The hillsides and plains of North Canterbury

The Greystone vineyards in the Waipara subregion of North Canterbury. (Photo: NZ Winegrowers)

I define the North Canterbury wine region as the northern part of Canterbury from Amberley north. That embraces the North Canterbury capital, Waipara, as well as Waikari (home to Bell Hill and Pyramid Valley), Cheviot (Mt Beautiful) and Kaikoura (Esses).

NZ Winegrowers show the producing vineyard area of Waipara in 2018 as 1,257 hectares, or about 3.5% of the national vineyard area.

Waipara’s wine producers worked hard to gain recognition for Waipara as a subregion of Canterbury a decade or two ago. It’s ironic that a growing number now prefer to be recognised as North Canterbury producers rather than Waipara. Pronunciation difficulties in export markets and confusion with Wairarapa have been cited as reasons for the change.

Every wine region needs a hero producer or two. Waipara has Pegasus Bay and Greystone, both moderately large winemakers with a strong quality focus. However, the wider North Canterbury region embraces the even more heroic producers Bell Hill and Pyramid Valley, both only a 15-minute drive in a westerly direction from Waipara.

NZ Winegrowers show the producing vineyard area of Waipara in 2018 as 1,257 hectares (ha), or about 3.5% of the national vineyard area. Sauvignon blanc is the leading variety with 355 ha, slightly ahead of pinot noir (341 ha) and Riesling (254 ha). Pinot gris is the fourth most planted variety (183 ha).

Waipara is nine kilometres from the coast but is protected from cooling sea breezes by the Teviotdale Hills. The region experiences dry, hot summers and drought conditions that made it unsuitable for viticulture and marginal for grazing unto the Glenmark irrigation scheme was established in the early 1980s. Hot, dry northwest winds reduce vine vigour and contribute to grape ripeness and concentration.

Some years ago I was invited to a wine tasting by Waipara’s wine producers. The organisers had divided the wines into two types: hillside and plains. Wines made from grapes grown on the free-draining gravel were ripe, vibrant and slightly lighter than the more robust wines from richer clay-laced hillside soils some of which contain limestone deposits.

When asked some years ago where I would choose to establish a vineyard in New Zealand if I was brave enough to do so, I chose Waipara because I thought that cost of viable vineyard land was undervalued and that the region offered great potential. The price of land and the reputation of Waipara wines has risen significantly since then but the region is still my first choice. I’d head for the hills or follow the lead of Bell Hill and Pyramid Valley and grow chardonnay and pinot noir in the limestone-rich soils around Waikari.

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