While Marlborough and Central Otago attract most of the limelight that shines on New Zealand wine, the small neighbouring region of Canterbury, and in particular the Waipara Valley, is stepping out from the shadows.
Settled in the picturesque valleys of the South Island, Canterbury – which encompasses the Waipara and Waitaki Valleys – could be considered New Zealand’s hidden secret. The region only contributes 3% to the country’s entire production from just 1,419 hectares of vineyards, but critics have been raving about the quality of wines. ‘The wines from Waipara are really small proportion – it’s small, boutique, high-end wines, but then you have larger plantings,’ Erik Andersen, manager of Black Estate told The Drinks Business.
As word spreads, Waipara Valley wine tours have become increasingly popular – with around 75 wineries in the region, and several large commercial producers such as Pernod Ricard, Villa Maria and Constellation investing in the area. The region’s closeness to Christchurch is also an influencing factor on the rise of Waipara wine tours, the popular resort town can be reached in an hour – while Marlborough is also within driving distance.
The region only contributes 3% to the country’s entire production from just 1,419 hectares of vineyards, but critics have been raving about the quality of wines. ‘The wines from Waipara are really small proportion – it’s small, boutique, high-end wines, but then you have larger plantings,’ Erik Andersen, manager of Black Estate told The Drinks Business.
What sets Waipara apart from New Zealand’s more established regions is a yearning to innovate with fresh styles being pioneered by a new breed of winemakers who have arrived from afar bringing new techniques with them. The first grapes were planted in Waipara in 1978, but most vineyards in the region were only established in the 1990s – so many producers are still experimenting with which varieties are most suited to the rich limestone soils and cool climate. Aromatics are the most widely planted variety that can be sampled during Waipara Valley wine tours, with Riesling, Pinot Gris and Pinot Noir dominating – pursued by Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay, which many producers believe is making a comeback.
‘Everyone is making a lot. Mineral, oak, steel and freshness and made in a natural way… 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,’ said Andersen. Other varieties produced in smaller quantities that may be discovered on Waipara wine tours include Cabernet Franc, Tempranillo, Syrah and Malbec, Pinot Gris, Gewürztraminer and Sauvignon Blanc.
Despite the region’s growing reputation and international applause for its wines, not all Waipara producers are pleased that their best kept secret is being exposed to a larger audience. ‘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 small boutique estate Pyramid Valley Wines.
As for what the future holds, there has been a move towards a single ‘North Canterbury’ designation label that covers both the Waipara and Waitaki Valleys to strengthen the region’s recognition outside of New Zealand. ‘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 Rebecca Jones, marketing executive at Greystone and Muddy Water. ‘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,’ she added.
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