All Change: New Zealand Reds 


After shutting its doors in March 2020, New Zealand fully opened borders to international visitors in August 2022. Despite a global pandemic raging around them, the country’s winemakers have enjoyed a string of good vintages: 2019, 2020 and 2021. There have been many changes since the government closed its doors. It had been three years since I stepped foot in Aotearoa, a country I called home for six years and which will forever be a part of me. Admittedly, there are a lot of familiar faces sporting a few more grey hairs and wrinkles, myself included. The stalwarts of the industry and the names we have come to consider New Zealand’s finest remain. They continue to refine and redefine their wines, whether it’s Ata Rangi, Felton Road or Kumeu River. However, it is inescapable that this industry is transitioning from its first generation of wine producers to the next.

Dawn breaks over Lake Wanaka and Rippon's vineyards, one of Central Otago's pioneers.

International influences have been a part of the New Zealand wine scene from its early days. Dalmatians were the driving force behind the wine scene in the late 19th century. The modern era of New Zealand wine has been shaped by a united nation of small wine producers who have emigrated from their homeland, whether Austria, Australia, America or Asia, to grow grapes at the bottom of the earth. Its isolation has always attracted the super-rich, with billionaires buying a piece of New Zealand with the expectation that they can get on a private jet to escape when Armageddon hits. What started as a gentle trickle to own a New Zealand vineyard has become a steady stream in recent years with prestigious, large-scale overseas investment: Australia’s Torbreck has purchased Martinborough’s Escarpment Vineyard; San Diego businessman Brian Sheth has taken on Pyramid Valley in North Canterbury as well as Lowburn Ferry in Central Otago; Edmond de Rothschild bought Akarua in Central Otago; LVMH expanded their operation from Cloudy Bay in Marlborough to Central Otago; even James Suckling has purchased a property in Martinborough which long supplied the single vineyard fruit for Kiwa to Escarpment. The list goes on.

Things are changing within New Zealand’s borders, too. The long-standing wine team at Dry River, including winemaker Wilco Lam with the backing of a German investor, failed to take ownership of the place he called work and home. It was sold to Luna (the neighboring estate), owned by the Chinese-born, Wellington-based businessman Charlie Zheng. The Dry River team has since acquired the nearby vineyard On Giants’ Shoulders and will rebrand and build on the blocks a young couple put in place. There have also been high-profile personnel changes, including ex-Vidal winemaker Hugh Crichton who is now heading up the cellar at Elephant Hill. At the same time, Richelle Tyney left Spy Valley to join Kevin Judd at Greywacke.

There’s also natural generational change. The early 1980s marked a new, modern period for the New Zealand wine scene. Many of those who spent 40 years and more making it what it is now, including Villa Maria’s George Fistonich, Escarpment’s Larry McKenna, Trinity Hill’s John Hancock, Dog Point (formerly Cloudy Bay’s) James Healy, Neudorf’s Tim and Judy Finn to name but a few, are hanging up their winemaking boots or handing over the reins to the next generation. The children of the Baby Boomer generation are taking over from their parents, learning the reins as much as they teach their parents new tricks. But they are in the minority: just 25% of businesses make it to the second generation, according to the Family Business Institute. The question of succession will only continue to grow as the New Zealand community expands: there were just 131 wine companies in 1990. Today, there are 744 wineries.

There is a group of new brands made by younger producers whose parents have had no association with wine other than drinking brands like Chasseur from a boxed, three-liter bag in the 1980s and early 1990s. Among them are many experimental winemakers pushing the boundaries of New Zealand wine. The youth’s courage has imbued many with a desire to explore the question: will the country’s past and present wine scene be its future? As a result, there is a cohort of brilliant and motivated alternative winemakers across the country turning away from the pristine, conventional winemaking of their predecessors, trialing extended skin contact, pied de cuve ferments, blending varieties that you wouldn’t traditionally consider as partners and holding back on most cellar interventions. The results are wildly variable, from good to undrinkable. Wine aims to provide sensory pleasure, and when presented with a cloudy, tannic white or a sour red, it fails in its primary objective. I can’t help but feel it’s all a case of Emperor’s New Clothes, and many of us are frightened to say so. In stating this, I may be accused of being closed-minded, but I am not. I am seeking out these wines at every opportunity in a bid to have my mind changed. However, this is an industry in flux. The growing diversity of both the community and its wines is a natural exploratory step if it is to mature and thrive.  

North Canterbury is New Zealand wines' best-kept secret, but its hillside vineyards won't stay secret for long.

The Latest Releases

The latest release for most New Zealand’s red winemakers is either 2020 or 2021. The pair is part of a trio of vintages that have broad similarities in that they were predominantly warm, dry seasons that allowed producers to harvest when they wished rather than be forced to make decisions due to the onset of inclement weather or botrytis pressure.

When it comes to New Zealand’s most planted red variety, Pinot Noir, extraction is the keyword, particularly when considering 2021 and 2019. In both vintages, low yields were followed by a dry, warm summer leading to small berries. Handling tannin was critical, and not everyone managed to pull it off. The 2020s offer greater harmony, which is surprising considering that a lockdown was imposed in the middle of harvest, and the producers had a certain amount of panic. The 2021s will take much longer to come around, and after tasting a few early drops of the 2022 vintage, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if we are drinking the 2022s, followed by the 2020s, while the 2021s slowly come around.


The 2021 Pinot Noirs from Marlborough are all deep in color and richly tannic. They are the result of a warm, dry, low-yielding season. Potential crops were cut by around a third due to early and protracted flowering, affected by cool weather and rain. It was another warm, dry summer with drought pressure, but the vines may have been more stressed had the crop levels been higher. Due to the small bunches and small berries, plus varied berry sizes within bunches, picking decisions were difficult, and extraction choices were equally crucial to avoid overly tannic, hard Pinot Noirs. Most successful wines held back on the frequency and timing of pump over and plunges. After the big, purple, tannic beasts of 2019, producers learned that less is more.


Across the Cook Strait in Martinborough, cool, wet weather during flowering caused yet another small Pinot Noir crop. Many producers report that their red harvest was around 50%. This small region was ruing what could have been if they had more fruit on the vine when the summer turned warm and dry, ripening the fruit early. Roger Parkinson of Nga Waka notes that the harvest was the earliest ever: “over our first 20 vintages, not one harvest would have started by the date we finished picking this year.” Small berries and small bunches make for concentrated, structured Pinots that will stand the test of time.

North Canterbury

It was all over before it began for some North Canterbury vineyards. The mild winter led to an early budburst, and along came frosts in late September and early October. “It’s burned into my memory,” says Mike Saunders, the viticulturist for Greystone in Waipara. “Our frost system [water] failed totally. It worked perfectly, but it was -4˚C out there.” As a result, yields were tiny, with some blocks totally wiped out. Fans of Pyramid Valley’s single vineyard Pinot Noirs – Earth Smoke and Angel Flower – will be disappointed as there is no bottling in 2021. For the fruit that survived the spring onslaught, the small yields and warm, dry conditions in summer meant that an early harvest was inevitable.

The vineyards of Hawke's Bay's Gimblett Gravels have become renowned for their Bordeaux blends and Syrah.

Central Otago

Central Otago lives in its own semi-continental bubble, basking in sunshine when the rest of the country is flooded, experiencing snowfall while their East Coast counterparts sunbathe. In 2021, the region experienced frosts in late September, where frost-management systems fought off the cold’s effects on the bursting buds. Still, on 28 December, another unseasonal frost hit, followed by 135mm of rain. This not only spoiled the new year’s break for revellers but stressed local growers. Summer took its time to get going. A cold and unusually wet January further affected crop size and its development. Only after the summer holidays ended and the country’s children returned to school did the clouds part with almost no rain for the next two months, and warm weather arrived. As summer turned to autumn in late March, temperatures cooled, and early April marked the Pinot Noir harvest, making for a relatively early vintage, which was welcome after the cold 2020 season. Small yields and warmth in February and the first half of March helped the crop to the finish line. You can expect wines with depth and color, although a full assessment of the 2021s will be clearer as more wines are released over the course of the year.

Beyond Pinot Noir

Hawke’s Bay typically enjoys a temperate climate on New Zealand's North Island and is better suited to Bordeaux blends and spicy Syrah than Pinot Noir. The region has enjoyed a run of three good vintages: 2019, 2020 and 2021. However, at the time of writing, it is recovering from the effects of Cyclone Gabrielle, which hit New Zealand on Valentine’s Day, killing eight people, cutting power, flooding homes and ruining vineyards.

The first 2021s are starting to emerge, including the much-anticipated annual Te Mata Coleraine release in March. However, the majority of red releases remain 2020s, with some 2019s still the current release for a number of cuvées. The 2020 harvest was the year that almost wasn’t. A national lockdown was imposed on 25 March, which is usually the week Hawke’s Bay starts picking its earliest red varieties and continuing through the first half of April. Fortunately, the government designated wine as an essential industry, and harvest could continue, albeit under new and stringent restrictions. It was an early start to proceedings, with the rest of the season consequently running ahead of schedule amid warm, dry conditions. There’s richness and roundness in the reds. I particularly like the seductive nature of the Syrahs and their persistence in 2020. The Cabernet-dominant blends are similarly plush, although some of the Merlots are leaner than ideal. Certainly, some producers went out into the vineyards before 25 March in a panic that they wouldn’t be able to pick fruit if they went into lockdown, and the wines have suffered for it. Tasting the 2019s alongside the 2020s, the 2019s have the edge in terms of impressive richness, but they also have an extra year in bottle.

The 2021s will start to be released in the coming year. The growing season was again warmer-than-average, resulting in highly concentrated grapes with small berries. A moderate summer meant that harvest was a waiting game. Temperatures needed for fully ripening the late varieties had producers wait for acids to fall while balancing the challenge of sugars rising and finding the right tipping point for both parameters. It will likely be a longer-lived vintage as a result.

I tasted about half of the wines in this report at home in England, with the remainder during a trip to New Zealand in January 2023. The wines were tasted in various settings in New Zealand, both at wineries with the winemakers and at regional tastings.

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