Soaring snowcapped mountains. Glittering turquoise bays. A vibrant culture forged by centuries of relative isolation from the rest of the world. The roughly five million people who live in New Zealand know they’ve been fortunate enough to be born into a slice of paradise. They’re fiercely proud of their small but spectacular island country, as well as the world-class wine it’s been producing for the past 40 years.
While wine was first introduced to the nation in the 19th century, the New Zealand wine industry didn’t really take off until the 1970s, when a change in the country’s trade agreement with the United Kingdom encouraged the country to invest in lucrative products it could export worldwide. Within just 10 years, the country was producing, arguably, the world’s best Sauvignon Blancs. Ever since, New Zealand’s wine industry has flourished; today, the country’s Sauvignons, Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays regularly net top prizes in international competitions.
Whether you’re a thrill seeker bungee-jumping your way across the South Pacific, an intrepid hiker embarking on one of New Zealand’s great “tramps” or a foodie exploring an off-the-beaten-path culinary scene, make time to savor some delicious New Zealand wine during your stay, and be sure to visit at least one of the country’s extraordinary wineries. You won’t regret it.
Popular New Zealand Wines
Sauvignon Blancs simply dominate New Zealand’s winemaking landscape—and with good reason. Sauvignons from the world-famous Marlborough region have earned a stellar reputation over the last few decades, and winemakers from other regions quickly capitalized on this initial success. New Zealand, though, is hardly a one-trick pony; look beyond the country’s flagship Sauvignon, and you’ll encounter a plethora of wines unlike any other in the world.
This varietal is a behemoth in the world of New Zealand wine, comprising nearly two-thirds of the grapes grown in the country. Sauvignon Blanc from the South Island’s Marlborough region is the best known, but you can find equally high-quality wines in lesser-known regions, such as Wairarapa (outside Wellington). In warmer northern climates, look out for smooth wines with notes of peach and melon; in the cooler south, a longer growing season makes for more intense, acidic wines.
This notoriously tricky grape thrives in the cool alpine regions of New Zealand’s South Island. Microclimates caused by the island’s famed mountain ranges facilitate an astounding abundance of Pinot Noir varietals, with notes ranging from cherry and plum to fresh herbs and spices. The Central Otago region, a stone’s throw from the country’s “adventure capital” of Queenstown, produces some of New Zealand’s best Pinot Noirs—and maybe just the best red wine in New Zealand!
Watch out, Napa Valley. New Zealand’s Chardonnay is coming for your title! The North Island’s warmer Northland and Auckland regions produce the bulk of this country’s Chardonnays; look out for rich, sumptuous wines with undertones of tropical fruit.
The country’s fourth-most-common grape today, Pinot Gris has exploded onto the scene in recent years. Not to be confused with the drier Pinot Grigio, Pinot Gris is a rich, fruit-forward white that pairs well with heartier dishes, such as pork, chicken and pasta. Look for notes of honey and apple, especially in fruit-forward wines from the North Island.
New Zealand’s stunning topography creates a dizzying array of microclimates—and an astonishing variety of wines. In general, vineyards in the warmer North Island produce riper and more fruit-forward wines, while the cooler climates and longer growing seasons in the South Island create wines with a higher acid content and more esoteric undertones.
Northlands and Auckland
The regions closest to the equator, the Northlands and Auckland produce the lion’s share of the country’s Chardonnays. Seekers of the best red wine in New Zealand, fear not, though. This area is also renowned for fruit-forward Syrahs, Pinotage and even Cabernet Sauvignons.
A lengthy trip from the urban centers of Auckland and Wellington, the country’s second-largest wine region is a bit of a hidden gem. This is a great destination for the wine lover looking to explore beyond Sauvignon Blanc; the region produces excellent Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris and Syrah.
The region closest to New Zealand’s capital of Wellington, this tiny area punches well above its weight. Look out for some of the country’s finest Pinot Noir and mineral-forward Sauvignon Blancs, many of which even rival Marlborough’s.
New Zealand’s most famous (and largest) wine-producing region deserves its stellar reputation. Marlborough’s Sauvignon Blancs put New Zealand on the wine map; however, don’t ignore the region’s lush, intense Pinot Noir or Chardonnay.
Comprising the area surrounding Christchurch, New Zealand’s third-largest city, this South Island region produces consistently excellent Rieslings and an astonishingly diverse selection of Pinot Noirs.
Central Otago Cool climates in the country’s southernmost wine region mean long growing seasons and complex, unique wines. In Central Otago, Pinot Noir is king, comprising more than three-quarters of the wine produced in the region. The discerning wine lover, though, will also appreciate the unique character of the region’s Chardonnay, Pinot Gris and rosé.
Drinking Wine in New Zealand
It’s hard to choose what’s better about wine tasting in New Zealand: the top-quality wine or the spectacular setting. Nearly every winery is set against a backdrop of blue skies, soaring mountains and dramatic coastline. Close your eyes, and you could be in Tuscany or Burgundy; open them, and you’re on the set of The Lord of the Rings.
For the fullest experience, we recommend picking a region and exploring a variety of wineries via car or one of our popular Backroads New Zealand active adventures. If you’re sticking to the cities on your New Zealand trip, fear not. Wellington and Auckland are home to culinary scenes unlike any other in the world, and their top-notch restaurants are sure to feature stellar local wines.
Travel to New Zealand with Backroads
Backroads offers numerous ways to experience the very best of New Zealand on one of our award-winning active travel adventures. Explore this country in the best and most genuine way possible - away from the crowds, buses and tourist hot spots. We hope you'll join us! Check out our full list of New Zealand adventures here.
Want to learn more about New Zealand, including its history, travel tips, highlights and insider info?
Check out our full New Zealand Travel Guide!