New Zealand is rightly famous for its sauvignon blanc wines and the Marlborough style that helped put the country on the wine map in the first place. But there is so much more to this small producer’s portfolio and plenty to get excited about. We asked Rebecca Gibb, an English wine writer who lives in New Zealand, to bring us up to speed

New Zealand is a dot in the ocean at the end of the world and has fallen off the end of the earth on numerous world maps. There are fewer Kiwis than Yorkshiremen and the country's prime minister, John Key, was recently referred to as an ‘unidentified guest’ by a press agency when pictured with David Cameron at Nelson Mandela’s funeral. In short, New Zealand isn’t a major global player.

Yet, it punches above its weight in many areas. In 2013 alone, a New Zealand woman won the Man Booker Prize for The Luminaries, and Auckland teenager Lorde knocked the rather unsavoury Miley Cyrus off the top of the US Billboard Charts with her song Royals.

On the sporting field, the All Blacks make mincemeat out of other countries that boast a population ten times larger than New Zealand, and in the US and the UK New Zealand wines attract the highest average bottle price of any wine producing country in the world. Not bad for a country that doesn’t appear on some globes.

The highly regarded Brajkovich family of Kumeu River WinesThe country’s winemakers are best associated with sauvignon blanc, particularly from Marlborough. Sitting at the top of New Zealand’s South Island, Marlborough enjoys sunshine in spades and a cool climate, making bright, zesty sauvignon that exudes tropical flavours. It’s been such a successful export that Marlborough is now the biggest sauvignon-producing region in the world – even the Loire Valley, home to Sancerre, can’t compete. But the variety accounts for more than eight out of ten bottles that leave Kiwi ports, leaving many wondering if there’s much beyond Marlborough and sauvignon blanc.

In the words of Englishman Clive Dougall, a former Oddbins employee and currently the winemaker at Marlborough’s Seresin, ‘If you think Marlborough (and New Zealand) is only sauvignon blanc then you’re basically a fool and need to check out the pinot and the chardonnay.’

Indeed, if you haven’t tried Kiwi pinot noir, riesling or chardonnay perhaps 2014 is the year. All three varieties are particularly well-suited to the cooler climes of New Zealand’s South Island and have been receiving international acclaim from wine critics worldwide. Meanwhile cabernet sauvignon and merlot blends grown in warmer Hawke’s Bay on the North Island offer Bordeaux lovers great value for money. The Bordeaux blends provide riper fruit but the maritime climate in the Bay contributes plenty of structure: when pitted against some of Bordeaux’s best in blind tastings, New Zealand has come out on top. So much for just Marlborough sauvignon.

Here’s a guide to what’s hot and what’s not beyond sauvignon blanc.

Pinot noir

New Zealand’s most important red varietal isn’t going anywhere but up, with vine plantings rising more than 66% in the past ten years. Its success lies in its approachable fruity character, soft tannins and fresh acidity. The other bonus is that pinot noir from New Zealand offers relatively good value for money, compared to the pinot capital of the world, Burgundy. Look out for Central Otago, perhaps the most famous pinot noir-producing region in the country. Initially known for making super-sized pinot, there’s definitely change afoot, as Paul Pujol, winemaker at Prophet’s Rock, explains: ‘Broadly speaking, style-wise, in the early 2000s, the model was bigger is better – a focus on very big ripe, reasonably high alcohol styles. It was a great entry point for Central Otago and pinot noir. But there’s been a move toward structure and aiming for more complexity, showcasing other elements than just varietal fruit.’ The Society lists Prophet's Rock Pinot Noir 2010 (ref NZ6901, £25) and the exclusive Mount Koinga Pinot Noir 2012 (ref NZ6891, £19).

New vineyards, Martinborough - photography by Kevin Judd Moving on, we come to the old dame of Kiwi pinot noir, Martinborough. At the southern tip of the North Island, the region’s been around for a long time and some of the country’s best producers are based here although you need to pick and choose, as there are quite a lot of also-rans. From one of the pioneers of the region comes Martinborough Vineyards Te Tera Pinot Noir 2012 (ref NZ7051, £13.50 ).Jumping on the ferry to the South Island, Marlborough is starting to show some promise when it comes to pinot. Look out for wines made on the heavier soils of the region’s Southern Valleys if you want a bit of substance. My assessment? An emerging star that has yet to attain greatness. My one to watch in 2014 is Waipara. An hour’s drive north of earthquake-ravaged Christchurch, this is the new kid on the (clay) block. The best are broody, meaty and spicy in style. Look out as well for wines from the areas of Omihi and Waikari.


Experiencing a mini-renaissance after being left out in the dark for a long time, New Zealand producers are finally getting to grips with chardonnay. Kumeu River in Auckland, hardly a renowned wine region in New Zealand, has been putting most chardonnays to shame for the past decade. Try the Kumeu River Village Hand-Harvested Chardonnay 2011(ref NZ7131, £9.50). Finally, other producers are stepping up and in the past year, I’ve tasted some exciting wines that have changed my mind on NZ chardonnay. Inevitably, at lower price points, the wines are pretty unexciting, tending towards full-bodied, creamy styles with oak that’s disjointed. Spend a little more and you have restrained, textured and – dare I say it – Burgundy-like whites emerging, particularly from Marlborough and Martinborough. The Mahi Twin Valleys Chardonnay 2011 from Marlborough’s Wairau Valley demonstrates this admirably (ref NZ6691, £15.50).


Riesling can be made in any style from dry to sweet, like many other varieties. Unfortunately, you don't know what you’re going to get when you pick a bottle off the shelf and if you’re spending your hard-earned money, who can blame you for not entering the riesling lottery? It’s a shame that riesling is such a hard sell, as it’s my favourite white variety. But it’s a global issue that will take more than a tap of Sooty's wand to solve. In New Zealand, riesling makes pure, crystalline wines from Martinborough and Marlborough to Waipara and Central Otago. From Marlborough try Spy Valley 2012(ref NZ6851, £10.95) or the 2012 Greywacke (ref NZ6811, £17.50).

Pinot gris

Prophet’s Rock winemaker Paul PujolFull disclosures here: I am no fan of pinot gris. There are far more interesting wines to drink in my opinion. But in the past ten years, New Zealand's pinot gris plantings have increased eight-fold, as global demand for the variety soars. In most cases, it’s watery, dilute and boring. Indeed there are large swathes of high-yielding pinot gris vines producing innocuous stuff that you'll stumble over in the supermarket. But if Alsace can make pinot gris with aromatics, texture and structure, then so can New Zealand and there are examples like those from Prophet’s Rock (ref NZ6921, £19.50) and Greywacke (ref NZ6801, £17.50) that manage this elusive combination. If you want some interest in your pinot gris, ask for wines that have seen some time in barrel and had some love in the winery through wild fermentation and lees stirring.

Bordeaux blends

While South Island plays host to ski-fields and grape varieties associated with cool climates, it is warm enough to ripen cabernet sauvignon and merlot on the North Island. Well, just about. In 2011, it was a nail-biter and in 2012, it was a bit of a washout for these varieties. Look to Hawke’s Bay, particularly Gimblett Gravels, for the country’s best examples. The stony soils of Gimblett Gravels perform the same job as the pudding stones of Châteauneuf-du-Pape, warming up quickly in the early spring, providing a longer growing season, and retaining heat throughout the season. Rather ignominiously, the area was home to a rubbish dump, a drag race strip, a gravel quarry and an army firing range in the early 1980s, but this former river bed is now widely regarded as producing the country’s best Bordeaux-lookalikes, as well as some spicy Rhône-like syrah.The historic Te-Mata Estate’s Woodthorpe Cabernet-Merlot 2010 is an elegant example of the Bordeaux blend (ref NZ6931, £12.95).

Rebecca Gibb is an English wine writer and Master of Wine student living in New Zealand. She was Louis Roederer Emerging Wine Writer of the Year 2010, is editor of and has her own website at

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