New Zealand’s Wine Identity

Most wine regions have a very clear varietal identity. For example, in France, Bordeaux is best known for its red blends dominated by Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot and white blends using Semillon and Sauvignon Blanc; Burgundy has Pinot Noir and Chardonnay; Alsace is defined by its Rieslings, Gewurztraminers, Pinot Gris and Muscats and so on. However one country which is still finding its way is New Zealand. Of course it is renowned for producing Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc, but what about the nine other key regions across the North and South Islands?

New Zealand MapNew Zealand has tried for many years to find new winning grape/terroir combinations that will bring the region into its own. For a long time New Zealand’s winemakers were enamoured with American Hybrids, such as Albany Surprise (otherwise known as Isabella), but these wines did not successfully compete with those from the US, so New Zealand embarked on a difficult relationship with Müller Thurgau, the high yielding white crossing once described by Jancis Robinson MW as “the bane of German wine production.” The search continued with several success stories, including McWilliams’ owner Tom McDonald’s triumph with Cabernet Sauvignon in the 1960s, which was considered the great red hope for New Zealand. Encouraging results also came from founder of Nobilo Wines, Nick Nobilo’s 1976 Pinot Noir, reinforced in the 1980s by efforts in Martinborough and Canterbury.

The key to all of these successes was learning from the country’s “terroir”. There is no precise translation for this term, but a good way of thinking about it is the interaction of numerous factors including soil, vineyard aspect, climate, vine and grower.

For example a west-facing slope in New Zealand which catches the morning sun may have identical soil to an east-facing slope in the same region which warms up later in the day and holds the evening rays. However the “terroirs” are different and consequently the wine produced is different too.

In the search for a sense of identity, New Zealand is increasingly producing single vineyard terroir-driven wines. Hawke’s Bay and Martinborough in the North Island, then Marlborough on the South Island are very good examples of regions which are using this principle.

Hawke’s Bay

Established by Marist missionaries in the mid-19th century, awareness for Hawke’s Bay as a wine region was raised in the 1960s with Tom McDonald’s success with Cabernet Sauvignon. Such was the quality it alerted people worldwide to the promise of the area.

Hawke’s Bay’s similarities with Bordeaux are clear. Both have moderate maritime climates with similar latitudes (39.28° S versus 44° N) and a wide range of soil types including fertile, coastal alluvial and well drained gravel (comparable to the Medoc). Despite these similarities and Tom McDonald’s early success, it was not until the 1990s when Hawke’s Bay’s Bordeaux blends really began to gain attention with their ripe fruit, soft structured tannins and crisp definitions. It was also around this time that winemakers and vine growers realised that vines responded better to different soil types, especially poor soils which stress the vines and limit growth producing low yields and more concentrated grapes. This discovery led to a greater focus on planting the best grape varieties to suit the terroir and making single vineyard terroir-driven wines.

Craggy Range is an excellent example of an estate which is using these principles to bring an identity to their Bordeaux Blends. Their wines tend to be dominated by Merlot as it thrives better in Hawke’s Bay’s limestone and gravel soils; for example, the 2010 vintage of Te Kahu is 80% Merlot, 8% Cabernet Sauvignon, 8% Cabernet Franc and 4% Malbec. No two vintages are the same as, similar to Bordeaux, the blend changes with the weather and climate conditions. Winemaker and viticulturist Stevie Smith MW is so passionate about single vineyard expressions that every time a vine is replaced, the new vine’s growth is measured and compared to others in the vineyard to ensure that it is “kept in balance and harmony with its age and environment.”

Gimblett GravelsHawke’s Bay is not just about Bordeaux Blends. Given the range of soils and aspects, many different estates have planted multiple grape varietals to experiment in finding the best combinations for producing wine. The Gimblett Gravels is a sub-region in the South-West of Hawke’s Bay which is using this concept to make particularly exciting wines. With 810ha of shingle, it has the poorest soils in Hawke’s Bay. Many vineyards are planted on its flat flood plains, but as understanding of the land has grown, so has the desire for vineyards on slopes. Premium sites, such as the limestone hills which surround the Gimblett Gravels, are high in demand as the aspect increases the stress on the vines.

Cypress HillOne of the success stories in the Gravels is Cypress Wines. In 2000, Gus Lawson left his family estate, Te Awa, to focus on single vineyard, terroir-driven wines andestablished a terraced hillside vineyard in the Gimblett Gravels. Driving up to the site you are struck by the uncanny resemblance to the Hermitage Hill in Tain, France where the steep sun-baked slopes are the ideal location for low yielding Syrah vines. One is struck by another similarity when tasting on Cypress’ hill itself surrounded by the terraced vines: the strength of the wind, like that of the Mistral, manages disease and further stresses the vines lowering yields and increasing grape concentration. These similarities did not pass Gus by. According to his wife Mel, it inspired them to plant the hill with Rhône varietals, such as Syrah and Viognier.

There is one key difference between Cypress’ hill and the granitic Hermitage Hill: limestone and clay soils dominate Cypress’ estate giving the wines their own individual personality. Their single vineyard flagship wine, Terraces Syrah, is a clean linear wine packed with tons of black pepper, fresh black fruits, violets, chocolate and a long stony finish, which could never be mistaken for coming from the Rhône or Barossa. It is very much its own wine.

Syrah is not the only varietal planted on the hill. Another Rhône varietal, Viognier, is also grown together with Chardonnay, which produces precise, pale lemon wines with a creamy, flinty nose and stone fruit palate. The characteristic minerality (saline, flint) lingers on the finish. It is a classic example of what Hawke’s Bay is trying to do with their Chardonnays.

With its varied terroir, Hawke’s Bay has many different options to consider when searching for its sense of identity; but perhaps these options are what are making it so difficult to find it? Hawke’s Bay is carving out a reputation for its Syrahs, Chardonnays, Viogniers and Bordeaux blends, but only time will tell if this recognition expands worldwide and if one varietal will stand out over the others.

Martinborough (Wairarapa)

Martinborough is one of New Zealand’s smallest and most rural wine regions yet it is known for producing some of the country’s finest Pinot Noirs. Jancis Robinson describes it as “the North Island’s most exciting area for Pinot Noir and the first to establish a reputation for it.” As New Zealand’s driest wine region, the free-draining, deep alluvial, gravelly terraces are protected by the Tararua and Rimutaka Ranges to the west.

In 1980 former farmer Clive Paton realised the potential for growing grapes in Martinborough. His fellow farmers thought that he was mad as vineyards were previously unheard of in the region; however he recognised that the climate and thin poor soils were the perfect conditions for growing Pinot Noir. This belief was reinforced by a scientific study conducted in 1978 which reported that, as New Zealand’s driest region, Martinborough’s microclimate was similar to Burgundy. With a cutting of the infamous “Gumboot clone” he began a wine revolution with his estate Ata Rangi.

Over 30 years later, Pinot Noir remains Martinborough’s main grape variety producing wines which are reminiscent of Burgundy – aromatic, medium bodied, dry red wines with fresh red fruits, mushrooms and sweet spice. What sets them apart from their French counterparts is their mineral character, like so many top wines of New Zealand. Described by Neal Martin of the Wine Advocate as “oyster shell” it reflects the soils of the region. Ata Rangi introduced their first single vineyard Pinot Noir in 2007 marking the move to better mirror the terroir and give the wines more of a New Zealand identity than French. On meeting Clive Paton you are struck by how passionate he is about the search for the perfect expression of Martinborough Pinot Noir. He and his peers are not resting on their laurels and are constantly evolving their viticulture and vinification practices.

Martinborough is not just about Pinot Noir though. Chardonnay is grown using clones such as Mendoza which gives the wines a grapefruit character. Martinborough Chardonnays are rich, fruity with a sweet spice (nutmeg) and stony/steely finish. They are clearly New World wines, but they are not as pronounced and full bodied as those from hotter regions such as South Eastern Australia. The single vineyard versions such as Ata Rangi Craighall are very much unique reflections of Martinborough.

Small quantities of Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Gris and Riesling vines are also grown with varying degrees of success. Bordeaux blends are also important to note, but for now the identity of Martinborough seems to be tied to Pinot Noir.


At the northern tip of the South Island is the region with the clearest winemaking identity in all of New Zealand: Marlborough. Renowned the world over for its Sauvignon Blanc with pungent aromas of asparagus, grass, citrus and passionfruit, it is easy for even the untrained palate to identify the wines in a blind tasting.

Wairau ValleyMarlborough now accounts for 50% of all vineyards in New Zealand with 2/3 of all Sauvignon Blanc planted in the region, which is quite an achievement as the area was unknown for vines until 1993 when Montana, the country’s leading wine producer, established the first commercial vineyard. Montana recognised that the well-drained stony soils of Marlborough’s Wairau Valley floor and the long days, cool nights and bright sunshine were the perfect conditions for growing Sauvignon Blanc. Given the popularity for this grape variety, it is no surprise that so many winemakers wanted to get in on the act; however this movement has led to overproduction where demand cannot meet supply. Also other countries are keen to benefit from Marlborough’s success and are competing with their own more affordable versions, putting more pressure on demand. Winemakers like Dave Clouston of Two Rivers have recognised this trend and have begun making new styles of Sauvignon Blanc which are evolving away from the popular, intensely aromatic, unoaked approach into a more classical version reminiscent of whites from Pessac Leognan whilst retaining the herbaceous character for which Marlborough has become famous. Dave believes that this evolution is important for the Marlborough winemaking industry to survive long term as wine consumption trends are constantly changing and eventually the public will tire of drinking stereotypical Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc and move onto the next wine style.

As well as making new styles of Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc, estates such as Herzog are planting a wide range of varieties in their vineyards including Montepulciano and Grüner Veltliner, experimenting to discover which other varietals succeed in the region’s terroir. Andrew Brown of Framingham has had success with his Rieslings producing wines which are in the German Spätlese style.

Pinot Noir is another varietal which has seen success in Marlborough, but has yet to make as much of a dent on the worldwide market as Sauvignon Blanc. Arguably the estate leading the way is Fromm. Established in 1992 by 4th generation Swiss winemaker George Fromm, he identified that the Wairau Valley was also the perfect terroir for Pinot Noir, so embarked on making elegant European inspired red wines.

Fromm CellarsFellow winemaker Hätsch Kalberer was engaged by Fromm very early on in this process and over the years his skills have become synonymous with Fromm winery, driving its Pinot Noir aspirations. His wines are inspired by those of Chambolle-Musigny and focus on giving the signature back to the vineyard rather than fiddling in the winery. However he is always “refining” his methods, a term that he repeatedly uses when describing his techniques, with the aim of producing the best possible expression of Marlborough’s terroir by stripping the wine back to its essential components and letting its natural character shine through. When asked by George Fromm to begin making Pinots using whole bunch fermentation, Hätsch was unsure but he is now experimenting with different levels of whole bunches in blends to refine the wines.

Walking into his vinification rooms, one is struck by how calm and still it is, with Tchaikovsky soaring out of the speakers and rows upon rows of top wines from around the world including Coche Dury, JJ Prum and Dr Loosen. There is even the odd bottle of Lustau hidden amongst the barrels. Perhaps this collection is one of the reasons why Hätsch is at the forefront of Pinot Noir winemaking in Marlborough? Few New Zealand winemakers will ever taste wines like these as they are rarely imported into the country. With his cellars back in Switzerland, Hätsch is in a unique position to use them as inspiration.

Awatere Valley 2The recent movement to plant vines in Marlborough’s Awatere Valley has also lead to improvements in the region’s Pinots. In contrast to the Wairau valley, it is much drier, cooler and windier with many slopes. This different terroir also has much poorer clay/limestone soils on which Pinot and other red varietals thrive. The result is low yields of tiny bunches of grapes with thin skins, which gives the wines a higher acidity, minerality and structure. The closer proximity to the Pacific Ocean also provides a saline quality which is unique to the Pinots of this region.

Looking at the wines which are being produced in Marlborough, Martinborough and Hawke’s Bay, maybe it is the constant refining, which Dave Clouston and Hätsch Kalberer refer to, which will lead New Zealand to their wines’ sense of identity? The passion for continuously trying to make better and better wines is a characteristic which stands out across all of New Zealand. By reflecting their unique terroir, New Zealand makes wines which are truly noteworthy and deserve to be recognised in their own right, rather than being described as made in a Burgundian- or Rhone-style. Worldwide awareness is increasing and the top wines, such as Cypress Terraces Syrah, Ata Rangi’s and Fromm’s Pinot Noir, Framingham Riesling and Two Rivers Sauvignon Blanc are leading the way.