New Zealand's White Wines Span Pinot Gris, Chardonnay and, Yes, Sauvignon Blanc | Wine Enthusiast
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New Zealand’s White Wines Span Pinot Gris, Chardonnay and, Yes, Sauvignon Blanc

It’s no wonder that New Zealand excels when it comes to white wine. The narrow islands’ remote location at the southwest edge of the Pacific Ocean means that none of its wine regions is farther than a few hours from the coast.

Combine the intense maritime influence with long hours of sunshine, crisp nights and some of the most southerly latitudes in the wine world, and you have a landscape perfectly suited to craft white wines of delicacy, finesse and freshness.

While New Zealand’s calling card is Sauvignon Blanc, the ruggedly beautiful nation produces whites from a plethora of other varieties. Read on to dive in.

Sauvignon Blanc

Top to bottom: Mt. Beautiful 2018 12 Barrels Sauvignon Blanc (North Canterbury), Nautilus 2019 Sauvignon Blanc (Marlborough) and Villa Maria 2019 Cellar Selection Sauvignon Blanc (Marlborough)
Top to bottom: Mt. Beautiful 2018 12 Barrels Sauvignon Blanc (North Canterbury), Nautilus 2019 Sauvignon Blanc (Marlborough) and Villa Maria 2019 Cellar Selection Sauvignon Blanc (Marlborough) / Photo by Tom Arena

No variety is as synonymous with New Zealand than Sauvignon Blanc. In 2018, the grape accounted for a whopping 73% of the country’s wine production, and 86% of its total exports.

There’s an unmistakable, bombastic style produced here. It offers heady aromas of passionfruit, lime, pineapple, bell pepper, tomato leaf and grass, along with rapier-like acidity.

Though it’s made virtually everywhere in New Zealand, the vast majority of plantings are in Marlborough, at the northeast edge of the South Island. They’re spread across two subregions: the Wairau and the Awatere Valleys.

The Awatere, the more sea swept of the two, can produce a more herbaceous and less overtly fruity Sauvignon than the Wairau. But Marlborough’s overarching fruit-forward “Savvie B” style prevails just as often here.

Across New Zealand, regional differences are subtle but apparent: In Wairarapa, on the south end of the North Island, for example, more green vegetal characters are apparent, while in warmer Hawke’s Bay, the wines tend toward tropical. Ultimately, though, viticulture and winemaking choices have the final say.

Pick and press Sauvignon Blanc early from high-yielding vines with large leaf cover, without skins or stems, lees or oak influence, and you get the zingy, aromatic style that put New Zealand on the map.

But if you harvest it later from vines with low yields and a small canopy, ferment it in whole bunches with native yeast, in barrel and/or on its lees, a whole different beast emerges.

“Let’s face it, the majority of conventional [New Zealand] Sauvignon is heavily based on a narrow, rather shouty aromatic spectrum,” says Sam Weaver, winemaker for his own label, Churton, and for North Canterbury’s Mt. Beautiful winery. “Wines with good fruit weight, on the other hand, have intensity, balance and, most importantly, length of flavor.”

Mt. Beautiful 2018 12 Barrels Sauvignon Blanc (North Canterbury); $26, 93 points. On the restrained side, relatively speaking, this white offers attractive aromas of tangerine, lime blossom and honeysuckle, with just a suggestion of oak. The palate harmonizes texture with refreshment, echoing the nose, but adding white spice on the lengthy finish. The oak supports, adding weight, texture and complexity. Drink now–2028. Mt. Beautiful USA.

Nautilus 2019 Sauvignon Blanc (Marlborough); $20, 91 points. This wine is a touch salty and flinty to start, which adds character to the notes of lemon-lime, gooseberry, pineapple rind, honeysuckle and green herbs wafting from the glass. A creamy yet chalky texture is woven with juicy fruit and prickly acidity, ending long and citrusy. Spicy Mexican or Thai cuisine has met its match. Negociants USA Winebow. Editors’ Choice.

Villa Maria 2019 Cellar Selection Sauvignon Blanc (Marlborough); $17, 91 points. This is a solid example of Marlborough Sauvignon that’s well-priced, easy to get your hands on, and from at great vintage. It strikes a lovely balance between fruit and herbal tones in the form of juicy lime, zingy gooseberry, crunchy snow pea and spicy green bell pepper. Michelle Wine Estates.


Left to right: Pyramid Valley 2016 Lion’s Tooth Chardonnay (North Canterbury), Kumeu River 2018 Kumeu Village Hand Harvested Chardonnay (Kumeu) and Craggy Range 2019 Kidnappers Vineyard Chardonnay (Hawkes Bay)
Left to right: Pyramid Valley 2016 Lion’s Tooth Chardonnay (North Canterbury), Kumeu River 2018 Kumeu Village Hand Harvested Chardonnay (Kumeu) and Craggy Range 2019 Kidnappers Vineyard Chardonnay (Hawkes Bay) / Photo by Tom Arena

Although it accounts for just 7% of the country’s total wine production, serious Chardonnay producers here are passionate about this versatile variety. As a result, bottlings are often of very high quality.

Three decades ago, when it was the country’s most planted wine grape, Chardonnay was made in a more overtly fruity and oaky style. Today, it’s fine, restrained and, in many cases, highly ageworthy.

“Chardonnay in New Zealand has seen a steady style evolution over several decades, but converging upon one main type, drawing most of its inspiration from the white wines of Burgundy,” says Michael Brajkovich, MW, winemaker at the historic Kumeu River Wines, west of Auckland, and one of New Zealand’s pioneers of both Chardonnay and the shift toward a more Burgundian style.

Chardonnay finds a happy home across the country, particularly at altitude and in the coastal areas of Hawke’s Bay in the North Island, which produces about a third of the nation’s bottlings. The style here, depending on site, ranges from fresh and fruity to rich and concentrated.

Elevated acidity and a leaner, more citrus-driven profile are found in examples from regions at the bottom of the North Island, like Wairarapa/Martinborough, and in South Island regions like Marlborough, Nelson, North Canterbury and Central Otago, where overall temps are cooler.

Neudorf, in Nelson, Felton Road in Central Otago, as well as Pyramid Valley and Bell Hill, in the limestone-strewn Waikari subregion of North Canterbury, have worked wonders with the world’s most well known white variety. Put them on your radar.

Pyramid Valley 2016 Lion’s Tooth Chardonnay (North Canterbury); $90, 95 points.  A bit more restrained and less fruit forward than its sister wine Field of Fire, this wine is nevertheless a beauty. Citrus zest hides beneath accents of rock and earth. The mineral-laden acidity feels pure as spring water and runs through the waxy texture of the palate. The endlessly long finish is steeped in citrus and minerals. Pyramid Valley Vineyards LLC.

Kumeu River 2018 Kumeu Village Hand Harvested Chardonnay (Kumeu); $22, 93 points. When compared with the almost severe austerity of this renowned Chardonnay producer’s upper-tier wines, this entry-level one is downright boisterous. Bright gold in hue, it billows melon and stone fruit with undertones of honey and sea salt. The palate crunches with crystalline acidity wrapped up in texture that is simultaneously slippery and powdery, with a long, salt-flecked finish. Drink now and over the next few years. Wilson Daniels Ltd. Editors’ Choice.

Craggy Range 2019 Kidnappers Vineyard Chardonnay (Hawkes Bay); $22, 90 points. This affordable Chardonnay, from one of New Zealand’s best known names, is intensely perfumed, a heady, musky combo of flower blossoms, peach cobbler, orange zest and ginger. The medium-weight palate is powdery in texture with a lovely freshness. It lacks some length and depth, and is a bit overpolished, but has plenty of appeal nonetheless. Kobrand.

Pinot Gris

Hans Family Estate 2017 Pinot Gris (Marlborough); Huia 2019 Pinot Gris (Marlborough); and Waipapa Bay 2019 Pinot Gris (Marlborough)
Top to bottom: Hans Family Estate 2017 Pinot Gris (Marlborough), Huia 2019 Pinot Gris (Marlborough) and Waipapa Bay 2019 Pinot Gris (Marlborough) / Photo by Tom Arena

Pinot Gris has only been a part of the New Zealand wine landscape since the 1990s, yet it’s one of the few white varieties other than Sauvignon Blanc to steadily increase in plantings and production. The third most planted variety in the nation, it makes up 6% of New Zealand’s total wine production.

Most Pinot Gris clones here originated in Germany, Switzerland and South Africa, and the wine style is closer to Alsace than Italy, which is why so many producers call it “Gris,” not “Grigio.”

New Zealand Pinot Gris is richer both in aromatics and texture than the lighter, more neutral Pinot Grigio style. It can be mouthfilling and off-dry, with bold baked pear, apple, honey and spice characteristics. This richer, riper style is prevalent in warmer North Island regions like Gisborne.

In the South Island, where the majority of Pinot Gris is grown, the wines walk a fresher, more delicate line. They’re less honeyed and unctuous, with more fresh fruit. But there are plenty of exceptions.

Swiss-born winemaker Hans Herzog crafts one of the country’s most interesting Pinot Gris at his winery, Hans Family Estate, in Marlborough. It’s a pulsing wine that’s rich and fruity, yet also dry, fresh and varietally expressive. He achieves this through the use of wild yeast and long contact with both skin and lees.

“This requires perfectly ripe, handpicked, immaculate fruit from low yields so no bad flavors are extracted during the long, cold soak,” says Herzog. “It’s a style that comes with high cost without a quick return on investment but suits our artisan winegrowing: small volumes of handcrafted wines.”

Pinot Gris is a young variety in New Zealand in need of dedicated, quality-focused producers like Herzog. When it receives love and a gentle touch, it’s well worth seeking out.

Hans Family Estate 2017 Pinot Gris (Marlborough); $37, 96 points. Swiss-born Hans Herzog’s Old World-style wines, made from his 26 organically farmed grape varieties, sing of both the land and the man. Ultralow yields and long skin contact make this amber wine—the color of a flaming, pink-tinted sunset—extraordinarily unique in New Zealand. The evocative nose smells like a summer evening: grilled nectarines and figs, honeysuckle, beeswax and warm stones. It’s gorgeously complex and mineral, with layers of flavor and texture. The alcohol is a touch high, but overall it pulses with energy, unfurling over time and proving Pinot Gris capable of greatness Down Under. Drink now–2030. Cape Ardor-LLC. Editors’ Choice.

Huia 2019 Pinot Gris (Marlborough); $19, 90 points. This is a lovely, dry example of Marlborough Pinot Gris without too much winemaking trickery. A delicately perfumed nose of honeysuckle, hibiscus and pear leads to a palate that is textural yet refreshing, expressing the variety’s gentle floral and orchard fruit characters. A touch of bitterness at the finish distracts slightly, but overall this is a solid bottling of this style from a sensitive producer. USA Wine West.

Waipapa Bay 2019 Pinot Gris (Marlborough); $15, 88 points. A fruity, floral number bursting with honeyed pears, cantaloupe, white flower blossoms and a sprinkle of salt. It’s slippery in the mouth but not overtly creamy, with a bright line of fruit and flowers through the front and midpalate, but veering toward bitterness at the back. Nevertheless, this is an appealing alternative to those who don’t dig the greenness of Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc. MHW, Ltd.

Other White Wines

Left to right: Millton 2017 Te Arai Vineyard Chenin Blanc (Gisborne), Pegasus Bay 2015 Riesling (Waipara) and Jules Taylor 2018 Grüner Veltliner (Marlboroug
From left to right: Millton 2017 Te Arai Vineyard Chenin Blanc (Gisborne), Pegasus Bay 2015 Riesling (Waipara) and Jules Taylor 2018 Grüner Veltliner (Marlborough) / Photo by Tom Arena

The diversity of New Zealand’s winegrowing regions means that a wide range of grape varieties can grow, like Viognier, Grüner Veltliner and Albariño. The long, cool growing season of the South Island is suited to aromatic varieties, while the North can ripen fleshier, warmer climate whites.

One white that shows promise is Riesling. Producers that grow this Germanic variety make everything from delicate, bone-dry and citrus-driven wines to lusciously sweet and complex bottlings. Parts of North Canterbury, an exciting region to watch for all manner of varieties, seems particularly suited to it, and producers like Pegasus Bay are renowned.

The arid Central Otago landscape gives Canterbury a run for its money with pristine, beautifully aromatic Riesling. Rippon winery, on the breathtaking shores of Lake Wanaka, makes a wild and complex version.

Another resurgent variety is Chenin Blanc, the versatile grape with a fiercely loyal following. Chenin’s ability to produce terroir-driven varietal wines has made it a top choice for artisanal producers like James Millton, whose Gisborne-based winery on the North Island was also at the forefront of biodynamics in the Pacific region.

Millton’s Chenin grows on silt loam with clay undersoil, which gives the fragrant, complex wines what he describes as a “lanolin texture and clipped acid finish.”

In Hawke’s Bay, Millton says, “some interesting vineyards are planted [in] gravel, like at Esk Valley. And farther south, there are plantings on limestone, such as Black Estate [in North Canterbury] and Amisfield [in Central Otago].

“By and by, Chenin Blanc is taking up more of our vineyard lands, such is the pleasure it delivers,” he says. “The other white varieties I am embracing, in this lifetime at least, are Savagnin, Petit Manseng and, with the interest in amphora, we have also planted Mtsvane. One day, I will just keep it simple.”

Millton 2017 Te Arai Vineyard Chenin Blanc (Gisborne); $33, 97 points. Gorgeously textured, swinging between unctuousness and freshness, this is a soulful wine from New Zealand’s godfather of biodynamics, James Millton. Millton’s reputation for Chenin Blanc is equally mighty, and this honey-hued beauty lives up to it in every way. Highly aromatic, like a flower garden, with heady scents of jasmine, hyacinth and lavender combining with raw honeycomb, guava and pineapple rind. Wine Dogs Imports LLC. Editors’ Choice.

Pegasus Bay 2015 Riesling (Waipara); $31, 92 points. This Riesling, with a slight bit of bottle age on it, is radiant yellow in hue with intense aromas of honey, florals, ginger candy and pineapple billowing from the glass. The palate is off-dry, the sweetness adding an opulence and richness to the wine. A line of pristine acidity balances it nicely. It’s lacking in depth of flavor and a sense of place, but is nonetheless a noble crack at a difficult style, from a winery well-known for crafting long-lived Riesling. Drink now–2030 and maybe beyond. Empson USA Ltd.

Jules Taylor 2018 Grüner Veltliner (Marlborough); $18, 91 points. Pale gold in hue, this wine offers a perfume of pineapple and lemon juice flecked with herbs and honey. Highly textural, the oily mouthfeel is buoyed by tangy fruit and finishes on a spicy note. Try this alongside rich dishes like risotto or buttery lobster. Maritime Wine Trading Collective.