremity.” The climate here is simply described as “warm.”
- Bendigo is said to be the warmest of all Central Otago’s sub-regions—hot enough to ripen (drum roll please…) Syrah! (I think this is the first time we’ve mentioned a red Rhone variety on the South Island!) Here, vines planted on north-facing slopes and terraces that contain stony, free-draining soils with poor nutrient-holding capacity. Vines tend to be low-yielding, producing notably concentrated wines.
- Wanaka is the smallest and most northerly of all the sub-regions. Vines are planted at altitude and the area is noted as being “slightly cooler” than Bannockburn, Cromwell or Bendigo. The nearby Lake Wanaka acts as a moderating influence for those temperature extremes known to continental climates.
CENTRAL OTAGO GRAPES TO KNOW:
“No other New Zealand wine region is as dependent on a single grape variety. Pinot Noir represents nearly 75% of the region’s vines…” —The Oxford.
Pinot Noir: obviously the dominate grape variety. Because of Central Otago‘s high UV radiation and continental climate that results in and warm summers with cold nights, these Pinot Noirs tend to be deep in color, full-bodied, with ripe tannins, but retain a naturally high level of acidity. Tasting notes include red plum and black cherry fruits as well as notes from oak-aging. It’s noted that some producers opt for partial whole-cluster inclusion to add depth and complexity.
Others: Pinot Gris and Riesling are the next two most planted grape varieties. As mentioned the high diurnal range allows for the preservation of acid levels. Both wines range in style from dry to medium sweet and even fully sweet in the case of Riesling. NOTE: Because we’re in a dry continental climate, there is no botrytis.
Waitaki (North Otago)
The Oxford notes that this region was in rapid expansion mode during the early 2000s, but that expansion has since waned and total plantings remain relatively small.
The region is located along the same latitude as Wanaka in Central Otago, but is immediately east of Southern Alps, sitting directly in its rain shadow. And so, the region experiences hot dry summers with breezes from the nearby ocean offering some moderation. As with the rest of Central Otago, both winter and spring come with the risk of frost, but dry autumns mean an overall long growing season allowing grapes to develop fully.
The underlying soil here is limestone. Main grape varieties planted include Pinot Noir and Pinto Gris, Riesling, Chardonnay and Gewurztraminer.
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