[Information based on WSET Level 3 material]

Australia is such a large wine region, and that’s where my Oceanic-wine-focus tends go go. But let us not forget their close neighbor, New Zealand. As you might expect, being a group of islands between the Tasman Sea and the Pacific ocean, the climate here is overall maritime—the asterisk goes here for Central Otago which, centered around the Southern Alps, actually maintains and continental climate.

Other key piece of info, when determining the difference between the two islands: Remember, NZ is in the Southern Hemisphere, so the South Island climate will be a bit cooler; the North Island climate, a bit warmer.

Thinking about the geography of the two islands, most of the vineyards of the South Island tend to be on the eastern side where the vines are protected from rain-bearing winds from the west by mountain ranges that span pretty much right down the center of the island itself—the Southern Alps. (Quick shout out to Nelson who braves it out over there on the left with its east coast pride.) But, again, this is a maritime climate situation—rainfall is inevitable and can be a concern during the growing process. However, it’s noted that most of the soils tend to be free draining, which is excellent for vine vigor. Of course there will be some vineyards located on flatter lands that can be overly fertile (this will happen closer to the ocean), resulting in a bit more greener, herbaceous notes on the wines (specifically in reference to the most planted grape, Sauvignon Blanc).

But it’s noted that due to this excessive vigor and having to work around wet, rainy conditions, New Zealand growers have become well-versed in the art of trellising and other canopy management techniques and that the Sustainable Winegrowing New Zealand initiative has helped set winery standards and assist growers in achieving well-maintained and sustainable vineyards.


If you’re like me, when you think New Zealand, you auto-think Sauvignon Blanc, and it is true that this grape is the country’s wine-claim-to-fame. Something interesting to note, and something that I’ve been lucky enough to experience myself, is that the North Island and the South Island produce slightly different expressions of the white grape, with the North producing that kind of stereotypical tropical flavor (as it is a bit warmer) and the South creating wines with higher acidity and more pungent green bell pepper notes (due to its slightly cooler climate). I also want to point out (and the book does mention this too), that while protective winemaking is pretty much the norm concerning New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, there are a few producers playing with a bit of oak as well, creating an interesting depth and mouthfeel to the traditionally light-bodied, fresh, and crisp wine.

Other grapes to know:

  • Chardonnay
  • Riesling
  • Gewurztraminer
  • Pinot Gris
  • Pinot Noir—the second most-planted grape after Sauvignon Blanc
  • Cabernet Sauvignon
  • Syrah



Auckland, as the northern-most grape growing region, is quite warm and the wettest part of New Zealand, thus fungal disease is the number one vineyard concern. Grapes to know are Chardonnay (general style tends to be filled with concentrated citrus and tropical fruits and subtle use of oak), Merlot, and Syrah—the latter two of which thrive in the warmest sites on the island(s), so makes sense that they would find success this far north.


Gisborne is south and very much east of Auckland, hanging out on the shorefront of the Pacific Ocean. It’s noted that while rainfall is high in the region, so is sunshine and overall temperatures during the growing season. Over half the vines are planted to Chardonnay and there is a small amount of Gewurztraminer as well as Pinot Gris.

Hawke’s Bay

Just south of Gisborne, we find Hawke’s Bay, which is noted for having the warmest overall temperature of the main grape growing areas as well as the longest hours of sunshine. It’s a diverse topography here, with various soils, aspects, and altitudes at which vines can be planted. Thus, wine grapes and winemaking styles can and do vary. The most noted region, however, is the sub-region of Gimblett Graves, an area home to well-drained, heat-absorbing gravelly soils. Kind of sound Bordeaux-y to you? Awesome, because the grapes grown here are Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon, along with the up-and-comer Syrah.


Wairarapa is at the very tip of the North Island and is made of several small vineyards scattered throughout the region. The most important region is certainly the areas surrounding the town of Martinborough, which is known for its production of Pinot Noir.



At the top and on the east side of the South Island we find Marlborough, which is “the major center for grape growing in New Zealand.” The name of the grape game here, no surprise, is Sauvignon Blanc. Most of the vineyards are planted in two adjacent estuary valleys—Wairu and Awatere. The climate of Wairu is similar to Martinborough—long sunny days with a wide diurnal range—but the topography also contains a large variety of aspects and altitudes at which the vineyards can be planted due to a number of side valleys and hills. Awatere, on the other hand, is drier, cooler, and windier. Thus, the expressions of the main grape, Sauvignon Blanc, can be markedly different when comparing the two sub-regions. Wairu Sauvignon Blanc will have less acidity but more pronounced tropical fruit flavors; Awatere Sauvignon Blanc will have more acidity, more herbaceousness, and less of those tropical fruit notes.

Other grapes to know: Chardonnay and Pinot Noir are both grown and used in the production of both still and sparkling wines. Riesling and Pinot Gris are noted for also growing well in Marlborough.


Nelson is just to the left of Marlborough, on the west side next to the Tasman Sea. It is cooler and wetter than Marlborough. Key grapes here: Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris.


Canterbury has two viticultural sections: 1) on the plain next to (west of) the town of Christchurch 2) Waipara Valley, the larger region, located to the north of town where vineyards are planted along hillsides at altitude. In the plains, the vines are exposed to the cooling influence of the Pacific Ocean, but the westerly winds coming from that same place are noted for being warm. The impact of those winds are enhanced in the more northern Waipara Valley, which is also less exposed to the cool Pacific Ocean due to a range of hills that act as a blocker. Grapes to know: Pinot Noir, Sauvignon Blanc, and Riesling—the latter specifically in the Waipara Valley.

Central Otago

Central Otago is located inland and in the foothills of the Southern Alps—so you can imagine that vines are planted at different aspects and altitudes, with varying soils to match. Unlike, pretty much anywhere else in the country’s grape growing regions, Central Otago climate is continentaland the main vineyard risk is, as you may suspect having been studying with me for all these weeks, frost during the spring and autumn months as well as very sunny and warm summers. But despite those high temperatures during the growing season, there is a wide diurnal range, meaning that grapes can ripen successfully—although due to the intensity of the sunlight, resulting wines will be high in alcohol. Key grape: Pinot Noir—and because of those growing conditions, Pinot Noir will be a contrast to what many of us Californians would expect. Pinot Noir from Central Otago will be full bodied, concentrated with its red fruit flavors. Other grapes include Pinot Gris, Riesling and Chardonnay.

Kind of quick and simple that one. Does anyone have anything to add? Any favorite New Zealand wines you want to share with the class?

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2 Comments on Wine Region Overview: New Zealand

  1. Great overview of wines from NZ. Between the mountains and various ocean influences there are so many microclimates that the varietals are much more than the famous Sauvignon Blanc of Hawkes Bay and Marlborough. The Gewerztraminer from the south island is wonderful. While Pinot noir styles vary with location and happen to be very good, I found many Merlot and Cabernet wines that have great full and luxurious flavors.

    • That’s excellent, Lisa. I am so curious about the Gewurtraminer—how did it compare with, say German or Alsace expressions? And I agree with you about the Pinot Noir, I’ve had some that could easily be mistaken for a California classic and then those that are almost crunchy with tannins. Any favorite Merlot or Cab producers you’d like to recommend? Thanks for piping in; it’s a pleasure to connect!

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