North Canterbury’s slogan, “The coolest little wine region in the country,” would seem gimmicky if it didn’t ring so true.
Despite being one of New Zealand’s most accessible wine regions, just a breezy 45-minute drive north from Christchurch on the eastern side the South Island, this small yet mighty beacon of cool-climate viticulture flies under the radar. Its forward-thinking winemakers are focused on community and humble about their vibrant wines.
Although the Sauvignon Blanc avalanche has slid the 150 miles south from Marlborough, it hasn’t buried 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 myriad other cool climate varieties, including Chenin Blanc, Cabernet Franc and Gewürztraminer.
The wines are linear and racy, less about plush fruit and more about salinity and crackling natural acidity. It’s high time to turn your gaze toward the jewel that is North Canterbury.
The Past and the Present
North Canterbury is a relatively young wine region where clones and vine training techniques are still being tested. Considering this, the wines currently produced there are remarkable.
“The culture of [North Canterbury] has grown a lot in the last 10 years,” says Steve Smith, MW, the former founder/director of Craggy Range in Hawke’s Bay. With business partner Brian Sheth, he purchased Pyramid Valley Vineyards here in 2017.
“All of a sudden, you’ve got the heart and soul of a wine region, and a number of producers doing really interesting stuff in a climate that’s quite unique with vines now getting some age on them.”
Many of the area’s wineries are family-run, and organic and biodynamic farming are increasingly common. The focus is on quality over quantity.
“We love the fact the region has many small, quality-focused producers with a lot of young energy,” says Edward Donaldson, marketing manager and member of the second generation at family-run Pegasus Bay. “We don’t have virtually any of the large multinational corporations you see elsewhere.”
North Canterbury has always been a rich agricultural region with farm-to-table fare that caters to Christchurch weekenders, but modern winemaking has only been going on here since the mid-1980s.
Like much of New Zealand, the region’s vinous history is start and stop. Vineyards were planted by newly patriated Frenchmen in the mid-19th century, but they never took off. It would be a century before winegrowing would take hold. An attempt to nurture an experimental row of grapevines outside the local agricultural college, Lincoln University, failed during the 1960s.
However, a lecturer in fruit production, David Jackson, teamed up with Czech winemaker Daniel Schuster to plant vineyards around the Christchurch area and teach seminars on winegrowing and winemaking.
By the late 1970s and early ’80s, the two, along with a group of ambitious wine growers that included the Donaldsons from what’s now Pegasus Bay, began to realize the potential of the North Canterbury region.
“We came here for the land, the gravels, the microclimates, the valley airflow, the shelter, the rain shadow and the river,” says Vic Tutton, co-owner of family-run winery The Boneline, which started in 1989 under the name Waipara West. “The incredible beauty was a bonus. There was the immense pull of this site. This valley has power of its own.”
North Canterbury has always had the right conditions for great wine: warm, sunny days, cool nights, long growing days, protection from the Southern Alps to the west and the Teviotdale Hills in the east, and that magical combination of clay and limestone.
On the other hand, tough, infertile soils, windy, dry conditions and occasional frosts mean vintage variation and low yields. The combination offers high-quality wines with regional character.
“There’s a bristling nature to [North Canterbury’s] sunshine, an edge to it,” says Smith. “Because you’ve always got wind, even in the middle of the summer. And you see it in the wines.
There’s a sense of energy and tension in them which I relate back to that feeling.” The North Canterbury wine region stretches 145 miles along the eastern Pacific coastline. It encompasses the inland, limestone strewn subregion of Waikari and the Bank Peninsula, and Canterbury Plains farther south.
But its most planted subregion by a longshot is Waipara Valley, where 90% of vines are located.
Ask a North Canterbury producer what’s so special about their region, and they’ll speak first and foremost about the soils.
“North Canterbury is one of the few winegrowing regions that has good clay/limestone soil, similar to Grand Cru Burgundy vineyards,” says Takahiro Koyama, owner/winemaker at both Koyama Wines and Mountford Estate.
The soil at Pegasus Bay, located on the valley floor south of the Waipara River, is termed “Glasnevin Gravels.”
It’s “a mix of gravelly stones and sandy loam left from an Ice Age glacier and the river itself,” says Donaldson.
“The soils are low vigor, free draining, with a reflective quality warming the canopy during the day. Farther north, you also get these soils as well as clay on the foothills.”
The Pinot Noir from this part of North Canterbury tends toward a lighter, juicier, fruitier style than those north of the river, but some producers, like Pegasus Bay, craft a denser wine.
Riesling, another Pegasus specialty, offers distinct regional characters like oranges, ginger and white pepper and bright natural acidity, and can be made in a variety of styles.
North of the river, “Omihi” and “Awapuni” clay loam soils dominate. They contain several types of limestone.
Omihi is also composed of calcium carbonate deposits. Wines from these soils often show more fruit concentration, with greater texture and salinity.
“We believed that our soils and climate had potential to produce balanced wines with good texture and freshness,” says Penelope Naish, who purchased her Waipara winery, Black Estate, with winemaker partner Nicholas Brown in 2004. The pair converted the vineyards to organic and biodynamic farming.
This included the Netherwood Vineyard, one of pioneer Daniel Schuster’s original plantings. Black Estate now makes some of the region’s most contemporary wines. Naish wasn’t the only one drawn to the dirt of North Canterbury.
Seven years earlier, Sherwyn Veldhuizen and Marcel Giesen (of the large Marlborough family winery, Giesen), fresh from Europe, had a desire to make wine that, in Veldhuizen’s words, would be “in pure marine-derived limestone soil [and] that in quality, texture, flavor and longevity…speaks of where it is from.”
They gave themselves five years to find a perfect site. It took just six months in 1997, on a winding drive inland from Waipara amid the limestone boulders of the Weka Pass. Bell Hill was born.
It became the first of two vineyards in the dramatic hills of the Waikari subregion. The second, Pyramid Valley, was founded by American expats Mike and Claudia Weersing in 2000. It’s now owned by Sheth and Smith.
Bell Hill’s wines are precise, complex and Burgundian-influenced, while Pyramid’s are wild and soulful. Still, the two have much in common.
Both vineyards are farmed organically and biodynamically, and they’re planted at high density in clay over chalky limestone soils.
They craft small batches of hauntingly beautiful Chardonnay and Pinot Noir with pristine acidity, depth and expression that rival the world’s best. Waikari teeters at the edge of where viticulture is possible. Its altitude, exposure and lime-rich soils amplify all of what makes North Canterbury special, but also all that makes it challenging.
If the quality of Bell Hill and Pyramid Valley is anything to go by, it’s a subregion with enormous potential. It’s a trait that the North Canterbury region has in spades.
As vines age, so do their stewards. Their deeper understanding of their unique patch of dirt strengthens a region that already crafts some of New Zealand’s most thrilling wines.
Keep your eyes firmly on North Canterbury. It’s a masterpiece in the making.