It's called the winterless north for a reason: its northern latitude means the region enjoys a warm subtropical climate and no vineyard is more than 50km from the sea. Welcome to Northland!
The start of wine in New Zealand
The first Northland vines were planted in 1819 by the missionary Reverend Samuel Marsden at KeriKeri, marking the start of the New Zealand wine industry. However it's not known if he successfully made any wine from his crops. Many years later, in 1883, James Busby* planted wine stock he had brought from Europe and established a small vineyard at Waitangi. By 1840 he had made his first vintage.
In the late 1800s immigrants from Dalmatia (now called Croatia) arrived to dig for kauri tree gum, which was used for varnish. They brought with them their European winemaking traditions. Some stayed and made wine in Northland, while others drifted south to Auckland where they laid the foundations for what would become some of New Zealand's most successful wine companies, still operating today.
In 1969, Mario Vuletich founded Continental Vineyards just south of Whangarei. He produced a fortified wine and named it Mate's Medicinal Tonic. The winery eventually changed its name to Longview Estate, which still makes table wine today.
*James Busby is known as the ‘Father of the Australian Wine Industry' having established Australia’s first large planting of vines in the Hunter Valley, NSW in 1825.
Climate and geography
Just three to four hour's drive north of Auckland, the Northland Region stretches over 300km of rolling hill country. The climate is noticeably subtropical, making it less suited to viticulture than the drier regions to the south. Surrounded by water, its climate is also oceanic, with warm humid summers and mild wet winters. Due to its latitude and low altitude, Northland enjoys the country's highest average annual temperature.
Day/night temperature variations are relatively minor. The region doesn't experience the highs or lows of other areas, which means by harvest time sugar levels are not especially high and acid levels remain at the upper end. Warm spring temperatures, hot summers and calm, clear autumn days means the fruit ripens early resulting in full-bodied, rich wines. Northland's geology is complex and varied. Heavy, greyish-brown, clay-rich loam soils over a sub-soil of compact clay are the most common.
The most popular varieties grown are Syrah, Chardonnay, Pinotage (nice and peppery), Merlot, Viognier, Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Gris and complex Chambourcin. You'll also find limited plantings of Gewurztraminer, Cabernet Franc, Malbec, Semillon and Pinot Noir.
In the best vintages, Northland produces some of New Zealand's most outstanding whites. Chardonnays and Pinot Gris are full-bodied and soft, bursting with ripe, tropical fruit flavours. Viognier examples display tropical fruit with honey and floral notes.
Northland is best known for its reds. Stylish Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot blends are generally full-bodied, soft and fruit-forward. You'll also find warm, spicy Rhone Valley styles and Bordeaux-style Claret.