North Canterbury New Zealand’s ‘hidden little secret’
Marlborough and Central Otago might grab much of New Zealand’s winemaking limelight, and for good reason. But a tiny wine region an hour outside of Christchurch, described as a “hidden secret” by one winemaker, is working to raise its profile.
Located on the south island Canterbury, which encompasses the Waipara and Waikari Valleys, has just 1,419 hectares of vineyards, compared to Marlborough’s 24,000ha, with the region home to dozens of boutique producers which together produce just 3% of New Zealand’s annual production.
“The wines from Waipara are really small proportion – it’s small, boutique, high-end wines, but then you have larger plantings,” said Eirik Andersen, vineyard manager at Black Estate in Waipara.
“People are starting to explore with different varieties and styles. Riesling is what originally made Waipara famous. It’s an amazing place because it’s marginal even though it is really hot in the summer. You get really cold nights and a big diurnal range that preserves acidity and is great for aromatic wines. With that as well we get fruit expression and we retain the freshness.
“I think for Waipara we have this big climate but lots of diversity. We have limestone rich soils and clay soils and all these different types of soils with all these minerals. Adding all those together we create a sense of place. We have all these different soil types. That’s really what we do.”
Across Canterbury aromatic varieties are the most-planted grape variety, totalling 481 hectares of plantings, including Riesling and Pinot Gris, followed by Pinot Noir (404ha), Sauvignon Blanc (395ha) and finally Chardonnay (81ha), which Andersen believes is making a comeback.
“Everyone is making a lot. Mineral, oak, steel and freshness and made in a natural way. Wild ferment and pressed straight to bottle. The first wave of Chardonnay in the 90s, people made really big, oaky Chardonnay. Then it lost its popularity but people still continued to make those wines. There was a number of NZ producers that started making their Chardonnay differently with less oak and with a more natural approach, Felton and Neudorf for example. And now we are seeing lots of older Chardonnay coming through. They have good balance, low cropping and more concentration. Plus we have that clay soil in Waipara. We have really good concentration and fruit expression which adds to that.”
The first grapes were planted in Canterbury in 1978, but the majority of the region’s vineyards are even younger having been planted in the 1990s. Consequently the region is still very much in the experimental stages of figuring out which varieties work best in its limestone rich soils and cool climate.
“Muddy Water was planted in 1993 with Pinotage, Sangiovese and all sorts of white grape varieties,” explained Rebecca Jones, sales and marketing executive at Greystone and Muddy Water. “Most of it has been pulled up but Pinot Noir, Pinotage, Chardonnay and Riesling remained. These are four grape varieties that work really well for these soils. We are starting to talk about Waipara being North Canterbury incorporating all of the vineyards in this area, and because of the diversity of soils you really can grow so many different types of grapes here, but really Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Riesling are the varieties that grow exceptionally well.”
Other varieties produced in even smaller quantities include Cabernet Franc, Tempranillo, Syrah and Malbec, Pinot Gris, Gewürztraminer and Sauvignon Blanc.
Hammering down a flagship grape might be a quest for the future generation. Although its sweeping diversity, the fact that it has flown relatively under the radar and its small batch production owing to minuscule allocations are perhaps the region’s greatest asset.
“North Canterbury is still that hidden little secret and I think a lot of people talk about it and people are writing about it but it’s one of those things where I don’t want to see it change too quickly because when that happens big producers come in,” said Claudia Weersing, owner of Pyramid Valley Wines, a boutique biodynamic producer in the Waikari Valley, in the north, that produces just 700 cases a year and whose wines command an RRP of $130 a bottle, representing the top end. The vast majority of the region’s wines are priced between $30 to $50.
“Land in Waipara is $45,000 a hectare and its $120,000 in Marlborough, but 15% of the Sauvignon Blanc used in Marlborough wines is taken from here. The thing with Canterbury is that it’s cool. The summers are temperamental and flowering is always an issue. There’s nothing in Canterbury that’s four cane, everything is two cane, but this means you have small yields and small wineries and crafted wines.”
TOO MANY ‘WAIS’
Looking ahead, many winemakers believe marketing the region more clearly as ‘North Canterbury’, incorporating both Waikari and Waipara Valley in the north, will help strengthen recognition of the region outside of New Zealand and support its commercial ambitions.
“Because of Waipara and Waikari, there’s so many ‘wais’ and it’s really confusing to anyone that doesn’t come from New Zealand,” explained Jones. “North Canterbury is our new moniker. We will see these other words on the bottles but North Canterbury is the new driver for the region.
“From 2017 I think it will really start to take off, but in the UK who knows what a North Canterbury or Waipara wine is? I think we just have to stick to who we are and support each other. I think we can and we do, but we are such a tiny area. We are all really passionate about what we do and really love what we do.
“It’s about being in touch with the land and in touch with what it can help us produce and then expressing that in the bottle, so it goes in the glass and that’s what we should be able to taste.”