Despite being one of New Zealand’s most accessible wine regions, just 45 minutes north of Christchurch on the east coast of the South Island, this small but powerful beacon of cool-climate winemaking goes unnoticed. Forward-thinking winemakers focus on the community and are humbled by their dynamic wines.
Although an avalanche of Sauvignon Blanc slipped 150 miles south of Marlborough, it did not engulf the area. North Canterbury is free-form and less defined, painted with different brushstrokes and a colorful palette of Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Riesling, and a host of other cool-climate varieties, including Chenin Blanc, Cabernet Franc and Gewürztraminer.
The wines are simple and spicy, less on the plush fruit than on the saltiness and natural crisp acidity. It’s high time to call attention to a gem: North Canterbury.
Pegasus Bay / Photo: Aaron McLean
Past and Present
North Canterbury is a relatively young viticultural area where clones and viticultural methods are still being tested. That said, the wines currently being produced here are remarkable.
“The culture [of North Canterbury] has grown a lot in the last decade,” says Steve Smith, MW, former founder/director of Craggy Range in Hawke’s Bay. He and his partner Brian Sheth bought Pyramid Valley Vineyards here in 2017.
“You suddenly have the heart and soul of the wine region, and a number of producers are doing really interesting things in a unique climate where the vines are now maturing.”
Many wineries in the region are family owned, and organic and biodynamic farming is becoming more common. The emphasis is on quality, not quantity.
“We like the fact that there are a lot of small, quality-oriented manufacturers in the region with a lot of youthful energy,” says Edward Donaldson, marketing manager and second-generation representative at the family-owned Pegasus Bay company, “we have virtually none of the big multinationals you see elsewhere.
North Canterbury has always been a rich agricultural area with farm-to-table food, but modern viticulture has only developed here since the mid-1980s.
As in many parts of New Zealand, the history of the grape begins and ends here. In the mid-19th century, French newcomers planted vines, but they were never successful. It would take a century for viticulture to gain a foothold. In the 1960s, an attempt to uproot an experimental row of vines for the University of Lincoln’s School of Agriculture failed.
However, fruit professor David Jackson, along with Czech winemaker Daniel Schuster, planted vines in the Christchurch area and conducted workshops on viticulture and winemaking.
Bonline / Photo: Jack Hill
In the late 1970s and early 1980s, they and a group of ambitious winemakers, including the Donaldsons of what is now Pegasus Bay, began to see the potential of the North Canterbury area.
“We came here for the soil, the gravel, the microclimate, the air circulation in the valley, the shelter, the rain shadow and the river,” says Vic Tatton, co-owner of The Boneline, a family vineyard that began in 1989 as Waipara West. “The incredible beauty was a bonus. There was a tremendous appeal of this place. This valley has a power all its own.”
North Canterbury has always had the right conditions to produce great wines: 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 that magical combination of clay and limestone.
On the other hand, rough and infertile soils, windy and dry weather and occasional frosts cause fluctuating and low yields. This combination provides high quality wines with a regional character.
“The sun [in northern Canterbury] has a nervous nature, an advantage,” Smith says. “Because you always have wind, even in the middle of summer. And you can see it in the vines.
There is a sense of energy and excitement that I associate with this feeling”. The North Canterbury wine region stretches 145 miles along the eastern Pacific coast. It includes the limestone subarea of Waikari and the Bank Peninsula inland, and the Canterbury Plains further south.
But the longest planted subregion is the Waipara Valley, where 90% of the vines are.
Pyramid Valley / Photo: Paul Ross Jones
Words of a bastard
Ask a winemaker in North Canterbury what makes his area special, and the first thing he’ll tell you is about the soil.
“North Canterbury is one of the few wine growing areas with good clay-limestone soils, similar to the Grand Cru vineyards in Burgundy,” says Takahiro Koyama, owner/winemaker of Koyama Wines and Mountford Estate.
The bottom of Pegasus Bay, which lies at the bottom of the valley south of the Waipara River, is called “Glasnevin Gravel.”
It is “a mixture of gravelly rocks and sandy silt from the Ice Age glacier and the river itself,” Donaldson says.
“The soil is poor, free-flowing and has a reflective quality that warms the canopy during the day. Further north, these soils, like the clay of the foothills”.
Pinot Noir from this part of North Canterbury tends to be lighter, juicier and fruitier than wines north of the river, but some producers, such as those in Pegasus Bay, make denser wines.
Riesling, another specialty of Pegasus, offers a variety of regional symbols such as orange, ginger and white pepper, as well as natural and brilliant acidity, and can be prepared in a variety of styles.
Black Estate / Photo courtesy of New Zealand Wine
North of the river, the clay and silt “Omiha” and “Awapuni” soils predominate. These contain various types of limestone.
Omihi also consists of calcium carbonate deposits. Wines made from these soils often have a higher fruit concentration, with more texture and saltiness.
“We felt that our soil and climate had the potential to produce well-balanced wines with good texture and freshness,” says Penelope Naish, who bought her Waipara vineyard, Black Estate, with winemaking partner Nicholas Brown in 2004. The couple has transformed the vineyards into an organic and biodynamic farm.
Among them was the Netherwood vineyard, one of the first plantations by pioneer Daniel Schuster. Today, Black Estate produces some of the most modern wines in the region. Naish wasn’t the only one attracted to the dirt of North Canterbury.
Seven years earlier, Sherwin Veldhuizen and Marcel Giesen (of the Marlborough family’s large cellar in Giesen), having just arrived from Europe, wanted to make a wine that Veldhuizen said was “made on pure sea limestone soil [and] that by its quality, texture, flavor and longevity … tells you where it came from”.
They gave themselves five years to find the perfect spot. It took just six months in 1997, on a winding road inland from Waipara, among the limestone cliffs of Century Pass. Bell Hill was born.
It was the first of two vineyards located in the spectacular hills of the Waikari sub-region. The second, Pyramid Valley, was established in 2000 by American expats Mike and Claudia Wiersing. It is now owned by Sheth and Smith.
Mountford Estate / Photo courtesy of New Zealand Wine
Bell Hill wines are precise, complex and burgundian, while Pyramid wines are wild and full of soul. Yet they have much in common.
Both vineyards are farmed organically and biodynamically and are planted in high density on silty and calcareous soils.
They produce small batches of hauntingly beautiful Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, with pure acidity, depth and expression that rival the best in the world. Waikari is at the limit of what is possible. The altitude, sun exposure and limestone soil reinforce everything that makes North Canterbury special, but also everything that makes it difficult.
Judging by the quality of Bell Hill and Pyramid Valley, this is a subregion with a lot of potential. It is a quality that North Canterbury has in abundance.
As the vines age, so do their managers. Their deep knowledge of their unique flexibility strengthens a region that is already producing some of New Zealand’s most exciting wines.
Keep an eye on North Canterbury. It’s a masterpiece in the making.
Frequently asked questions
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