This episode of “Wine 101” is sponsored by Whitehaven. From the sunny bays and lush green vineyards of Marlborough comes a New World Sauvignon Blanc that only New Zealand can offer. Whitehaven’s winemaking philosophy centers on the pursuit of quality without compromise, a principle that is supported at every step from vineyard to glass. Whitehaven uses only Marlborough grapes in our wines, ensuring that only truly authentic Marlborough character is in every bottle. Inspired by a dream, try Whitehaven Sauvignon Blanc. Your haven awaits.
On this episode of “Wine 101,” VinePair tastings director Keith Beavers discusses New Zealand wines. While the lush region is known for its zesty Marlborough Sauvignon Blancs, Keith spotlights the other up-and-coming wines that originate in New Zealand that are distinctly delicious due to their terroir.
Additionally, Beavers walks listeners through the unique history of New Zealand as a winemaking region, and how it went from being relatively untouched by human settlement a mere 800-odd years ago, to being a complex viticultural reflection of the various settlers that came to inhabit it, from Croatians to Brits.
Or Check Out the Conversation Here
Keith: My name is Keith Beavers, and am I the only one that cringes when people talk to the food they’re about to eat in commercials or ads? Like, you’re about to eat that M&M that’s talking to you.
What’s going on, wine lovers, welcome to Episode 7 of VinePair’s “Wine 101” podcast. It’s Season 2 — we all know this. My name is Keith Beavers. I am the tastings director at VinePair, and howdy doody. You’ve had the Sauvignon Blanc from a place called New Zealand, but what do you know about New Zealand? Let’s talk about New Zealand. There’s so much fun to be had in New Zealand beyond Sauvignon Blanc, but that’s awesome, too. And I’ll tell you why.
In the U.S., when we get into something, we don’t mess around. When we get into it, it’s the thing that we’re into, and we just stick to it for a long time.
Then sometimes, at some point, it’ll taper off. But in wine, we stick to things for a long time —I’m talking about our flavor profiles, our tastes, and what we dig, and sometimes when a wine hits our market and hits that palate preference of almost everybody, it’s crazy. That’s what Sauvignon Blanc from Marlborough in New Zealand did to our market. It’s one of those wines up there with Shiraz back in the ‘90s from Australia. It’s the Malbec thing that’s happening right now on our market. Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc came on our market in the mid- to late ‘80s, and it’s just never gone away. If you think about Sauvignon Blanc, you’re probably going straight for the New Zealand section or maybe the French section. New Zealand is a prominent player on the market for Sauvignon Blanc. But we got to talk about everything else that New Zealand does because we got to talk about how awesome Marlborough is, and where it is, but we have to also talk about a few other places that you’re going to see on the American market from this amazing country that is just awesome.
This is going to sound a bit weird, but as a place on this earth that humans exist on, New Zealand is new. Does that sound weird? It sounds weird. I guess what I’m trying to say is there were no humans in New Zealand until about 800 years ago, and that’s when the seafaring people of that part of the world found this land and made it their own, and eventually evolved into what we know today as the Maori people. They went on to create this amazing, beautiful, vibrant culture with creation myths and everything. If you’ve seen the movie “Moana,” there’s a little bit of that mythology in some of the songs of “Moana.” It’s pretty awesome. These people are documented as arriving on the shores of New Zealand between 1200 and 1300. It’s not until around the 17th century we start seeing the British and the Dutch making moves because they’re all over the place. During this time, the Europeans were everywhere on boats. If the Europeans are on boats looking for places to live, you know they got monks with them. Of course, the first vines to be planted in New Zealand soils were missionaries. The English are here with their missionaries planting the vines. No documentation of wine being made, but there is documentation of plants being put in the ground, the northern part of the northern island of New Zealand.
The winemaking credit for New Zealand is a story we’re going to tell in another episode by a man named James Busby, who started making wine around that same area and then selling that wine to British troops. This guy is important. When we talk about Australia, we’re gonna have a whole thing on him, James Busby — put a pin in that. New Zealand is a fascinating place with a fascinating wine history. It’s kind of a rollercoaster ride, and it’s very quick because it all happened so recently. But the thing is, what I find the most exciting about New Zealand and wine is what’s happening right now. There’s a couple of things I just want to mention about New Zealand, how they got to where they are today. We’re going to talk about what’s happening right now because, man, it’s exciting.
By the late 19th century, New Zealand had a wine industry to the point where in 1895, they actually appointed their first government viticulturist, a dude by the name of Romeo Bragato — sounds Italian. His job was to make improvements to what was already happening in New Zealand. That was a big moment for New Zealand wine history. But unfortunately, that same year, this villain I keep talking about, this bug called phylloxera, is first detected in New Zealand, and everything kind of grinds to a halt. Like, “Hey, what are we going to do now?” By this point, the phylloxera situation was not under control but was being worked on. In the United States and with French help, there are all these American hybrid vines being grown all over the United States to try to combat this thing called phylloxera, which is an American louse eating all these European vines.
The remedy — and we’re going into this in the phylloxera episode — was grafting American rootstock onto European rootstock, and that would save the vines. So all New Zealand had to do was graft all of their native European vines that were already there onto American rootstock, and they could have their vitis vinifera vines. But New Zealand decided to not do that. Instead of grafting, they just said, “Give us the American hybrids, whatever those grapes are, and we’ll just plant those.” These types of vines stayed in the soils of New Zealand until about 1960, and between then and 1960, a lot of crazy stuff happened. But unfortunately, I can’t get into all of it. New Zealand, from 1910 through 1919, went through a temperance movement. We in America actually signed into law alcohol Prohibition. They tried to do that in New Zealand, lost the votes, but ended up with the temperance movement affecting the way you buy alcohol in New Zealand for a very long time. There was also a situation in the post-World War II era of this country where there was a big flood of imports from other places. I believe that was because you had soldiers coming back from World War II that have been to Europe, and they were probably saying, “Hey, let’s get some of this European wine into here.” Some local winemakers were competing against imports pretty heavily after World War II. By 1960, the most popular vine planted in New Zealand was a hybrid from New York called American Isabella or Albany Surprise. Things were about to change.
There is a mountainous region called Otago. In the 1860s, there was a gold rush there, and a lot of families from Croatia came to this place to find gold. When the gold rush was over — it was a very brief gold rush — these families stuck around, and on the southern part of the North Island is a major city called Auckland. Surrounding that area is what is known as gumtrees. There are these trees that give off this kind of sap that the Maori people actually use, and oxidize, and sculpt into jewelry and stuff like that. But it also has industrial uses. A lot of these Croatian families found jobs as gum diggers. The reason I’m saying this is because these Croatian people brought with them their wine skills. The modern era of wine in New Zealand is because of three or four major Croatian families that established themselves there. One of them — which created the company called Montana, which is now called Brancott — in the late 60s, worked with UC Davis over in California to see if this new area they had found would be good for wine. That area was on the South Island, the northeast corner of that island. It was a region called Marlborough. The story goes that people thought they were crazy. This is such a wine thing, in the history of wine and especially in the New World; like in Oregon it happened, in Washington State, it happened — people go to a place and say Pinot Noir works here — no, it doesn’t and then it does— and “Oh, my gosh, Oregon Pinot Noir, this happened here.” They’re, everyone’s like, “No, you can’t do that.” But then they put Sauvignon Blanc into this soil, and something beautiful happened.
They realized that there was kind of a Goldilocks situation going on here, where they had this major ocean influence of cool air but had a lot of sun as well. This balance created something special out of the Sauvignon Blanc grape.
In 1973, the first vines were planted in Marlborough. The style was unique because it had a nice round fruit-forwardness to it. It had some depth to it and some roundness to it, but it still had that bracing acidity that is known for Sauvignon Blanc in a place like Sancerre. But it had more depth, and then in addition to that, the herbaceous notes of the wine were just aggressive. They were very in your face. Not in your face uncomfortably, but they were actually just so much more prominent than other places that Sauvignon Blanc grows. As this style emerged, in 1975 New Zealand formed what’s called the Wine Institute of New Zealand. It’s now called New Zealand Winegrowers. There was an alliance of wine grape growers that started sharing information. In 1925, an Australian winemaker by the name of David Hohnen created a Sauvignon Blanc called Cloudy Bay, and when that hits the international market, it’s over. That put New Zealand on the global map, that put Marlborough onto the global map. That is how we as a wine culture in the United States was introduced to New Zealand — it was through Cloudy Bay Sauvignon Blanc from Marlborough.
Today, Marlborough is the largest wine region in New Zealand. To this day, it seems to be our favorite style of Sauvignon Blanc on our market. Even though Marlborough “Savvy B” (as they call it in New Zealand) has a general style, the Marlborough region is a huge river valley and it has all these different deposits of all these different kinds of soils. So you get this general style that we all know. But within that are the nuances, and every winemaker has their own way of expressing the nuance of Sauvignon Blanc in their Marlborough pocket. So although Marlborough isn’t the newest wine-growing region of New Zealand, it is the most significant, and the biggest, and the one that we know the most. There are nine wine-growing regions in New Zealand on both islands. We don’t see a lot of that on the American market. We’re only going to see a few. So outside of Marlborough, I want to talk to you about a few other regions that you’re going to see because I feel like they’re very exciting. Sauvignon Blanc from Marlborough is awesome. But there’s so much more going on in New Zealand that we can also celebrate as much as we celebrate Sauvignon Blanc from Marlborough.
The thing about New Zealand is there is no controlled appellation system. There are label laws, but other than that, there is no geographical this or that. There are wine-growing regions and districts within those wine-growing regions, but that is about as far as it goes. Also, in New Zealand there are no rules — make wine however you want to make wine. You can make it as natural as you want. You can manipulate the hell out of it, whatever you want to do, it’s all you. That’s what’s so beautiful about the winemakers in New Zealand. They have in front of them an open, blank canvas. They can do whatever they want, but what they choose to do is refine, tweak, and find the best places and the best grapes. They actually, within their freedom, make very focused, awesome wine.
Now I’m going to start talking about some locations. This is why New Zealand is a little bit tough, because it has a North Island and it has a South Island, and when you talk about locations within that island, you have to use south and north within the island itself. For example, Marlborough is on the northeast corner of the South Island. Your brain kind of has to wrap around that for a minute, you know what I mean? So just as New Zealand defined a new style of Sauvignon Blanc, New Zealand is also defining a new style of Pinot Noir, and it’s really, really exciting. There is a wine-growing region on the South Island, towards the southern part of the South Island, smack dab in the middle of the island. It is the only wine region in New Zealand that is a continental climate. It has no influence from either ocean or any of the oceans, which is crazy because it’s all surrounded by oceans.
This place is mountainous and hilly and drainy, but it gets a lot of sun. It’s perfect for Pinot Noir. It has all the cool climate that it needs. But the thing is, New Zealand gets so much sun, so you get this bright, vibrant, alive, active Pinot Noir. But because of that sun, you get this deep, voluptuous, chewy fruit. There’s really not a Pinot Noir out there like the Pinot Noir from Central Otago, just like there’s no other Sauvignon Blanc like there is from Marlborough. The same goes here. If you get a chance to check them out, they’re awesome and they’re on the market. They’re a little expensive — they start about 30 bucks. They go from there, and they’re easy to find on a wine shelf because they’re the only wine from Central Otago on our market. Seventy percent of that wine region produces Pinot Noir. They’re playing around with things like Riesling and Chardonnay, but Pinot Noir is what’s defining that region right now.
But they’re not the only ones. I mean, there’s Pinot Noir happening in Marlborough, but that’s really all about Sauvignon Blanc. There’s a place that’s called Martinborough, and that often gets overlooked because it looks like Marlborough when you’re at a wine store. But it is in a place called Waipara — it’s a region in the southern tip of the North Island. Martinborough is in that area. It’s also a very hilly area. They’re a little more expensive, but you’re going to see Pinot Noirs coming from Martinborough, and they’re awesome. They have that depth that Central Otago has, but there’s a distinct, sort of earthy mushroom vibe going on in their Pinot Noir that is very, very cool. There’s also good Sauvignon Blanc coming from there, Chardonnay coming from there. More Martinborough stuff’s going to be coming on the market, so take a look.
There are about seven more wine regions in New Zealand other than the ones we’ve talked about. But I only want to talk about one because the other ones, like Gisbourne, and Northland, and Canterbury, we’re not going to see a lot of that on the market yet. But what we’re starting to see is one of the older wine regions in New Zealand and my personal favorite: I love the wines from Hawke’s Bay, New Zealand. Just inland of Hawke’s Bay in the northeastern section of the North Island is the wine-growing region called Hawke’s Bay, and it is this low-lying land that as you get further inland gets a little bit hillier. What’s really important about this place is there are these specific rivers. Because of the low-lying area, throughout the history of this particular region, there have been floods. When the floods recede, sometimes the river would take a different course. And when it did that, it would leave behind a riverbed of soil, which is basically perfect for vines. I feel like this is a fun playground where — I don’t know how to say it — you have central Otago’s Pinot Noir. Martinborough is doing Pinot Noir, Sauvignon Blanc, and Chardonnay. Then you have Marlborough, which is basically sticking to Sauvignon Blanc; other varieties are being grown in those areas, but that’s what defines those areas. Hawke’s Bay, there is no grape that defines Hawke’s Bay. What defines Hawke’s Bay is actually just the terroir — the varied soils that are very draining. I’ve got to say, whatever they’ve been planting has been working. I’ve had stunning Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, and Pinot Noir from this region. Beautiful acidity, good character, nice depth, awesome structured wines.
What’s really exciting is I’ve had some awesome Malbec from Hawke’s Bay in New Zealand. Some of the Malbec I’ve had from New Zealand is some of the best Malbec I’ve had outside of Argentina. It’s deep and dark, but it has good acidity. It’s herby, but not too herby. It’s just awesome. They’re growing Syrah there, I think they’re doing some Riesling there. This region is going to emerge not as a style, like Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc or Central Otago Pinot Noir. It’s going to emerge as a place of terroir. It’s being explored right now because of its terroir, not because of a certain style of something. I’ve had Merlot, Syrah, Malbec, Chardonnay, and Sauvignon Blanc all from Hawke’s Bay, and they’re awesome in their own right, with their own specific structural awesomeness. It’s a very fun and very unique place.
What’s so cool about New Zealand is we’re watching these regions emerge, even if they’ve already emerged. 1973 wasn’t long ago. Even though New Zealand has been making wine since the 16th or 17th century, it wasn’t until really 1973 and 1985 that New Zealand popped onto the world stage. So we’re still kind of watching this region evolve. I think places like Hawke’s Bay and Martinborough are really cool things to look out for while you’re sipping on your Sauvignon Blanc from Marlborough, and while you’re checking out your Central Otago. So that’s New Zealand in a nutshell.
I want to give a shout-out to Peter Jackson, winemaker, and Whitehaven in New Zealand for a good chat and some awesome information for this episode.
@VinePairKeith is my Insta. Rate and review this podcast wherever you get your podcasts from. It really helps get the word out there. And now, for some totally awesome credits.
Wine 101 was produced, recorded, and edited by yours truly, Keith Beavers, at the VinePair headquarters in New York City. I want to give a big ol’ shout out to co-founders Adam Teeter and Josh Malin for creating VinePair. And I mean, big shout-out to Danielle Grinberg, the art director of VinePair, for creating the most awesome logo for this podcast. Also Darby Cicci for the theme song. Listen to this. And I want to thank the entire VinePair staff for helping me learn something new every day. See you next week.
Ed. note: This episode has been edited for length and clarity.