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It’s probably safe to say that if you ask somebody who has an average knowledge of the global wine market to say the first thing about wine that comes to their mind when you say New Zealand, they will say “Sauvignon Blanc,” and if they have more than an average knowledge, they might say “Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc.” And this is a completely understandable association given that the Sauvignon Blanc grape varietal accounts for sixty percent of New Zealand's total vineyards and a whopping eighty-six percent of the nation's wine exports, and that the Marlborough region accounts for two-thirds of the nation’s total vineyards. Yet New Zealand is much more than Sauvignon Blanc and Marlborough is one of many wine regions in the country.

The first plantings of Vitus vinifera in New Zealand were in 1819. That said, despite the country being fortuitously located in the southern hemisphere Vitus vinifera wine belt (Read more about wine belts in our High Altitude Wine Club edition newsletter.), winemaking in the country was a marginal economic activity well into the 20th century. Most New Zealanders favored beer and spirits in line with their mostly British cultural heritage and the country’s membership in the British Commonwealth. But just like what happened in Australia and the United States, New Zealanders developed a taste for wine after significant immigration into the country and air travel abroad exposed New Zealanders to the wine drinking habits of Continental Europe. It was just a matter of time that they would look inward at the already strong seeds (pun intended) they had for winemaking at home.

Although New Zealand has long had distinct regions where its best vineyards were cultivated, they did not have a truly official designation system in place until very recently. In 2017, a classification was put in place by the government that is equivalent to the American Viticultural Area in the United States (for an explanation of AVAs, check out our Washington State wine club newsletter). In New Zealand, it is called a Geographical Indication (GI). Unlike European appellations, GIs do not dictate the varietals that are allowed to qualify for a GI. Instead, they let viticulturists and winemakers make their own decisions based on terrain and climate, which has encouraged growers and winemakers to explore and innovate.

A total of 18 GIs has been registered thus far: Waipara Valley, Northland, Auckland, Matakana, Kumeu, Waiheke Island, Gisborne, Hawke’s Bay, Central Hawke’s Bay, Wairarapa, Gladstone, Martinborough, Nelson, Marlborough, Canterbury, North Canterbury, Waitaki Valley North Otago, Central Otago. The regions are roughly split between the North Island and South Island of the nation and there are subregions within regions.

To continue our word association experiment, someone with significantly more than an average knowledge of wine might mention “Pinot Noir,” and this is because single-varietal Pinot Noir wines from New Zealand have in the last decade been receiving well-deserved recognition among wine experts. Not only does this finicky grape thrive in certain microclimates in certain GIs, but it also takes on varied and unique expressions depending on where it is grown on the two main islands, north and south. For our three Wine Club wines, we picked a Pinot Noir from a region on the South Island, a Pinot Noir from the North Island, and of course a wine from Marlborough, which is on the South Island, but NOT Sauvignon Blanc. Don’t worry, though, if you need a Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc fix, we have two gems in the store.

But before we jump in, one fun factoid about New Zealand: staying in line with its innovative winemaking culture, New Zealand has pioneered the use of screwtop closures for fine wines mainly as a necessary means to overcome quality issues that affected wine with cork closures that it had to ship long distances.
New Zealand is not just Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc


Central Otago is especially known for its Pinot Noir, along with Chardonnay. This is Lord of the Rings geography with exaggerated towering snowcapped mountain peaks sheltering lush river valleys, all making for varied microclimates. There are six subregions in Central Otago: Gibbston, Bannockburn, Cromwell, Lowburn and Pisa, Bendigo, Wanaka, and Alexandra. Each region has its own microclimates, which in turn results in marked differences among the Pinot Noir produced from each, especially given that Pinot Noir is already an impressionable varietal in terms of how it reacts to different terrains and climates.

Featured February Amaro Wine Club New Zealand wine: Innocent Bystander Central Otago Pinot Noir (2021)

Innocent Bystander was recently bought by the Australian family winery Brown Brothers, but winemaker Joel Tilbrook has made a concerted effort to keep this wine a New Zealand enterprise. He believes that the best way to achieve this goal is with minimal intervention in the winemaking process to let the semi-continental cool climate of Central Otago show its influence. The grapes for this wine were sourced from vineyards from multiple subregions, including Wanaka, Lowburn, Bendigo and Queensbury, and all were hand harvested. Twenty percent of the grapes were kept as whole bunches and immersed with carbon dioxide and the juice of the rest. After fermentation by native yeasts, the wine was aged for eleven months in French oak barriques (fourteen percent new) and then bottled without filtration or fining. The summer for this vintage was especially cool, which resulted in smaller fruit with thick flesh and skins, which make for ample tannins and aromatic characteristics, but the wine still manages to also be fruit-forward.

FOOD PAIRINGS: Coq au vin, cranberry-glazed roast pork, brown sugar-crusted grilled salmon, mushroom-based dishes


Although Kumeu is now recognized as one of the 18 GIs, it has traditionally been known as a subregion of the bigger Auckland region in the northern half of the North Island. Its proximity to the Tasman Sea and the Pacific Ocean makes for a moderate, maritime microclimate, and the clay and underlying sandstone base soils of the area retain water, eliminating the need for irrigation. For context, Kumeu is in the southern hemisphere wine belt at a similar distance from the Equator as southern Spain is in the northern hemisphere, and the average temperatures reflect this comparison.

The region has a viticulture history dating back to the 19th century, dominated by Croatian settlers who brought their viticultural know-how from their native homeland, planting vineyards in the hilly land surrounding the newly settled town of Kumeu. Many of the wineries in the region, including the one featured for our wine club are still run by the descendants of these Croatian settlers.
Featured February Amaro Wine Club New Zealand wine: Kumeu River Village Pinot Noir (2022)

The Kumeau River Wines estate, established in 1944, was founded by Mick Brajkovich, his wife Kate, and their son Mate. The winery is now managed by Mate and his wife, Melba, and their children, Marijana, Michael, Milan and Paul. Marijana manages the financial and accounting side of the business, Milan oversees vineyard management and viticulture, Paul runs sales and marketing, and, finally, Michael is the winemaker.

Through trial and error, Michael has developed a technique that includes wild yeast fermentation, whole cluster pressing, minimal use of new oak, and malolactic fermentation. He then ages the wine in the barrel sur lie. Kumeu River is also the first winery in New Zealand to bottle exclusively in screw cap closures.

FOOD PAIRINGS: fish, light meats, pasta with vinegar-based sauces; gouda, aged soft cheeses


There are almost 30,000 hectares of vines planted in Marlborough, which constitutes two-thirds of the nation’s total vineyard acreage. Located in the northern tip of the South Island, Marlborough is the country’s largest wine region. There are only three subregions (Southern Valleys, Wairau Valley, and Awatere Valley), but the variety of soils and generally cool, dry climates allow for a range of varietals to thrive. So far, Sauvignon Blanc dominates the acreage by far at almost 24,000 hectares versus second-largest Pinot Noir at only 2,700 hectares and Pinot Gris and Chardonnay claiming 2,200 together, leaving 527 for the rest. But plantings are changing rapidly as the industry flourishes and growers and winemakers innovate. Riesling, Gewurztraminer, Gruner Veltliner, Viognier, Syrah, Arneis, and Tempranillo are varietals that constitute some of these other acres, and the region is also turning out very drinkable Méthode Traditionelle sparkling wines.

Featured February Amaro Wine Club New Zealand wine: Clark Estate Pinot Gris Single Vineyard Black Birch Marlborough (2022)

Clark Estate is the product of a husband and wife who wanted change their careers completely and work for themselves. Peter was a career soldier and Janet was a career nurse and they both had just a rudimentary knowledge about wine, and no knowledge about running a vineyard. But that didn’t stop them from buying a patch of land in 1998 and planting Sauvignon Blanc vineyards. After many trials and errors, and even disasters (in 2003 an entire crop was destroyed by frost), they developed their knowledge and built a world-class team to support them, which now includes their daughter.

The Awatere Valley has a cool, dry windy climate, which is ideal for growing Pinot Noir, but we opted to showcase a white varietal wine to contrast the usual Sauvignon Blanc. The Black Birch name on the label comes from a stream running through the property by the same name that feeds into the Awatere River, and from the Black Birch range, which directs cool winds straight onto the vineyards to provide the ideal temperature for growing Pinot Gris. The 2021 season was an exceptionally dry year, with low crops and very ripe fruit.

FOOD PAIRINGS: Fried chicken, pork tenderloin, smoked fish, onion tart, charcuterie