Land of the world’s most southerly grapevines and the first to see the light of the new day, New Zealand is a wine country that continues to make waves a few decades after its modern debut on the world wine stage. Vines were first established in the Land of the Long White Cloud back in the 19th century but it wasn’t until the late 1970s and early ’80s that Kiwi winemakers hit their stride to become producers of the world’s favorite Sauvignon Blancs. But what about the reds?
Once upon a time, dear reader, people thought planting red grape varieties in New Zealand was the stuff of folly. Thankfully, a few intrepid producers experimented with red grapes and the wine world is richer for their efforts; New Zealand’s red wines are on point, modern classics of the New World.
Pinot Noir is the one that started it all, demonstrating to the world beyond a shadow of a doubt that New Zealand was more than just a white wine country. The South Island’s Central Otago region is primo Pinot territory. Thanks to the rain shadow effect of the Southern Alps, the capricious Pinot can not only grow comfortably in Central Otago but indeed flourish. In the New World, it is widely recognized as one of the top regions for the grape.
Hawkes Bay on the North Island is ground zero for the current red renaissance and you’ll find a wide variety of grapes grown here like Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Pinot Noir. Upwards of 70 percent of all New Zealand Syrah is grown and produced in Hawkes Bay. Kiwi Syrah is rather unlike its counterparts across the Tasman Sea. Where Australia is known for its in-your-face Shiraz, the Syrahs of New Zealand tend to take after the French style. With its temperate climate, Hawkes Bay offers optimal growing conditions that favor elegant over ripe and balance over creeping alcohol levels. The Gimblett Gravels subregion of Hawkes Bay has soils reminiscent of those famed galets or “pudding stones” of Châteauneuf-du-Pape. This rocky gravel helps retain heat through the night and provides the vines with free draining soil, both handy for yielding high-quality fruit.
Bordeaux varieties are big in New Zealand as well. If you dig Bordeaux blends but aren’t keen on splashing out mega bucks, New Zealand offers stellar examples that offer some of that Left Bank and Libounais elegance without having to part with steep piles of cold hard cash. Not content with the usual suspects, vintners are plotting a red revolution, also planting Italian and Spanish varieties like Sangiovese, Barbera, Montepulciano, and Tempranillo.
If you’ve only ever dabbled with New Zealand Sauvignon Blancs, now is the time to broaden your wine horizons. Fortunately, the US is now New Zealand’s largest export market, so we’re spoiled for choice stateside. It may not be one of the world’s oldest wine regions, but between the inky Syrahs of Hawkes Bay, the ethereal, mineral-driven Pinots of Central Otago (or Marlborough for that matter), or some of the thrilling experimental varieties being grown, New Zealand is definitely on its ascent. You’d do well to keep an eye on it and stash a few bottles in your cellar during the years to come.