This New Zealand wine region is “a masterpiece in the making”
North Canterbury’s slogan, “The coolest little wine country in the country,” would sound whimsical if it didn’t ring so true.
Despite being one of New Zealand’s most accessible wine regions, just a 45-minute drive north of Christchurch on the South Island’s east coast, this small but mighty beacon of climate viticulture fresh goes under the radar. Its forward-thinking winemakers are community-driven and humble about their vibrant wines.
Although the Sauvignon Blanc avalanche slid 150 miles south of Marlborough, it did not overwhelm the region. North Canterbury is unfettered and less defined, painted with varying brush strokes and a colorful palate of Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Riesling, along with a myriad of other cool climate varieties including Chenin Blanc , cabernet franc and gewÃ¼rztraminer.
The wines are linear and racy, less on the sumptuous fruit and more on the salinity and the natural crackling acidity. It is high time to turn your gaze to the gem that is North Canterbury.
The past and the present
North Canterbury is a relatively young wine region where clones and vine management techniques are still being tested. In view of this, the wines that are currently produced there are remarkable.
“The culture of [North Canterbury] has grown a lot over the past 10 years, âsays Steve Smith, MW, former founder / director of Steep range in Hawke’s Bay. With his business partner Brian Sheth, he bought Vineyards of the Pyramid Valley here in 2017.
“All of a sudden you have the heart and soul of a wine country, and a number of producers are doing some really interesting things in a pretty unique climate with vines that are aging now.”
Many wineries in the region are family owned and organic and biodynamic farming is increasingly common. The emphasis is on quality rather than quantity.
âWe love that the region has many small, quality-oriented producers with a lot of young energy,â says Edward Donaldson, Marketing Director and second generation member of the family business. Pegasus Bay. âWe hardly have any of the large multinational corporations that you see elsewhere.
North Canterbury has always been a rich agricultural region with farm-to-table fare that caters to Christchurch weekends, but modern winemaking has only been practiced here since the mid-1980s.
Like much of New Zealand, the region’s wine history is a beginning and an end. The vineyards were planted by newly repatriated French people in the mid-19th century, but they never took off. It will be a century before viticulture takes hold. An attempt to maintain an experimental row of vines outside the local agricultural college, Lincoln University, failed in the 1960s.
However, a fruit production speaker David Jackson has teamed up with Czech winemaker Daniel Schuster to plant vines in the Christchurch area and conduct seminars on viticulture and winemaking.
In the late 1970s and early 1980s, the two, along with an ambitious group of wine growers that included the Donaldsons of what is now Pegasus Bay, began to realize the potential of the North Canterbury region.
âWe came here for the earth, the gravel, the microclimates, the valley airflow, the shelter, the shade from the rain and the river,â says Vic Tutton, co-owner of a family winery. . The bone line, which began in 1989 as Waipara West. âThe incredible beauty was a bonus. There was the immense attraction of this site. This valley has its own power.
North Canterbury has always had the right conditions for good wine: warm sunny days, cool nights, long growing days, the protection of the Southern Alps to the west and the Teviotdale hills to the east, and this magical combination of clay and limestone.
On the other hand, hard and infertile soils, windy and dry conditions and occasional frosts mean variations in vintages and low yields. The whole offers high quality wines with a regional character.
“There is a spiky nature to [North Canterburyâs] the sun is an advantage, âsays Smith. âBecause it’s always windy, even in the middle of summer. And you see it in the wines.
There is a feeling of energy and tension in them that I relate to that feeling. The North Canterbury wine country stretches 145 miles along the eastern Pacific coast. It encompasses the limestone-dotted interior sub-region of Waikari and the Bank Peninsula, and the Canterbury Plains further south.
But its most planted sub-region is by far the Waipara Valley, where 90% of the vines are found.
Ask a North Canterbury grower what’s so special about their area and they’ll tell you about soils first and foremost.
âNorth Canterbury is one of the few wine regions to have good clay-limestone soil, similar to the Grand Cru vineyards of Burgundy,â says Takahiro Koyama, owner / winemaker of both Koyama wines and Mountford Estate.
The floor of Pegasus Bay, located at the bottom of the valley south of the Waipara River, is called “Glasnevin Gravels”.
It’s âa mixture of gravel and sandy loam left over from an Ice Age glacier and the river itself,â says Donaldson.
âThe soils are low vigor, free-draining, with a reflective quality that warms the canopy during the day. Further north you also get these soils as well as some clay on the foothills.
Pinot noir from this part of northern Canterbury tends towards a lighter, juicier and more fruity style than those from north of the river, but some producers, like Pegasus Bay, make the wine more dense.
Riesling, another Pegasus specialty, offers distinct regional characters like oranges, ginger, and white pepper and crisp natural acidity, and can be made in a variety of styles.
North of the river, the clay-clay soils âOmihiâ and âAwapuniâ dominate. They contain several types of limestone.
Omihi is also made up of calcium carbonate deposits. Wines from these soils often have a greater concentration of fruit, with greater texture and salinity.
âWe believed that our soils and climate had the potential to produce balanced wines with good texture and good freshness,â explains Penelope Naish, who bought her Waipara winery, Black domain, with his partner winemaker Nicholas Brown in 2004. The couple converted the vineyards to organic and biodynamic farming.
This included the Netherwood Vineyard, one of the original plantations of pioneer Daniel Schuster. Black Estate today produces some of the region’s most contemporary wines. Naish wasn’t the only one drawn to the filth of North Canterbury.
Seven years earlier, Sherwyn Veldhuizen and Marcel Giesen (from the large family estate Marlborough, Giesen), fresh from Europe, had the desire to make wine which, in Veldhuizen’s words, would be “in limestone soil of pure marine origin [and] that in quality, texture, flavor and longevityâ¦ speaks where it comes from.
They have given themselves five years to find a perfect site. It only took six months in 1997, on a winding drive inland from Waipara through the limestone rocks of Weka Pass. The hill of the bell was born.
It became the first of two spectacular hilltop wineries in the Waikari sub-region. The second, Pyramid Valley, was founded by American expatriates Mike and Claudia Weersing in 2000. It is now owned by Sheth and Smith.
Bell Hill wines are precise, complex and Burgundian influenced, while Pyramid wines are wild and moving. Yet the two have a lot in common.
Both vineyards are cultivated organically and biodynamically, and they are planted at high density in clay soils on chalky limestone soils.
They craft hauntingly beautiful small batches of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir with pristine acidity, depth and expression that rival the best in the world. Waikari wobbles to the edge of where viticulture is possible. Its elevation, exposure, and limestone-rich soils amplify everything that makes North Canterbury special, but also everything that makes it difficult.
If one relies on the quality of Bell Hill and Pyramid Valley, this is a sub-region with enormous potential. It’s a trait the North Canterbury region has to spare.
As the vines age, so do their stewards. Their deeper understanding of their unique plot of land strengthens a region that already produces some of New Zealand’s most exciting wines.
Keep an eye out for North Canterbury. It is a masterpiece in the making.