Why Somms Love Wines From New Zealand

“I have a longstanding love affair with New Zealand wine,” says Aaron McManus, beverage director at Oriole Restaurant in Chicago.

McManus is not alone. Sommeliers across the country will rave for as long as you’re willing to listen about the exceptional wine coming from New Zealand’s unique terroir.

Undoubtedly, New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc has won over a whole world of wine drinkers for its freshness, pairability, and value, including Jillian Riley, founder of Yield Wine, an online publication about ethics and decoding consumer misperceptions in the wine industry and former wine director of NoMI in Chicago, who notes its “absolutely unmistakable character,” citing aromas of just-cut grass and pink grapefruit.

Riley’s found that Kiwi Sauvignon Blanc offers outstanding versatility at the table. “It serves as a great accompaniment to any dish finished with lemon, lime, or vinaigrette, like ceviche or oysters with mignonette,” she says.

And while New Zealand is certainly best known for its exceptional Sauvignon Blanc (the most widely planted variety — by far) and Pinot Noir, there are about 50 varieties of wine grapes planted throughout the country. “I have found a New Zealand wine for everyone and am happy to showcase them on my list at Oriole,” says McManus.

We spoke with sommeliers and retailers from across the U.S. — and beyond — to find out why bottles from New Zealand can always be found on their wine lists.

A Wealth of Diversity

“New Zealand is a long and skinny country,” says McManus. “There’s a huge climatic shift from the tip of the North Island to the bottom of the South Island.” This, along with the moderating effects of the Pacific on every side, makes it a viable place for many grape varieties and wine styles.

“It’s kind of a unicorn of a wine-growing country if you ask me,” says Adam Rozansky, sommelier and wine associate at La Grande Orange Grocery in Phoenix, Az. He’s been amazed by the range of microclimates and grapes that New Zealand, a relatively small country, has to offer, which is why wines — from Central Otago Pinot Noir to Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc — pepper his selection.

While New Zealand is certainly best known for its exceptional Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir, there are about 50 varieties of wine grapes planted throughout the country.

It’s the unexpected varieties that Arthur Hon, beverage director at Momofuku Ko in NYC, has been most keen to introduce to his customers. While many have had its iconic Sauvignon Blanc, there is a whole slew of aromatic white wines that are just as eye-opening. A few of Hon’s picks include Chenin Blanc from Millton Vineyards in Gisborne, Grüner Veltliner from Seifried in Nelson, and Albariño from Astrolabe in Marlborough.

He’s also been delving into the growing number of sparkling wines, from pétillant-naturel (pét-nat) to traditional-method sparklers made from the classic Champagne grape varieties. “They’re a total surprise,” Hon says. “One just does not think of New Zealand as a sparkling wine-producing country.” Quartz Reef’s Methode Traditionelle Brut, made from Pinot Noir and Chardonnay in Central Otago, is a recent happy discovery of his.

Classic Varieties with a Kiwi Vibe

“I can honestly say I found great wines (and people and food) in every region,” says Chris Struck, sommelier-at-large in New York City, who visited New Zealand for the first time last year. “The experience was transformational,” he says. He particularly fell for the South Island’s Central Otago region and its rugged beauty, calling it “a new frontier of Kiwi viticultural and enological opportunities,” with wines that are both world-class and age-worthy.

Tira Johnson of Brooklyn Wine Exchange and Terroir Tribeca in New York City shares Struck’s enthusiasm for Central Otago, saying that its Riesling has become one of her go-tos, especially the “weighty, textured, and lively” one from Rippon Vineyard on Lake Wanaka, a winery she considers one of the most beautiful estates in the world. “These Riesling vineyards are planted on schist-laden soils, which gives the Riesling the rich texture that I crave,” Johnson says. She loves pouring this wine for guests who love Alsatian Riesling and watching their surprise when she tells them it’s from the southern hemisphere.

And despite being a firmly New World wine country, McManus has even found something in New Zealand for the white Burgundy lover, in the single-vineyard Chardonnays from Kumeu River winery. “These are incredibly complex wines with a beautiful richness on the palate while also drinking with freshness,” he says. He recommends buying a few bottles to cellar.

Undoubtedly, New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc has won over a whole world of wine drinkers for its freshness, pairability and value.

When it comes to red wines, all the somms we spoke with shared an affinity for New Zealand’s Pinot Noir. “There are bright red fruit-forward wines hailing from Martinborough on one end of the spectrum and brooding, darker-fruited wines in a more structured style coming from Central Otago,” says McManus. He points to Pinot Noirs from Burn Cottage in Central Otago, which, he says, are “fruit-forward upon opening, then give way to a savory spicy quality — very food-friendly wines.”

Rozansky, too, consistently looks to Central Otago for Pinot. This region has “sharply defined seasons, a vast, scenic landscape and some of the best Pinot Noir I have ever had,” he says. Johnson also favors Pinots from Central Otago for their “red-fruited, plush, and cheerful” flavor profile.

For fans of brawnier reds, Hon calls Syrah “the most exciting grape that is currently gaining popularity in New Zealand” and is attracted to their duality of freshness and structure. Hon is a fan of Syrahs from Dry River and Cambridge Road wineries in Martinborough, Bilancia and Trinity Hill in Hawkes Bay, and Cable Bay on Waiheke Island.

More to Discover

That sommeliers now have their eyes open to the many hidden wine gems of New Zealand only means that more and more will be available to diners. Love your Sauvignon Blancs, but seek out the Grüners, too!

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This article is sponsored by New Zealand Wine.