How To Drink Up New Zealand's Four Finest Wine Regions

31 Mar 2016

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There is a worldwide thirst for fine New Zealand wine. Sauvignon blanc from Marlborough, pinot noir from Central Otago and syrah from Hawke's Bay have captured the imagination of wine lovers around the globe.

New Zealand wine exports reached a record high of $1.54 billion for 2015, up a remarkable 14% on 2014 and selling in over 90 countries. Those are quite amazing figures for a country where there was no serious wine industry three decades ago.

Brisk, herbaceous and refreshing sauvignon blanc has been the key driver, the New Zealand wine industry has a lot more to offer, with vineyards planted in dozens of different regions across both islands.

Located in the Otago region, Rippon is open for tastings most days of the year. Image: Julian Apse

An astonishing two-thirds of all Kiwi wine comes from Marlborough, followed by Hawke's Bay (12%), Gisborne (6%) and Central Otago (3%), but some of New Zealand's icon wines come from smaller regions, including Nelson, Martinborough and the Auckland region, where vines are located to the west of the city and on picturesque Waiheke Island.

Wherever you go, New Zealanders take wine seriously. It would be a mistake to turn down the chance to taste benchmark bottles like one of Felton Road's pinot noirs, Te Mata's Coleraine red blend and Cloudy Bay's game-changing sauvignon blancs.

But don't expect to skimp. A bottle of the limited-release Babich 2013 Special Edition Cabernet Sauvignon comes with a price tag of AUD$399. Wines from relatively new Bell Hill from Waipara, north of Christchurch, soar past the AUD$100 mark, as does the ultra-premium Vinoptima Reserve Ormond Gewurztraminer from Gisborne.

1. Marlborough Region, South Island

New Zealand's largest wine region also boasts one-fifth of the country's coastline. Just a 15-minute flight from Wellington across Cook Strait. Protected by mountain ranges at the top of the South Island, it is a year-round destination for lovers of wine, food and craft beers.

Biking the vines is an easy way to explore Marlborough's wineries. Image: Mike Heydon

What to drink:

Make sure to sample wines from Dog Point (the barrel-matured Section 94 sauvignon blanc is a star), savvys from Wooing Tree, chardonnays and pinots from Greywacke, world-class rieslings from Framingham and organic wines from Seresin.

Visit small producers like Te Whare Ra and Clos Henri. Brancott Estate, Hans Herzog, Spy Valley and Wither Hills are other key addresses.

Organic wines from Seresin is a must-try in Marlborough. Image: Winsor Dobbin

Where to eat:

Arbour is a delightful vineyard restaurant serving impressive modern European cuisine.

Where to stay:

The ultimate indulgence can be found at the Bay of Many Coves Resort on the water's edge in the Malborough Sounds, but it is just over a couple hours drive from Marborough itself. Otherwise, the Marlborough Scenic Hotel is on a central square in Blenheim, close to all the action.

2. Martinborough Region, North Island

A European-style wine village where it is possible to stroll from cellar door to cellar door, Martinborough is part of the larger Wairarapa wine region. A winding 90-minute drive from Wellington, it is home to New Zealand's most expensive pinot noir and the versatile region also does well with chardonnay and other varieties.

There are more that fifty wineries in the beautiful village of Martinborough. Image: Ata Rangi

What to drink:

Martinborough Vineyard Marie Zelie Reserve Pinot Noir 2010 sells for $225. Fewer than 2000 bottles were made – and it can only be bought at the cellar door.

Also try superb pinots from Larry McKenna at Escarpment, chardonnays and pinots from Ata Rangi, pioneering wineries like Dry River, Te Kairanga and Palliser, along with artisans Urlar, Big Sky, Brodie Estate and Paper Road.

The Cellar Door of Ata Rangi, Martinborough. Image: Ata Rangi

Where to eat:

Pinocchio is run by an enthusiastic young couple who produce modern food with considerable panache.

Where to stay:

Perched on the cliffs above the black sand of Palliser Bay, Wharekauhau Lodge is located at the heart of one of the most spectacular farms in the world 45 mins drive from Martinborough. Otherwise the Martinborough Hotel, in the centre of town, is a comfortable base with a range of room styles.


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3. Central Otago Region, South Island

Marvellously intense pinot noirs from Central Otago have built a formidable global reputation over the past two decades. Wine lovers can stay in the lively resort town of Queenstown and make day trips to the more remote wine regions.

Vineyard and Lake Wanaka in Central Otago. Image: Jochen Schlenker

What to drink:

Make sure to visit star pinot noir producers like Felton Road (whose best wines often sell out quickly), Mount Edward, Chard Farm (the views are dramatic), Mount Difficulty, Rippon and Valli, and try wines from rustic Folding Hill and Two Paddocks (owned by film star Sam Neill).

Sam Neill in the apricot orchard of Two Paddocks. Image: Two Paddocks

Where to eat:

The Amisfield cellar door restaurant is located at one of the closest winery tasting rooms to Queenstown and offers produce like fresh crayfish.

Where to stay:

For the closest luxury lodge to Queenstown, you cannot go past the acclaimed Matakauri Lodge on the edge of Lake Wakatipu. Otherwise the Hotel St Moritz is in the heart of Queenstown with dramatic views of the iconic Remarkables mountain range.

4. Hawke's Bay Region, North Island

Think Hawke's Bay, think red wines; including savoury syrahs and mellow merlots. The region is known as “New Zealand's Bordeaux” and grapes have been grown here since 1851. It is home to star red producers including Church Road, Craggy Range, Te Awa, Sileni Estates and Te Mata. The Gimblett Gravels district is known for its stellar wines.

For over thirty years, Te Mata Estate has been producing highly acclaimed wines. Image: Chris McLennan

What to drink:

Sacred Hill Helmsman is a benchmark blend of cabernet sauvignon, merlot and cabernet franc, while Church Road's McDonald Series Syrah is a major award winner.

Also check out Te Mata's superb Elston Chardonnay, wines from Elephant Hill and Black Barn, both with spectacular cellar doors, Craggy Range, Mission Estate (try the Huchet Chardonnay), Ngatawara, Easthope and Trinity Hill.

Just a small taste of the supurb wines from the Hawke's Bay region. Image: Winsor Dobbin

Where to eat:

Newcomer Bistronomy is run of by one of New Zealand's leading chefs and has an excellent wine list.

Where to stay:

Set on 6,000 acres of dramatic coastline, The Farm at Cape Kidnappers boasts breathtaking views across the Pacific Ocean. If you like your accommodation a little bit quirky, you'll enjoy the atmospheric Masonic Art Deco Hotel in Napier.

Winsor Dobbin

Winsor Dobbin has been a journalist for over 30 years, during which he has been based in cities as diverse as London, Paris, Johannesburg and Sydney – in all of which he has usually had a glass of wine in his hand.He writes about his greatest passions; food, wine and travel and is most likely to be found where there’s a cellar door and good restaurant. Winsor writes for The Sun-Herald and a wide range of magazines and websites.