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New Zealand 2011. Part I

Text and Photographs © Tom Cannavan, 06/2011

This is part I of this profile of New Zealand from my 2011 visit, focusing on Marlborough and Waipara on the South Island. Part II moves on to Central Otago and Waitaki.

New Zealand has made the headlines this year, for all the wrong reasons. The devastating earthquake that hit Christchurch in February 2011 brought this tiny country on the edge of the world into the nation's living rooms. It was a salient reminder that New Zealand is not just home to vibrantly fresh Sauvignon Blanc and some of the world's purest expressions of Pinot Noir, but that it is a geological hot spot, sitting astride the Pacific and Australian Tectonic plates.

map Literally days before the earthquake struck, I returned home from a visit to New Zealand, where I participated as a speaker at two of the country's most enjoyable wine events, The Central Otago Pinot Noir Celebration and In Praise of Riesling in Waipara. This was my third trip to New Zealand in four years, and was a chance to focus on the South Island and visit several top wine producers. Some of those I visited were directly affected by February's events, but despite that, the fast-paced rate of development and change in New Zealand goes on. The map right shows the regions visited for this article.


Undoubtedly New Zealand's best known wine region, Marlborough is home to some of the most distinctive Sauvignon Blanc on the planet. Marlborough created the first genuinely new style of Sauvignon outside of its Loire homeland, and that style is now mimicked across the globe. And yet, as previously discussed on wine-pages, there is a concerted effort by producers to expand that picture and avoid the potential pitfalls of being so reliant on one grape, and no matter how popular, one style.

Very large crops in 2008 and 2009 meant wine quality suffered and the prices historically achieved for these wines in the UK market collapsed. The phenomenon of the £3.99 bottle of Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc was one I thought I would never see, and one which must have filled those who have rushed to plant in the area over recent years with horror.

To fight against this, quality producers have cut back the yields from their vineyards drastically and are working with the growers they buy from to spread this message. But there are also new paths being explored with real vigour. There are new styles of Sauvignon Blanc that are fermented with wild yeasts, aged in oak barrels or blended with Semillon, there's a continuing focus on Pinot Noir, and much more emphasis on other grapes.

   Marlborough remains a viticultural paradise, and one where the differing sub-regions and their terroirs are also being better understood and better expressed in the wines. My trip began with a visit to the HQ of the region, Wine Marlborough, where manager Marcus Pickens arranged a tasting of 40 wines to allow me to benchmark where this region is going. Marcus also shot the little video (left) asking for my reaction after the tasting. Read my tasting notes on these 40 wines, plus visits to some top producers, below.

Marlborough producers and wines

Wine Marlborough

The generic tasting of 40 Marlborough wines showed the expanding horizons for grapes, terroirs and styles.

40 wines tasted

Framingham Estate

Maestros of Riesling, Framingham's new 'F Series' wines could be considered in the 'natural wines' category.

13 wines tasted

Hunter's Wines

The family-owned Hunter's, led by Jane Hunter, is considered a pioneering force in Marlborough Sauvignon.

10 wines tasted


From the legendary Kevin Judd, the man who made Cloudy Bay, and whose new wines are going down a storm.

6 wines tasted

TinPot Hut

The solo venture of winemaker Fiona Turner who has made some of New Zealand's most highly-regarded wines.

4 wines tasted

Delta Vineyards

For many years Fiona Turner's winemaking partner, Matt Thomson is partnered here by Brit David Gleave MW.

2 wines tasted

Waipara and Canterbury

waipara Just north of the South Island's capital city, Christchurch, lie the vineyards of Waipara and Canterbury, which together comprise New Zealand's fourth largest viticultural area. Claiming to be the fastest growing wine region in New Zealand, around 80 vineyards cover more than 1,200 hectares in Waipara alone. Waipara's soils include gravely deposits on flats and terraces in the centre and west of the valley, limestone and clay on hillsides and valley floor to the east and gravely loams over alluvial subsoils in the south. Riesling, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir currently get most of the region's focus. Right: a perfect summer's day at Waipara Hills' vineyard restaurant.

I did manage to visit a few of Waipara and Canterbury's best producers as you will read below, but one of the main reasons for my visit here was to attend the annual event called 'In Praise of Riesling'. IPR is a fantastic celebration of the Riesling grape, not just for the producers in Waipara, but across New Zealand. I spoke on a panel presenting a blind tasting of Rieslings from around the world, but there are also notes on a Regional Riesling tasting featuring 40 wines, plus notes from a fascinating tasting of a project called 'The Riesling Challenge', in which 12 different wineries from across New Zealand took fruit from the same vineyard, harvested on the same day, and made their own interpretation of it.

But other than Riesling, it is with Pinot Noir and Chardonnay that Waipara and Canterbury are establishing the greatest reputation. This is one of very few regions in New Zealand to boast limestone soils, which is the bedrock of many of Burgundy's most famous vineyards.

Waipara / Canterbury producers and wines

Waipara Riesling

A generic tasting, this time of 40 examples of Waipara Riesling, running the gamut of dry to sweet styles.

41 wines tasted

The Riesling Challenge

Twelve wines, twelve winemakers, one batch of grapes. Evidence of terroir, or the hand of man?

12 wines tasted

International Riesling

A test to sit and speak on this panel led by Bob Campbell MW, exploring international Riesling in a blind tasting.

18 wines tasted

Pyramid Valley

One of the most discussed wineries in New Zealand. Mike and Claudia Weersing make uncompromising 'natural wines'.

16 wines tasted

Sherwood Estate

Dayne & Jill Sherwood run a very smart operation, with moderately-priced wines that deliver high quality.

11 wines tasted

Waipara Hills/Mud House

Two big brands under the same ownership, making and impressive range of wines from Waipara and other key regions.

15 wines tasted

See also "
Other NZ Pinots" in part II of this report from the Central Otago Pinot Noir Celebration, where a dozen more Canterbury/Waipara wines are tasted.