AUCKLAND, N.Z. — When it’s spring in Canada, it’s autumn in New Zealand and the best time to visit Down Under — if you are a wine lover, that is. New Zealand wine regions are at their most spectacular in fall, when the days are long and bathed in late sunshine. It’s also the perfect time to sip, savour and enjoy the country’s spectacular fruity Sauvignon Blancs, alternative Albarinos and zesty Rieslings.
If you’ve never been on a wine tour of New Zealand, here’s what you can expect in each region that grows the grape:
Auckland: Gateway to New Zealand
West Auckland is where New Zealand’s wine began, thanks to the Eastern European immigrants who brought grapevines with them. The descendants of those original vines are red, copper and gold come autumn, when the winemakers have finished their harvest.
Auckland is the nation’s wine industry headquarters, with four destinations within an hour’s travel. Chardonnay specialist Kumeu River Wines is a 20-minute drive from the city, Waiheke Island is a 40-minute ferry ride, and the towns of Matakana and Warkworth are an hour’s drive north. Villa Maria Estate sits in the vast, vine-lined Ihumatao Volcano — five minutes from Auckland Airport.
Gisborne: Experimentation Central
Gisborne is the first city in the world to see the sun each day and one of the warmest places to relax, Chardonnay in hand, during long autumn days on this sunny coast.
The fourth-largest wine region in the country, it is also informally known as the Chardonnay capital of New Zealand. The local winemakers make many of the country’s top examples, as well as Gewurztraminer, Chenin Blanc and a growing menagerie of obscure, yet on trend wines such as Albarino, Marsanne and Vermentino. Most wineries are small, owner-operated and welcome visitors.
Hawke’s Bay: Historic and Diverse
Hawke’s Bay boasts one of the finest summers in New Zealand each year — and one of its longest, thanks to its sun-drenched east coast position on the North Island. Mid-to-late autumn is ideal for visitors to enjoy the country’s second-largest wine region, with nearly 5,000 hectares of grapevines. The Bay’s best-known wine area is the Gimblett Gravels, 800 hectares of stony ground which absorbs, retains and radiates heat to red grapes such as Syrah, Malbec and Merlot. In cooler areas, Pinot Noir shows promise.
The Wairarapa: Wellington Wine Country
Small but perfectly formed, this windblown region on the east side of the Rimutaka Ranges enjoys settled weather in autumn, as well as a steady stream of vineyard events, such as marathons around the vines, country fairs and harvest events. The Wairarapa is home to only 3 per cent of New Zealand’s grapes, due to the decimating effects of strong spring winds. However. while Mother Nature reduces quantity, she raises the intensity of flavour. The best wines include Ata Rangi Pinot Noir, Nga Waka Riesling (dry), The Escarpment Vineyard’s Pinot Noir, Margrain Chenin Blanc and Martinborough Vineyard Chardonnay.
Marlborough: Sauvignon Blanc Central
Marlborough reigns in size, economic importance and production of New Zealand’s biggest wine success story to date: Sauvignon Blanc.
It is busiest in summer during harvest, so visit in autumn when the weather is generally warm and sunny.
The region’s Sauvignons now account for 85.6 per cent of the country’s exports.
Marlborough has 141 wineries and a whopping 24,000 hectares of producing grapevines. Today, a wider range of styles are being made more than ever before, thanks to the country’s first International Sauvignon Blanc Celebration in January 2016 — which spurred winemakers to diversity.
Nelson: North of the South
Nelson is the northernmost wine region on the South Island and is known for its seaside café culture and outdoor living. Orcas and dolphins often visit the region during autumn, which is also when the colours of the vines are at their most beautiful — and both make this the top season to explore the meandering and relaxed vibe of Nelson. Like its nearest neighbour, Marlborough, Nelson’s historic wine strengths have tended to be whites, with Chardonnay, Gewurztraminer, Riesling and Sauvignon Blanc harnessing a strong reputation. The best Pinot Noirs are now adding another string to the region’s wine bow.
North Canterbury: Emerging Excellence
Cool nights, hot days, long dry autumns and strong winds are the story of this dramatic wine region, 40 minutes north of Christchurch – and now the hub of Canterbury’s wine industry.
The region’s most exciting wines are its intense Rieslings (both the bone-dry and the sweet ones). These wines are made possible by the long, relatively warm autumns and the region’s dry, sunny climate. This is home to many of the country’s rock star wine brands, such as Pegasus Bay (a leading Riesling and Pinot Noir producer) and Bellbird Spring (small and innovative). Others to visit include Pyramid Valley, Bell Hill and Greystone.
Central Otago: World’s Southernmost Wine Region
Central Otago is spectacular to visit in autumn, when the burnished colours bathe the mountains in blankets of breathtaking beauty. Local winemakers are heavily reliant on Pinot Noir, with 80 per cent of their vineyards devoted to this early-ripening grape. The white wines here are dwarfed by Pinot power, but the Rieslings, Pinot Gris, Pinot Blancs, Chenin Blancs and Chardonnays also offer exceptional quality.
Gibbston Valley Wines is a top lunch spot, as is Carrick Estate at Bannockburn. Aurum Wines is a small, family-run affair with top-quality wines by French winemaker Lucie Lawrence.