Kiwi wine has taken the world by storm. But there’s still no better place to try it and buy it than straight from the source: at vineyards in the top wine regions of New Zealand.
But the grapes are not the only things worth visiting in each region. So if you’re planning to visit the best wine regions in New Zealand, here’s a guide to each one. We’ve highlighted a bit of history, suggested some wineries worth visiting, and also offered an unmissable activity you should do while you’re in each region. From hair-raising rides to educational tours, there’s something to please everybody’s palate.
The best wine regions in New Zealand and what to do there
The Top 3
Marlborough, synonymous with world-class Sauvignon Blanc, is one New Zealand wine region that needs no introduction. But there’s a lot more here than ‘just’ the famous Savs that put New Zealand on the world wine map in the 1980s. From vivacious Pinot Noir to crispy Chardonnay, Marlborough’s fertile, free-draining soils and cool-but-sunny climate produce an astounding array of vintages. In fact, more than ⅔ of New Zealand’s total vines under cultivation are located here. So you’ll never be at a loss for choice.
Wineries: It’s tricky choosing the best Marlborough wineries to visit. The likes of Giesen, Villa Maria, Mud Brick, and Craggy Range are the big boys, producing the widest range of varieties between them. But Cloudy Bay and Oyster Bay are the Sauvignon Blanc superstars. Hans Herzog Estate is among the best organic Marlborough wineries. And visiting high-end Seresin can also include a boat trip through the Marlborough Sounds to New Zealand’s most secluded restaurant, overlooking Waterfall Bay.
What to do: Don’t miss the chance to kayak the Pelorus river. This family-friendly activity starts from Havelock, one of the most underrated small towns in New Zealand, just a 30-minute drive from Blenheim. The fully-guided 7 km paddle goes down a section of the stunning Pelorus river used to film The Hobbit. As well as visiting filming locations and swimming holes, you get to spot some rare New Zealand wildlife along the way.
Second only to Marlborough in terms of production, Hawke’s Bay tops the list of historic wine regions in New Zealand. Grapes were first planted here by French missionaries in 1851, leaving a legacy that continues today through the historic Mission Estate Winery. Since then, Hawke’s Bay has achieved an international reputation primarily for its superb reds: Cabernet and Merlot blends, Syrah, and Pinot Noir especially. The warm climate and long growing season also means Hawke’s Bay tops other wine regions in New Zealand for producing sweet, dessert-style wines, too.
Wineries: Not far from Mission Estate in Taradale, Moana Park is worth a visit for its top-shelf Syrah. Te Mata Estate, established in 1895 near Havelock North, has one of the oldest wine cellars in the country. Sileni Estates Cellar Door in Hastings lets you taste the full smorgasbord of Hawke’s Bay varieties. While Lime Rock, a small winery near Waipawa, is a particularly good place to sample the region’s underrated whites.
What to do: It’s not difficult to find a few hours of high-octane adventure in Hawke’s Bay, from canyon swings to river kayaking. But for the thrilling scenic option, head to Havelock North and take a tandem paraglide over the cliffs of Te Mata Peak, enjoying sensational views of the Tuki Tuki river valley, Heretaunga Plains, Ruahine Ranges, and Hawke’s Bay wine country.
Protected from the sea on all sides by mountain ranges, Central Otago is New Zealand’s only true ‘continental’ climate region. It has hot, arid summers and freezing winters. Plus, the soils are perfect for grape-growing, having been ground out to a fine dust from retreating glaciers along local schist over millennia, leaving well-draining layers of river gravel and sand. Central Otago won its first international Gold Medal for wine in Sydney in 1881, but it wasn’t until the 1970s that kiwi wine-makers really took advantage of Central Otago’s climate and soil to produce world-class wine. Now, wineries are popping up here as fast as any wine region in New Zealand.
Wineries: While Queenstown and Wanaka have the reputation for world-class skiing and adventure tourism, Gibbston and Bannockburn have it for growing New Zealand’s best Pinot Noir. Black Quail Estate and Mt. Difficulty are long-time leaders of Bannockburn’s Pinot brigade. While Felton Road take a modern approach, and Invivo Wines are the playful new kids on the Bannockburn block. Through the Kawarau Gorge in the Gibbston Valley you find Grant Taylor’s Valli Vineyards, the quirky Barrel Fence Cellars, award-winning Gibbston Valley Winery, plus a number of boutique vineyards. Including Coal Pit Wines and Waitiri Creek, whose restored 1894 church offers a beautiful setting for sampling their single-vineyard vintages.
What to do: Despite what was said above, let’s not forget that we are still in the heartland of adventure tourism. So while you’re in the area, why not combine your visit to one of the leading wine regions of New Zealand with a jet boat ride through the Kawarau Gorge, or bungy off the Kawarau Bridge? Both activities take place between Bannockburn and Gibbston. But you can opt for pick-up in Wanaka or Queenstown if it’s easier.
The Best of the Rest wine regions in New Zealand
Just one hour north of Wellington, Martinborough is the centre of Wairarapa’s booming wine industry. And if there’s a leading niche wine region in New Zealand, this is it. The Wairarapa accounts for less than 1% of total New Zealand wine production. And it makes up less than 3% of the total land area under cultivation Within that area, however, an astonishing range and diversity of high-quality wines are grown.
Wineries: Visit Brodie Estate for brilliant boutique Pinot Noir, Lime Gully for earthy Pinot Gris, Stonecutter for a surprisingly spritely Gewurtztraminer, Nga Waka for Marlborough-inspired Sauvignon Blanc, and Urlar for fruity, organic Riesling.
What to do: The historic Remutaka Rail Trail cuts through dramatic scenery and historic settlements. It covers a range of tracks ranging in difficulty from flat plains to gruelling hill climbs, including the world-famous Rimutaka Incline. You can hire bikes in Martinborough.
Despite stretching over 200 km, the Canterbury wine region has nothing like the reputation of its northern (Marlborough) and southern (Central Otago) neighbours. But more and more boutique vintners and grape growers are discovering the potential of Canterbury’s many distinct micro-climates and sub-regions. One of those micro-climates, the Waipara Valley, has already gained a global reputation for its expressive Pinot Noir and aromatic Chardonnay.
Wineries: Boutique Bellbird Spring and House of Ball wineries offer great food-pairing experiences, while Sherwood Estate, Greystone, and Muddy Water Wines are Waipara’s most established wineries, with excellent visitor facilities. On Bank’s Peninsula, Takamatua Valley Vineyards and French Peak are pioneering wines with distinctive local expressions. They don’t have bad views, either.
What to do: Less than an hour from Waipara, Hanmer Springs offers a chance to relax and unwind after doing some wine touring. But if you’re not in the mood for relaxing, take the Hanmer Springs River Rafting Tour. You get to tackle the rapids of the Waiau river on an adrenaline-pumping white-water rafting tour, then enjoy an equally hair-raising return to Hanmer Springs by jet boat.
Well underrated among New Zealand wine regions, Tairawhiti-Gisborne is the first wine region in the world to see the sun. And not only does it get the sun early – it gets plenty of it, too. As a result of the sun and its sandy and volcanic sub-soils, Tairawhiti-Gisborne is a mecca for marvellous white wines. After its famous Chardonnay comes crispy, bright Pinot Gris. There’s a real mix of big-name brands and seriously small-scale artisans producing wine here.
Wineries: Hihi Wines are a dynamic boutique winery, constantly experimenting with new techniques and grapes, while Brunton Road are a family winery who produce a huge range of varieties. Wrights Winery and Millton Vineyards offer the full range of visitor experiences, including personalised tastings, tours, cellar-door barrel sampling, and major events.
What to do: The East Cape is known for surfing. But for something really unique, why not try snorkelling and swimming with stingrays while you’re here? You can do so with Dive Tatapouri, just a 15-minute drive from Gisborne city. Their knowledgeable guides can also take you on an Ecology Reef Tour, explaining the native marine life here and its significance in local Maori culture.