New Zealand produces some of the world’s finest and most accessible wines. Among the country’s ten major wine-growing areas, the Central Otago Wine Region on the South Island is one of the most prolific. And Waiheke Island, a 35-minute ferry ride off the North Island, is one of the most unique. These two regions, and all the regions in between, encompass a huge geographic range that nourishes a palate-pleasing variety of red wine grapes, though whites are also produced.
Two qualities of New Zealand make its viticultural diversity possible. First, the summertime climate is marked by long days warmed by the sun and crisp nights cooled by sea breezes. This allows for slow maturation of the grapes. Second, the North and South Islands lie at southern latitudes that are equivalent to the northern ranges that stretch from Bordeaux to southern Spain.
The unique climate and rich volcanic soil conditions of Central Otago have transformed the area into one of the fastest growing wine producers in New Zealand. The area’s higher elevation (around 1,000 feet) is protected from the island’s maritime climate by surrounding, snow-capped high mountains. The result is a more continental climate that you would expect to find far from any coast.
That’s not to say that the climate is static. Each of the four seasons comes out in full force here, from hot and dry summers to cold snowy winters. It is the ideal place to grow the hardiest of grapes. However, the extreme shift in seasonal temperatures push the harvest out to late April (remember that New Zealand’s summer is our winter, so their farm calendar shifts a full six months from ours).
At first glance, the land in Central Otago may seem too harsh to support any kind of agriculture, let alone vineyards. The region is sliced in two by the Kawarau Gorge, a beautiful stretch of river guided along its course by rock ledges. This rocky landscape fans out from the gorge, quite naturally affecting soil composition. Heavy quantities of craggy mica and similar deposits mingle with other soils, preventing the earth from holding water for long periods. So for vintners to keep Central Otago productive, they must irrigate their land artificially. The result is some of the most elegant and nuanced pinot noir you’re likely to put to your lips.
In New Zealand’s warmer northern climes, Waiheke Island—three-quarters the size of Nantucket—has earned a name as the country’s “island of wine.” Unlike in Central Otago, these wine growers have embraced the maritime climate. Many of the vineyards blanket the eastern, more agricultural, half of Waiheke—a welcome slice of tranquility marked by land that is at once gentle and rugged. Here, among towering pohutukawa trees, a once-hipster culture has transformed itself into a community of high-end yet low-key wineries. Lucky for its wine-sipping visitors, they have found the perfect formula of climate and soil structure to grow classical grape varieties that produce wines with a distinct character.
The unique soil on the island has helped to create ideal conditions for Syrah, Bordeaux-type wines, and some Chardonnays and Sauvignon Blancs. Syrah wines produced here regularly win awards. Many of the more than 27 vineyards on the island are considered boutique in size. Smaller vineyards yield fewer bottles year to year, and so these wines are sought after and therefore more expensive than mainland-produced vintages.