Sauvignon Blanc may be New Zealand’s calling card, but a slew of red wines add to the diversity this pair of sea swept islands has to offer.
When it comes to Kiwi reds, Pinot Noir is king. The country has earned itself a formidable reputation for mostly premium bottlings of the variety, which flourishes at the bottom of North Island in the Wairarapa region. There, the wines offer dense, dark and tightly wound expressions. On the South Island, Central Otago yields complex wines from varying subregions that express exotic spices, dried flowers and an abundance of fruit. Other regions that produce the variety include Marlborough, Nelson, North Canterbury and Waipara, which craft softly spiced, fruit-led expressions.
Syrah has emerged as a force to be reckoned with, particularly for collectors and those who favor powerful, bold reds. While some elegant, cool climate expressions of Syrah pop up in the South Island, the vast majority come from the warmer North Island, in the clay-dominant soils of Auckland, but primarily in Hawke’s Bay, where the variety has a nearly 200-year history. There are several mineral driven, muscular, laser-focused Syrahs from the unique soils of the region’s most visible district, Gimblett Gravels.
Varieties like Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Malbec are longstanding players in the North Island, as well. They are often blended into Bordeaux-style red wines that show an intensity of flavor and a supple tannin structure. You can also look to lesserknown varieties like Gamay Noir to perform well in New Zealand. One of the country’s oldest producers, Te Mata, creates a vibrant, fruity, chillable version that is sure to please many Pinot lovers.
Recommended New Zealand red wines
Seresin 2014 Sun & Moon Pinot Noir (Marlborough); $125, 95 points. The biodynamically farmed Seresin was created in the ’90s by Hollywood filmmaker Michael Seresin. The brand has gone through some big changes recently, namely a major downsize, with wines now contract made. After some air, this whirls with red berry, orange bitters, rose petals and sanguine, mineral nuances. More full structured when compared with the “Rachel,” there’s a beautiful through line of bright red fruit neatly wound by savory, fine tannins. A precise, shimmering wine with years of life left in it. Drink now–2027. The Sorting Table.
Trinity Hill 2017 Homage Syrah (Hawke’s Bay); $120, 94 points. While it’s hard to get past the heavy bottle in the age of climate change, this producer’s latest vintage of its top wine is a skillfully crafted drop. Less overtly spicy than the previous vintage, it opens with bright red fruit, florals, flecks of black olives, warm pavement and peppery spice. Things get more serious on the palate with a lovely powdery texture and taut, fine tannins. Minerals and spices abound amid the crunchy red fruit. Those tannins indicate a long life ahead. Drink now with food–2035. NZ Wine Home. Cellar Selection.
Two Paddocks 2018 Estate Vineyards Pinot Noir (Central Otago); $56, 94 points. This is a beautifully approachable yet complex wine from this boutique, biodynamically farmed estate, owned by actor Sam Neill with a talented winemaking and viticulture team spearheaded by Dean Shaw and Mike Wing, respectively. The nose conjures images of cherry pie cooling on a windowsill, a rosebush blooming from the sun-warmed soil beneath. Savory, sappy tannins wind around silky, high-toned fruit in the mouth. A tightrope walk of balance of power and elegance with crunchy acidity to break the fall. Drink now–2028. Negociants USA–Winebow. Editors’ Choice.
Quartz Reef 2017 Bendigo Estate Single Vineyard Pinot Noir (Central Otago); $45, 94 points. This vintage of renowned biodynamic winemaker Rudi Bauer’s single-vineyard Pinot, from the Bendigo subregion, is an expressive and highly pleasurable drop now, but, like all of his Pinots, also has cellaring potential. Billowing from the glass are plums, blueberries, violets and heaps of baking spice, then more savory, earthy notes of black olives, stones and a slight sanguine character. The spiciness, from both the fruit and the oak, is more prominent on the palate, but combine it with juicy fruit, pristine acidity and poised, laser-focused tannins and the result is a wine of depth and elegance that speaks of its place. Drink now–2028. Wine Dogs Imports LLC. Editors’ Choice.
Smith and Sheth 2017 Cru Heretaunga Syrah (Hawke’s Bay); $50, 92 points. This powerful but finessed Syrah starts off with tones of herbs, vanilla and mocha, followed closely by blackberry and plum fruit. With time in the glass, more mineral, graphite and cracked pepper nuances float to the fore. The fruit is plush and silky on the tongue, laden with pepper and spice. The tannins and oak are tight right now, but they should knit together with time. Drink 2022–2030. Pyramid Valley Vineyards LLC. Cellar Selection.
Te Mata 2018 Estate Vineyards Gamay Noir (Hawke’s Bay); $20, 92 points. If this historic estate’s Gamay is anything to go by, New Zealand should be planting more of the stuff. A vibrant crimson color, it’s a perky medley of cherries, blueberries and strawberries woven with licorice, baking spice and florals, with earthy, mineral base notes. In the mouth the crisp acidity gives a crunch to all that fruit. The silky texture is held together with gentle yet structured and spicy tannins. Light bodied and harmonious, with the oak tucked neatly away, this is an ultradrinkable, chillable red wine to be cracked open young. Wine Dogs Imports LLC. Editors’ Choice.
Sacred Hill 2017 Helmsman Red (Hawke’s Bay); $85, 91 points. This vintage of Helmsman is a solid and multifaceted offering that’s still a baby. It opens generously with raspberry, blueberry and violet aromas, backed by pencil lead, leather, tar, licorice and a lick of dusty oak. Power on the palate comes in the form of slightly aggressive, raspy, drying tannins. It’s a weighty wine but not an overly ripe one, and it mostly needs time for those tannins to settle into the wine. Drink 2022–2030. NZ Wine Home. Cellar Selection.
Spy Valley 2016 Handpicked Single Estate Southern Valleys Pinot Noir (Marlborough); $30, 91 points. This Pinot, from Marlborough’s Southern Valleys subregion, is ripe and fruity but not jammy or baked. Instead the perfume is floral with brambly raspberries, red currants, wild strawberries and undertones of cocktail bitters and wet stones. There’s a lovely lightness to the mouthfeel. Although the fruit is gripped by herb-flecked tannins, they’re woven into the wine rather than sitting over the top of it. A savory, herbal note lingers long on the finish. A delicate, modern Pinot for drinking young. Broadbent Selections, Inc.
Villa Maria 2017 Cellar Selection Merlot-Cabernet Sauvignon-Malbec Red (Hawke’s Bay); $17, 91 points. This affordable Bordeaux blend from one of New Zealand’s biggest names once again hits the mark. There’s a nice juxtaposition on the nose of perfumed raspberry and plum fruit alongside heavier notes like crushed rocks, savory spices, dusty oak and Cab-like tomato leaf and ground pepper nuances. Despite its bargain price, this is a serious, structured wine that’s chiseled and precise on the palate, neatly balancing fruit, spice and minerals with tightly wound, leathery tannins. Drink now with protein–2028. Ste. Michelle Wine Estates.
Maison L’Envoyé 2017 Pinot Noir (Central Otago); $30, 90 points. This small batch, characterful Pinot opens with a fruity perfume of plums, blueberries and rhubarb preserves sprinkled with violet and baking spice nuances. Traditional winemaking techniques like partial whole bunch and open top fermentation add character and generosity. The palate is full bodied, the plump fruit reined in by powerful, drying tannins. Old Bridge Cellars.
Last Updated: July 12, 2023