From north to south.
In the north west of the South Island, Neudorf is the star of Nelson, for rich Chardonnay and ageworthy Pinot Noir. Aromatic whites such as Riesling and Pinot Gris are also showing promise, with Sauvignon Blanc particularly zingy and herbaceous here.
The wide, flat, vine-covered expanse of the Wairau Valley and the sharply etched mountains around it may now be New Zealand's most photographed wine region but in 1973 the entire South Island was terra incognita to the country's wine industry. The Marlborough region at the island's north-eastern tip was created by the Montana winery (now known as Brancott Estate), which bought up sheep-farming land almost by stealth, gambling on its assessment of the region's potential to produce wines that would be as attractive to consumers as to their producers.
Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc seduced the imagination and palates of thousands of wine drinkers outside New Zealand in the mid 1980s when the first releases of Cloudy Bay trickled on to the British, American and Australian markets. At that stage, Cloudy Bay was just a clever name, label and concept dreamt up by Western Australian winemaker David Hohnen of Cape Mentelle, but the distinctively lush tropical flavours he and winemaker Kevin Judd coaxed from this sometimes austere variety were sufficient to put Marlborough Sauvignon on the international wine map. Others such as Hunter's established an early reputation for their Sauvignon and Chardonnay, too, while subsequent increases in grape prices encouraged all manner of investors, gamblers and local farmers to chance their arm at vine growing. Although most of them sell their grapes to the bigger companies, many of them also sell some wine under their own label, many of them made at contract wineries.
Marlborough Chardonnays can be attractively lean and refreshing – the ripest of them benefiting imperceptibly from some barrel fermentation and maturation, the lightest making an increasing contribution to some fine traditional-method sparkling wines. There has also been talk here, as elsewhere in the world, of a Riesling renaissance, although Pinot Gris, often made in a gently floral, off-dry style unlike either Alsace Pinot Gris or Italian Pinot Grigio, has now overtaken Riesling in terms of quantity. Red wines, mainly Pinot Noir, are steadily gaining more flesh with some of the most convincing examples coming from the Swiss-owned Fromm winery and Vavasour (second label Dashwood), which has pioneered the Awatere Valley to the south. It is generally drier, cooler and windier than the Wairau Valley, with more marked day–night temperature variation, but summers are long and hot, so that Merlot and Cabernet ripen fully. Pinot Noir is grown both for sparkling wine and still reds.
Some favourite producers: Clifford Bay, Cloudy Bay, Delta, Fromm, Greywacke, Hunter’s, Jackson Estate, Isabel Estate, Mud House, Saint Clair, Seresin, Vavasour, Villa Maria, Wither Hills.
Further south on the South Island, the climate can be so variable that few wineries can promise top quality year in and year out. But in the Canterbury region round Christchurch, some inspiring wines have been made by Waipara Springs and St Helena. Pinot Noir and Chardonnay were the first varieties to show promise, as Mountford has shown, and the likes of Pegasus Bay are now also producing crisp, flinty Rieslings. Other particularly ambitious growers include Bell Hill and Pyramid Valley.
The world's most southerly wine region, where until recently viticulture was a truly marginal activity pursued with vigour and dedication by Rippon, Gibbston Valley and Felton Road. The growing season is short but solar radiation is high producing wines of intense varietal character. It is no wonder that vineyard area has grown sevenfold since the late 1990s. The focus here is vividly fruited Pinot Noir, with wines showing increasing finesse.
The new region of Waitaki in north-east Otago boasts limestone and seems to be the next area ripe for development. Riesling and Pinot Gris, as well as Pinot Noir, are showing real potential here.
Some favourite producers: Felton Road, Gibbston Valley, Mount Difficulty, Mount Edward, Rippon.