Friday Focus, Canterbury, New Zealand

With neighbours Marlborough to the north and Central Otago to the south- the 2 most famous regions in New Zealand- it’s easy to overlook the comparatively small region of Canterbury in the central north island. But there are wines coming from this region showing an individuality of style and a quality that is worth a look (if you can find any!). So what is it about Canterbury that makes it different from its neighbours- and why is the wine unique?

First up, the Canterbury region is actually a collection of smaller sub-regions; the largest is Waipara (which many producers from the area use on their labels to differentiate themselves), located one hour north of Christchurch- considered the highest quality sub-region due to a sheltered viticultural aspect and a high percentage of limestone in the soils which imparts a mineral character in the wines. Due west of Christchurch is the Canterbury Plains, quite a large sub-region but more focused on large-scale Sauvignon Blanc production due to the flatter aspect and fertile alluvial soils- very easy to mechanically cultivate and harvest. Smaller sub-regions include the Banks Peninsula, the Waikari Basin (a very exciting up and coming region) and the Cheviot Hills, with only a handful of producers in each.

The first notable feature of the Canterbury region as a whole is its unique geographical location. As mentioned above, Canterbury sits mid-way between the flat alluvial plains of Marlborough and the rocky hills of Otago, but is very different to both, giving the wines their own flavour fingerprint. Canterbury’s latitude of 43°S puts it at a similar distance from the Equator as Tuscany and the South of France in the northern hemisphere; however that is where the European comparisons stop- There is definitely no Sangiovese, Grenache or Rose made here! Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Riesling are the kings in this region, and this is all due to the influence of the Pacific Ocean to the east of the region. Cold water from the Antarctic ensures there is always a chilly breeze off the water, classing Canterbury as a cool-climate region. In fact the region is much more comparative to the US state of Oregon, which also sits on the 43rd latitude, specialises in Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, and sits on the Pacific Ocean- albeit a very different section of it! The region is spared more severe wet and miserable weather coming off the Tasman Sea between Australia and New Zealand due to the Southern New Zealand Alps which border Canterbury to the west.

In fact, compared to many other regions in New Zealand, Canterbury is actually quite dry, which when combined with poor, rocky soils help to control vine vigour and prevent excess canopy growth, forcing the vine to focus on growing grapes rather than greenery. The low rainfall, combined with dry winds coming from the sun-warmed slopes of the Alps assist in keeping the region quite disease-free. In this fairly southerly region, the nights get quite cold; this assists in the retention of acid in the berries, which gets metabolised in the berry if overnight temperatures get too high. The final piece of the puzzle is the sun exposure- whilst not a particularly sunny corner of the world, Canterbury receives a lot of Ultraviolet light due to the hole in the ozone layer, which forces the grapes to protect themselves by darkening in colour. This in turn increases tannin and weight when these grapes are transformed into wine, giving the wines (especially the Pinot Noirs) a density and depth not found in Old World versions of these grapes. The region really is the perfect combination of conditions for quality grape-growing it seems!

Wine tourism is a big business in Canterbury. As mentioned above, Christchurch, New Zealand’s 3rd largest city is an hour at the most from the furthest parts of the region, and provides a steady stream of visitors to Canterbury as it becomes more and more well-known across the country and the world. If we look back in time however it was the work of Lincoln University that truly paved the way for Canterbury as a wine region back in the 1970’s and made the region what it is today. The Lincoln University Centre for Viticulture and Oenology is the largest wine training facility in New Zealand, and many of its students used the University’s backyard of Canterbury and Waipara to trial what would grow and taste best. They established not only the best varieties to use, but what clone of these to use- thousands of man-hours have gone into the establishment of this region, which explains why, despite only being setup for commercial wine production in the 70’s now has such high standards of quality.

Mark Faber
Wine Sales Manager