Haere Mai! Welcome to Aotearoa – the land of the long white cloud. With its diverse climate and terrain, from the sub-tropical north to the chilly mountainous south, it’s no wonder that the wine regions of New Zealand offer such distinctive characteristics and flavors.
It was in 1819 that Samuel Marsden, an Anglican missionary, brought with him the first 100 vines for planting. The first recorded wine-making was by James Busby, official British government representative to New Zealand, in the 1840s.
Today, New Zealand produces only 1% of the world’s wine, but it has gained a high international reputation due to its quality. 5 New Zealand companies made it to the list of 100 best vineyards in the world for 2022. One of them, Craggy Range in Hawke’s Bay, reached the top 50. This is a remarkable achievement for a small country with a population of 5 million. Australia, a country 28 times the size and with over 5 times the population, also has 5 vineyards in the top 100.
NEW ZEALAND PRACTICALITIES
First, a few practical tips to help you make the most of your trip to the wine regions of New Zealand. Most of the wineries are located in rural areas, so road transport is usually essential. In some cases, organized tours may be available from the closest major town, so check with the relevant local tourist information center. The government agency 100% Pure New Zealand also offers further information about wine tour operators.
Wineries range from family-owned boutique operations, to major companies owned by international conglomerates. Facilities and amenities therefore vary considerably. Cellar doors might be open only in summer, or on certain days of the week, or by appointment. Some wineries have cafes and restaurants, while others will simply have picnic areas for you to consume your own food. Be sure to check ahead of your visit to avoid disappointment.
Wineries are increasingly focusing on organic and sustainable practices in response to customer demand. Some have started to produce preservative-free wine suitable for vegetarians and vegans. Which is great news for us all! Many wineries also offer boutique accommodation on site, which can be a great option if you want to enjoy the full experience of a working vineyard.
At the time of writing, the wine regions of New Zealand encompass an estimated 2101 vineyards, so this post can only give a small taste of what is on offer! Our world class wine tour starts at the northern tip of the north island, then heads south, finishing in Central Otago on the south island.
Known for: Chardonnay, Syrah, Pinot Gris, Merlot
The ‘winter-less north’ is where New Zealand wine-making began all those years ago. It happens to be my favorite part of the country, with its warm, sub-tropical climate, beautiful unspoiled countryside and deserted white sandy beaches. Most vineyards are located in the coastal areas of Kaitaia, the Bay of Islands and Whangarei. In addition to their signature wines, some of the wineries also produce their own port and sherry.
If you’re a fan of organic wine, a good place to visit is Ake Ake vineyard in Kerikeri, Bay of Islands. You can choose from a dozen certified organic wines, two of which are preservative-free, for your tasting session. The estate’s Italian owners also produce an amazing Limoncello liqueur. Try their lovely port, too! After that you can enjoy a stroll around their self-guided vineyard trail.
Two other eminent vineyards in the Bay of Islands are Omata Estate and Paroa Bay, both located near the charming town of Russell. Read my blog post about Russell for more information on these wineries and other attractions in the area.
If you’d prefer to let someone else do all the driving and organizing, Total Tours offer wine-tasting trips in Northland that might suit you.
Known for: Chardonnay, Syrah, Pinot Gris, red blends
New Zealand’s largest city is surrounded by a diverse wine region. Some of the country’s oldest, pioneering wine families – many of them immigrants from European countries such as Croatia – settled around Auckland and developed businesses which are now world-famous. Examples are Villa Maria, Nobilo, Corban’s and Delegat’s.
If you’re in Auckland city for a few days, then Waiheke Island is probably the easiest wine-making area to visit. It’s accessible by ferry from the central city terminal and makes for a very pleasant day out.
My favorite vineyard on the island is definitely Mudbrick, situated on a hill looking back over the Hauraki Gulf towards Auckland. You can enjoy the wonderful views from the terrace of their fabulous restaurant (bookings recommended). Their flagship wines are their sensational Velvet Bordeaux blend, Francesca Chardonnay and Oscar Syrah.
Waiheke has some delightful small towns, the largest of which is Oneroa, and beautiful white sand beaches such as Onetangi. The island is very popular with artists, a number of whom live there permanently. Waiheke community art gallery provides a showcase for them.
Known for: Chardonnay, Pinot Gris, Sauvignon Blanc, Gewürztraminer, Merlot
Situated on the east coast and the first city to see the sunrise, Gisborne is acknowledged as the landing place of Captain Cook in 1769. The event is commemorated by the Cook’s Landing Historic Reserve and monument. Gisborne is regarded as the Chardonnay capital of New Zealand. Personally I’m not a fan of Chardonnay as I dislike its oaky taste. But a Gisborne unoaked Chardonnay is one of the few that I can really enjoy.
Gisborne’s wineries, most of which are boutique producers, are located to the north, west and south of the city. Wrights is a boutique organic winery which owns 3 vineyards in the region. Their cellar door is located at their Manutuke vineyard and is open on certain weekdays in summer. It’s great for families to visit as they have kids’ play areas on site. There’s also a café offering delicious platters and pizzas, made with locally-sourced ingredients, to match with your wine.
Wrights’ Chardonnay is of the full-bodied, oaked variety and I’m told is nectar for lovers of this particular drink. My own personal favourite is their Natural Wine label Pinot rosé – a refreshing summer drink.
Another winery to visit is Bushmere Estate. You can enjoy a wine tasting session or ‘dine among the vines’ at their lovely restaurant. Chardonnay is the main attraction here – I really liked their unoaked version – but they also do a really good sparkling rosé.
Known for: Merlot, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Gris, Syrah, Pinot Noir
South of Gisborne, also on the east coast, is Hawke’s Bay – second largest of the wine regions of New Zealand. The area is home to some internationally famous wineries as well as smaller boutique businesses.
Mission Estate is New Zealand’s oldest winery, established in 1851 by French Marist missionaries. The stunning estate is located in the Taradale hills above the city of Napier. The Grande Maison – an impressive historic building which used to be a seminary – houses the cellar door and restaurant. With such amazing facilities, it’s no surprise that the Mission Estate hosts a number of events including weddings and concert series, the latter attracting international performers such as Elton John, Robbie Williams and Sting.
The Mission Estate is industry-leading when it comes to environmental sustainability, having launched the Gaia Project to bring together a number of best practice initiatives in this area. The project is showcased by its own special range of Gaia wines. I particularly like the Gaia Merlot, which is dangerously drinkable.
Trinity Hill is another notable name in this area. Classic Bordeaux reds are their speciality – and they are excellent. Molly’s Block rosé is also amazing. Tastings and food platters are available at the cellar door. Meanwhile, if any readers are based in London, they can find Sacred Hill wines on the menu at Bleeding Heart restaurants, which are owned by two of the winery’s founders.
Apart from wineries, Hawke’s Bay has a lot to offer the visitor. Napier is famous as an Art Deco city, with a number of attractive period buildings. An Art Deco festival takes place in February every year, when everyone dresses up and gets into the spirit of the 1930s.
Known for: Pinot Noir, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Gris, Syrah, aromatics
Our final north island region is located 82 km north-east of New Zealand’s capital, Wellington.
Vines were planted in the Wairarapa as far back as 1883, but wine making only really took off there in the 1970s. Pinot Noir is the star, although some of the region’s varietals are also becoming increasingly sought-after. Most of the wineries are small, boutique producers.
Martinborough is probably the best-known of the 3 main wine-making centers. The town hosts an excellent annual wine festival called Toast Martinborough. The day involves live music and entertainment, tastings and food stalls featuring local produce, with different offerings at each venue. Most of the participating vineyards are easily walkable although free buses are provided around the circuit for those who need them.
If your visit doesn’t coincide with the festival, which is held in November, then you can easily walk the circuit yourself – or hire a bike. Palliser Estate and Ata Rangi are among the highly-regarded wineries in the area. Both do excellent Pinot Noir, and I also love Palliser’s ‘The Griffin’ sparkling wine. My favorite lunch stop is Poppies winery, which does legendary platters – and pretty decent wines, too.
The Wairarapa’s other attractions include the wild, rugged coast – Cape Palliser is a favorite with surfers – and pretty inland towns like Greytown, which has great shops and cafés. If you’re heading to Wellington afterwards and don’t fancy the hair-raising drive over the Rimutaka Hill, an alternative is the Wairarapa rail service which runs from Masterton to the capital.
Known for: Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, aromatics
Take the inter-island ferry across the Cook Strait from Wellington to the south island and you’ll find yourself in the stunning Marlborough Sounds. You may well wish to treat yourself to a stopover in this breathtaking area and take advantage of the scenery, water sports, fine foods and relaxation that it offers.
Then head a little further east to Blenheim and the inland valleys that make up the largest – and most famous – of all the wine regions of New Zealand. Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc is widely regarded as one of the world’s best. This distinctively dry, acidic wine is my own favorite. There are many excellent labels, but I particularly love Alan Scott, Saint Clair, Framingham and Wither Hills. Another top name in the area is Cloudy Bay, a top 100 vineyard. Their Pelorus sparkling wine is perfect for special occasions.
With so many wonderful wineries to choose from, one of the best ways to experience them is at the Marlborough Wine and Food Festival, held annually in February. This gathers together a whole host of them in one place along with fine food producers and entertainers. Transport to and from the festival site is provided from local centers. I’ve attended the festival a couple of times and can highly recommend it.
After enjoying the sublime taste of Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc, you can head west through the scenic rolling hills and valleys to the neighboring region of Nelson.
Known for: Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris, aromatics, Chardonnay
The coastal city of Nelson is known as one of the sunniest places in New Zealand. Vineyards are located to the west of the city in the Moutere hills and the Waimea plains. Along with excellent wine, this region is also known for hop growing. If you fancy a change of beverage, there are some very good breweries to visit.
Kahurangi Estate are noted for their aromatic wines. Their Riesling vines, planted in the Moutere hills, are some of the oldest in the south island. Like most of the wineries featured in this post, they have an affordable ‘estate’ range along with their premium ‘reserve’ brands, so there’s plenty of choice to suit all pockets. Definitely try their Riesling, and their Nelson Sauvignon Blanc is also an interesting change from the distinctive Marlborough version.
Further to the west, on the Kina peninsula, is Kina Cliffs, a boutique family winery. Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris are grown in this lovely coastal area. The cellar door is open during the summer months. You can enjoy your wine tastings on the deck, overlooking gorgeous Tasman Bay. Although there’s no restaurant, the owners are happy for visitors to bring their own snacks to enjoy.
If you have more time to enjoy exploring the Nelson region, it’s one of the most beautiful in New Zealand in my opinion. Head further west and explore the Abel Tasman National Park, then over Takaka Hill to the glorious Golden Bay. If you really want to get away from it all, this is the place.
Known for: Pinot Noir, Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling, Pinot Gris and Chardonnay
We’re now heading to the east coast of the south island to this wild region near the city of Christchurch. Terrace Edge is one of several boutique wineries in the Waipara Valley. They offer an excellent ‘wine and food’ pairing experience which includes tastings of 5 wines. You can enjoy the scenic view across the Waipara River from the terrace of their tasting room, which is open on Thursdays and Fridays.
Most exciting of the wines on offer, for me at least, is the certified organic Albariño. This Spanish grape variety is not commonly found in New Zealand so it makes such a pleasant change from the usual offerings.
80 km south east of Christchurch, in the rolling hills of the Banks Peninsula region, you can visit Akaroa Winery at Takamatua Valley Vineyards. This attractive Mediterranean-style winery was the first in New Zealand to produce Pinot Gris, which remains their speciality although they also offer a very decent Pinot Noir. Their cellar door and tasting room are open from Wednesdays to Sundays.
Banks Peninsula is a fascinating region to explore. The township of Akaroa sits next to a picturesque harbour. It’s Canterbury’s oldest town, founded by French settlers whose influence can still be seen in street names. You can take boat trips around the harbour and spot the local sea life, including the rare Hector’s Dolphins.
Known for: Pinot Noir, aromatics, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc
This spectacular, mountainous region is known for its breathtaking alpine scenery, winter sports and adventure tourism, mostly centred on the resort town of Queenstown. Anyone familiar with Scotland will spot some familiar place names in this region, as many Scottish settlers were attracted to the area. It’s not hard to see why they would have felt completely at home – the landscape is very similar to that of the Scottish highlands.
Central Otago is also known for its world class Pinot Noir wines. One of the well-known wineries you can visit is Mount Difficulty in Bannockburn. Their tasting room is open from Wednesdays to Sundays, and they have a fantastic restaurant too. On fine days, you can enjoy the spectacular scenery from the outdoor terrace. On chilly days, huddle inside and warm up with a glass of their lovely Pinot Noir. It has quite a kick to it, with a hint of spice.
Desert Heart Estate, also in Bannockburn, offer a range of Pinot Noir vintages along with Chardonnay and a very drinkable rosé. I particularly enjoyed their Mackenzies Run reserve Pinot Noir. The cellar door is open at weekends during the summer season and you can also munch on gourmet platters from the café.
If you’re staying in Queenstown, you’ll find that many hotels and bars offer tastings of different Central Otago wines. You can read my posts about things to do in Queenstown and Dunedin if you’d like to know more about these cities.
I hope this post has inspired you to visit the wonderful wine regions of New Zealand. Even if you’re not a wine lover, a visit to a cellar door can be a wonderfully indulgent experience. Plus you get to enjoy the spectacular scenery of Aotearoa.