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New Zealand
by Sophie Schweitzer
Magazine Issue: U.S. Vol. 4.6

One of my favorite wine books, published in 1998, doesn't even list New Zealand in the index. Perhaps because New Zealand accounts for merely 0.2 percent of world wine production. Even so, its exports, particularly in sauvignon blanc, have gone up 36 percent in the last year alone. With this increased international recognition, New Zealand -- once uniquely known for sheep, kiwis and Maori art -- has now joined the elite of the world's finest wine producers.

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What took New Zealand so long? Its first vines were planted in 1819, in the subtropical region of Northland. But beyond wine-related happenings in isolated missions, nothing evolved in the country until the late 1800s, when Auckland-based immigrants started to ferment rough libations for family use. In the 1960s New Zealand legislation changed to allow commercial production: the Aucklanders immediately tried their luck in the export business with fortified, sweet and water-diluted stuff, resulting in mass vine plantings, mostly of pallid müller-thurgau.

It turned out these vines did pretty well, so in the 1970s farmers planted chardonnay and sauvignon blanc. And yes, oh yes, they flourished. Growers discovered their climates and soils were as fine as those in the best regions of France. They had an ideal growing season that produced rich, complex wines reminiscent of haystacks, herbs and crisp sheets dried on sunny grass. The wines were vibrant, vigorous and alive. By the mid-1980s, the racy vitality and exuberance of New Zealand's whites pushed them to the top. Just like that.

For the time being, New Zealand recognizes only one appellation: itself. Challenged by its sudden fame and growth, it's barely keeping up with adequate management and, despite enormous differences in styles per region, chooses to push its wines as an instantly recognizable kiwi product. With more than 330 wineries -- and new ones popping up every week -- wine grower associations are in the process of proposing regional rules and regulations.

Divided almost evenly between the North and South Islands, more than 25 varietals are cultivated on close to 25,000 acres of vineyards sprawling along 1,000 miles of mostly coastal land. Rumbling volcanoes and seething geysers define the soils of the warm northern country. The inland mountains and lakes of southern New Zealand hint at the not-too-far-away Antarctic ice. Along the coasts, the temperate and maritime climate is perfect for vinous enterprise. White wine is predominant in New Zealand, but reds are being planted at twice the rate as white. Müller-thurgau has mostly been replaced by chardonnay and sauvignon blanc, which together account for more than half of New Zealand's vines. They're followed by three red varietals: pinot noir, cabernet sauvignon and merlot. Riesling takes sixth place.

R E G I O N S

Here's an overview, from north to south, of New Zealand's wine-growing regions -- six on the North Island, four on the South Island

Northland: This is the site of New Zealand's first vineyard; thus nostalgia abounds here. Though it's really too rainy, too humid and too warm here for healthy, happy vines, on volcanic slopes and shallow clay soils about seven brave wineries try to prove that even here great wines can be made. Cabernet sauvignon, merlot and chardonnay dominate.

Auckland: The historic center of the New Zealand wine industry hosts several important wine companies, though most buy grapes from other regions. Auckland's climate has too much autumn rain and not enough sun to grow quality grapes itself. Waiheke Island, off the east coast, is considered part of Auckland, and with its drier climate and better soils, it's rapidly claiming its own name with great cabernet sauvignon, merlot and cabernet franc -- Bordeaux-style reds.

Waikato and Bay of Plenty: In this rainy region, just south of Auckland, chardonnay, cabernet sauvignon and sauvignon blanc struggle on 350-plus acres of rolling pasture land. Major wineries here get their grapes elsewhere.

Gisborne: Self-proclaimed the chardonnay capital, and once the largest wine region in the country, Gisborne now ranks number three with New Zealand's most easterly vineyards. True, half of its volcanic soils are planted with chardonnay, but most of Gisborne's harvest, including a vast amount of lesser whites, goes straight to Auckland. Red varietals make up a mere 10 percent.

Hawkes Bay: From hot plains to cool altitudes, it seems in Hawkes Bay the sun shines a perfect number of hours on the numerous soil types composing the second-largest and highest-quality wine region in the country. Chardonnay predominates. Cabernet sauvignon, sauvignon blanc, merlot and pinot noir flourish as well.

Wairarapa: The official title of this southern region of the North Island is Wellington. Here vines grow mostly on the eastern side, known as Maori. Wairarapa is passionate about the promise of pinot noir. At its heart lies Martinborough, inseparable from this difficult varietal. With a cool climate, the region also excels in chardonnay and sauvignon blanc.

Nelson: Artists adore the maritime, cool climate, and the sunny plains and valleys of this area across Cook Strait, on the South Island. It's natural here for small boutique wineries to pour artistic wines made of chardonnay, sauvignon blanc, riesling and pinot noir.

Marlborough: In less than 20 years, the sunny-but-cool river valleys of the South isle's northeastern tip have become New Zealand's largest and most important wine-growing region. The 60-something wineries here are famous for their sauvignon blanc; chardonnay and pinot noir translate into equally intriguing wines. And then there's an arousing sparkler made in the traditional method of Champagne. Overseas investors are moving fast into this exciting area!

Canterbury: South of the town of Christchurch, on frost-threatened silt-loam plains, winemakers come up with decent riesling and sauvignon blanc. But in Waipara Valley, just north, friendlier soils have spurred new wineries to produce stellar chardonnay and pinot noir.

Central Otago: As some would say, these wines are "with altitude." From the mountains and lake shores of the only inland wine-producing region (where temperature extremes reign) comes an intense pinot noir. Chardonnay, some sauvignon blanc and riesling also seem to have absorbed the crispness of the glacier-kissing air.

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