Wine production on a large scale is relatively new to New Zealand, booming in the last couple of decades, but vines were first planted in the early 19th century, by missionaries and monks. Nowadays, wine offers a different kind of religious experience in New Zealand.
With microclimates that range from sunny to cool, many parts of New Zealand offer ideal conditions for grape production. Sauvignon blanc is the most beloved New Zealand wine, both at home and abroad, and chardonnay, pinot noir, and pinot gris are also popular and successful. Many of the best New Zealand wines are exported internationally, but even more small-scale and boutique brands can be sampled while traveling around the country. From north to south, here’s a low-down on New Zealand’s wine regions.
Northland, the northernmost province of New Zealand, is home to just 12 wineries, but they’re among the oldest in New Zealand—one of the first missionaries in New Zealand, Reverend Samuel Marsden, planted grape vines in the Bay of Islands in 1819. Now, Bay of Islands towns like Kerikeri and Russell produce some of the more unusual varieties for New Zealand, such as pinotages and chambourcin, as well as the more common chardonnay and pinot gris.
The Bay of Islands is one of Northland’s most popular tourist destinations, thanks to its gorgeous beaches, but also because it's an important place in New Zealand history. Waitangi was where an important treaty between Maori chiefs and the British Crown was signed in 1840. It’s very often warm and sunny in the Bay of Islands, so stopping at the Omata Estate in Russell or Marsden Estate Winery in Kerikeri is a great way to refresh and refuel.
Despite being New Zealand’s biggest city, the Auckland region sprawls into the countryside in all directions, and the warm climate near the top of the North Island make it prime grape-growing country. Wine production here was kicked off by Croatian and Dalmatian immigrants. There are now more than 40 wineries in the Auckland region, mostly north and west of the city, as well as on Waiheke Island in the Hauraki Gulf. Whites like chardonnay and pinot gris do especially well here, as well as shiraz.
There are many things to see and do in Auckland, and many travelers arrive at the Auckland International Airport. Wine enthusiasts shouldn’t miss Waiheke Island, which can be visited on a day trip from Auckland or overnight—it’s a short ferry ride away. Wild on Waiheke is an especially fun winery because, along with wine and beer tastings, it offers free activities like petanque and volleyball, as well as a few at extra cost like archery and laser clay bird shooting (perhaps try these before you indulge in too many samples)
The large, flat, and gently rolling Waikato area is known for its fertile farmland, but its wine production? Not so much. There’s just one winery in Ohaupo, south of Hamilton: Vilagrad Wines. It puts on a delicious Sunday brunch, and is well worth the stop if you’re driving up to or down from Auckland via Hamilton.
Bay of Plenty
The Bay of Plenty, in the eastern North Island, also only has one winery, the Ohinemuri Estate Wines in Waihi, north of Tauranga. The winery is situated within the Karangahake Gorge, where there are many mining heritage sites to check out, as well as walking trails and bike tracks that you can explore to burn off some of those wine calories.
Gisborne, in the east of the North Island, is home to around 25 wineries, with chardonnay, pinot gris, and sauvignon blanc grapes being the stars of the show. While many wineries throughout New Zealand are known to serve great food, those in Gisborne are especially renowned for this. The pizzas and platters at two Manutuke wineries—Wright’s Vineyard and Winery, and Millton Vineyards and Winery—receive rave reviews.
Being quite isolated in the east of New Zealand, not many travelers make it to the Gisborne area. Those who do will find a wild and beautiful coastline and strong Maori culture. The Rere Falls rockslide is a particular attraction, especially in summer, where you can boogie board down a slippery rock face into a pool.
The Hawke’s Bay is the largest wine producing region in the North Island, with around 90 wineries. Varieties produced here include chardonnay, sauvignon blanc, and merlot. Many of the top wineries of the region are located in and around the city of Napier. The Mission Estate Winery was established in 1851 by French Roman Catholic missionaries, making it the oldest winery in New Zealand. The Moana Park Winery is also highly rated, and produces sugar-free, sulphite- and additive-free, vegan-friendly wines.
Located in the east of the North Island, Napier and Hastings are also famous for their Art Deco architecture, the result of a devastating earthquake in 1931, after which the cities were rebuilt in the style of the day.
The Wairarapa region, east of the capital Wellington, produces a variety of wines in its 40 wineries, including shiraz and dessert wines. Many wineries around the town of Martinborough are especially popular for their food and drink pairings, such as Poppies Martinborough and Colombo Martinborough.
As Martinborough is just over an hour’s drive north-east of Wellington, the vineyards make for an easy day trip from the city. Cycling is a popular way of getting between wineries in Martinborough, as they’re quite close together in attractive countryside.
With more than 150 wineries, Marlborough is the most active wine-making region in New Zealand. Located at the top of the South Island, around the unparalleled Marlborough Sounds, this is where the vast majority of New Zealand’s famous sauvignon blanc hails from. Chances are, if you pick up a bottle of New Zealand "sav" anywhere in the world, it’ll be from Marlborough. A smaller amount of pinot noir and chardonnay are also produced in the area.
Sauvignon blanc pairs very well with seafood, which is lucky because Marlborough is also a large seafood-producing region. The small town of Havelock, on the Pelorus Sound, calls itself the "Green Shell Mussel Capital of the World." Many travelers who road trip around New Zealand arrive in the Marlborough Sounds on the Interislander Ferry from Picton, and the vineyards are just one reason to linger in the area for a few days.
The small city of Nelson, located between Marlborough and Golden Bay at the top of the South Island, is one of the South Island’s smaller wine-producing regions, with around 30. The city regularly takes top honors as New Zealand’s sunniest city, so it’s prime grape-growing country. Like neighboring Marlborough, sauvignon blanc is big here.
Most of Nelson’s wineries are outside the city, in small villages with lovely names like Brightwater and Appleby. Seifried Estate in Appleby is a great place to stop when traveling to/from the beaches of Rabbit Island. It’s the South Island’s oldest family winery, and makes award-winning dessert wines.
Canterbury and North Canterbury are home to around 40 wineries, many of which are in the Waipara Valley area north of Christchurch. Pinot noir is the number one wine here, with a couple of whites—chardonnay and riesling—also doing well. An especially well-loved winery just north of Christchurch is Pegasus Bay, with lovely gardens and walking tracks.
The largest city in the South Island, Christchurch, is in the Canterbury region, so there’s a lot for visitors to do here. Plus, Christchurch Airport is one of the main gateways to New Zealand, so many travelers will fly in here, making it easy to visit some Canterbury wineries.
The wide open plains, gentle valleys, and chilly winters of Central Otago, in the southern South Island, produce fine Pinot Noir. Central Otago is the second-highest producer of wine in New Zealand (after Marlborough), with more than 100 wineries. The areas around Queenstown, Wanaka, and Cromwell are especially productive.
Central Otago is a very popular destination with travelers, so there are ample opportunities to visit wineries while exploring the region. As it’s an area of both mountains and plains, there are great scenic drives between wineries. The 94-mile Central Otago Rail Trail cycle track that connects the towns of Clyde and Middlemarch, with plenty of places to eat and drink along the way.
While Central Otago is the Otago province’s wine-producing heavyweight, little Waitaki Valley in northern Otago is home to just four wineries. But, it’s New Zealand’s newest wine-producing region, so check back in after a few years and there may be more to report. Pinot noir and pinot gris from the Waitaki Valley are especially good. The valley is located between the towns of Oamaru and Timaru, which are a convenient stop en route from Dunedin to Christchurch, or vice versa.