New Zealand Wineries: best regions to visit for Pinot Noir
We visited many New Zealand wineries during our 30 day trip. We discuss our favorite regions and experiences.
I used to love beer and didn’t have much use for wine. After living in Portland, Oregon for five years, I had gotten into microbreweries and enjoyed the wide variety of delicious beers, from wheats to flavored beers to stouts and porters.
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When I moved to London, I thought I would continue drinking beer as my beverage of choice. But my first few visits to pubs were disappointing. I didn’t really know the brands that well, and most pubs had their own handles so it was hard to get the same beer twice. But the worst part was that the beer was often served warm. Not appetizing! I also wanted to lose some weight and dark beers were not helping. So I switched to wine.
I’m not sure how I first discovered it, but New Zealand Pinot Noir has been a go-to wine for me for years. In London I was able to find them in most wine shops and on a lot of wine lists, and they were more reliable in taste and more reasonably priced than their French counterparts. I found myself bringing New Zealand Pinot Noir to friends’ homes for parties and giving them as gifts to other wine lovers.
While I knew New Zealand Pinot Noir, most of the rest of the world knows New Zealand for their whites – Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay. A lot of wine lovers I know rave about Cloudy Bay Sauv Blanc and both the Marlborough and Hawke’s Bay regions are known for their Chardonnays. We don’t like whites, so these regions were not first on our list.
But we did prioritize New Zealand wineries as part of our trip, visiting two regions specifically for Pinot Noir – Central Otago and Wairarapa. Whether you’re travelling in the North or South Island, you should be able to add one of these two great Pinot regions on your list.
Central Otago – South Island Pinots
Central Otago is New Zealand’s southernmost wine region, and within easy reach of Queenstown. There are roughly 175 vineyards, with about 75 percent growing Pinot Noir. The area has six different sub-regions, with a variety of different microclimates, creating a nice variety of different wines.
We knew we wanted to taste Central Otago Pinots and we were lucky to add on a wine tasting day to our bike tour on the Otago Central Rail Trail. We booked our biking adventure through SheBikesHeBikes, and they recommended Tania from Winesolutions Bespoke Wine Tours.
Tania picked us up from our hotel and stored our luggage in the back of her brand new Volvo and drove us out to visit some local wineries. We felt comfortable immediately, like an old friend had picked us up for a day trip. We chatted along the way and she got an idea of what we liked and she drove us to visit five different places to taste delicious wines.
We started in Bannockburn with the famous Mt. Difficulty winery with an incredible view of the surrounding landscape. We also visited Domain Road, Wooing Tree, Aurum and our favorite, Desert Heart Estate. Desert Heart’s tasting room was a renovated storage container and the owners were delightful.
For lunch, we stopped in the tiny picturesque town of Cromwell. Cromwell was an old gold rush town that was mostly drowned by the Clyde Dam then rebuilt in the early 1990s. We had a surprisingly gourmet lunch at a little Italian place called Armando’s. We also tried our first sausage rolls, a local favorite that sounded disgusting but tasted delicious.
If you’re planning a visit to this area, you could easily spend a few days exploring all of the different wineries and combine it with a stay in Queenstown to see all the other natural wonders, world-class skiing in the winter, or cycling on one of the many trails the rest of the year. Central Otago also offers plenty of dining options for foodies – including the Eat.Taste.Central festival during the New Zealand spring season.
Queenstown has a busy airport with plenty of non-stop flights from within New Zealand and from Australia. We arrived via about a two hour flight from Melbourne.
If you will be in the area for several days, the easiest way to explore would be by car, as long as you are comfortable driving on the left (we got used to it).
But if you have limited time and want to see the very best, we’d definitely recommend a private wine tour from a company like Winesolutions Bespoke Wine Tours. Tania had a great relationship with the wineries and was able to tailor the tour to our individual tastes, saving us time and effort, and we were treated like old friends at every place we visited.
Wairarapa – the perfect Pinot weekend near Wellington
The other wine region on our list was Wairarapa, about an hour north of the capital city of Wellington on the North Island. This is one of New Zealand’s smallest wine-producing regions, making up only about one percent of the country’s wines and about 60 boutique wineries.
We spent a few nights in Martinborough, one of the three main villages in the region. Of all the wine country trips we’ve taken, this was one of our best experiences.
Martinborough is quite compact and flat, with most of the vineyards easily accessible by bike. We borrowed two cruiser bikes with baskets at our bed & breakfast and had a blast riding up and down the country roads and sampling the local wines. We nabbed the last table for lunch at Poppies, one of the busiest tasting rooms in the area, and took a long break from riding, then packed back up and made our way back to the B&B. We were pleasantly buzzed but the roads were so wide and quiet we were perfectly safe. It was such a lovely way to experience wine country.
If you’re planning a visit, we’d definitely recommend a couple of nights in Martinborough. There are plenty of B&Bs and small inns in town, and almost everything is within walking or bicycling distance. There are also several delicious dining options for every price range with some very talented chefs.
Waiheke Island – a surprise near Auckland
When we were originally planning our trip, we overlooked Waiheke Island, probably because it is not an area known for its Pinot Noir. But luckily for us, we met Fleur on the street corner in Christchurch and she convinced us to visit Waiheke Island when we met up for dinner in Wellington.
Waiheke Island is not too far away from Auckland, but it seems like another world. It’s a lush, almost tropical island with beaches and wineries, the perfect day or weekend out from the city. It’s easy to reach with ferries available almost every hour from the central terminal in Auckland harbor.
We had planned to explore Waiheke Island on electric bikes. We had seen an electric bike rental shop in the ferry terminal that had great looking bikes, so we reserved them from the same company to pick up on the island. We showed up to pick them up and it was not the operation we expected. The island fleet of bikes looked old and it took us a few tries to find bikes that were the proper size and that worked. We wobbled out of the shop and took off to explore.
Our first stop was not too far from the shop, the Mudbrick winery at the top of a hill. The bikes struggled up, but we made it and enjoyed our wine tasting in the warm sunshine. The wines were different in Waiheke, more full-bodied varieties versus the Pinot Noir we’d been enjoying in the rest of New Zealand.
After our first wine stop, we continued riding around the island. There was a lot more traffic on the roads than we were used to, and riding on the left made it even more awkward. After a while we decided to reconsider our plan and ditch the bikes. The owner of the shop graciously gave us a full refund and told us just to leave the bikes on the side of the road, and someone from her shop would come and pick them up later. Instead we bought ten dollar passes for the Waiheke bus that circuited the island.
We were limited to the wineries we could visit based on the bus stops, but between walking and taking the bus we spent the day exploring the island and tasting plenty of delicious wine.
If you are planning a visit, we’d recommend you try to spend a night or two on the island, especially in the warm weather, to give you more time to relax and explore all the different wineries. The region produces predominantly reds and is best known for its Merlot and Syrah, though you will find everything from Cabernet Sauvignon to Montepulciano to Malbec. Almost every winery we visited also had a nice selection of whites. And it’s hard to find a more pleasant place relax and taste wine.
New Zealand’s more famous regions
If you like white wines, you will find some to try in the regions we visited as well. There was plenty of Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Riesling to taste in both Central Otago and Martinsborough.
However, if whites are your focus, you will probably want to spend time in Marlborough on the South Island or Hawke’s Bay on the North Island. These are New Zealand’s two largest wine regions.
Marlborough – home to Cloudy Bay
The Marlborough region can trace its history to the first vineyard planted in 1873, but it really took off more recently, and is now responsible for about 80 percent of New Zealand’s wine exports. You can likely find a Cloudy Bay Sauvignon Blanc on a restaurant wine list or on your grocery store shelf.
We didn’t visit the area, but we drove through Blenheim, the main town in the region, and saw dozens of vineyards just from the highway. The Marlborough region is quite close to Nelson and Abel Tasman National Park, as well as not too far from the Interislander Ferry at Picton, so it’s easy to add it on to a visit to either area.
Hawke’s Bay – the birthplace of New Zealand wine
On our way through the North Island, we spent one night in Napier, the Art Deco capital of New Zealand, and were lucky enough to eat dinner at the Mission Estate Winery, New Zealand’s oldest winery. While our wines were good, we mostly remember the lamb, some of the best we had on our trip.
French missionaries traveled to New Zealand in 1838 with some vines, and established the Mission Estate just outside of Napier in 1851. Today, Hawke’s Bay is New Zealand’s second largest wine region, home to famous Chardonnay as well as interesting red blends.
There are more than 200 vineyards with at least 35 cellar doors to visit in the area and Napier, Hastings and Havelock North are all good bases to spend a few nights. We think the Wineries Ride sounds like the best option to explore, with 10 wineries on a flat, 20 mile loop.
Hawke’s Bay is about 4 or so hours driving from both Auckland and Wellington so it makes a great stop if you are traveling between the two, or, if you are limited on time, Air New Zealand offers non-stop flights from both cities to Napier.
Whether you are a wine snob or just like a good glass of wine with dinner, we’d recommend you visit one or two New Zealand wineries during your trip. There are many other wine regions we’ve missed, with unique microclimates and signature wines. You’re sure to taste something you like, and maybe you’ll even find your go-to wine.