Nelson is tucked away at the top of New Zealand’s South Island, sheltered from the rain-rich westerlies by the formidable Tasman Mountains.
The region competes with the Bay of Plenty, Hawke’s Bay and Marlborough for having the highest sunshine hours. It’s about an hour-and-a-half’s drive from big brother Marlborough.
Nelson has 42 mostly small family wineries and just 27 grape growers. It ranks as New Zealand’s sixth-largest wine region in terms of vineyard area.
One statistic that never fails to surprise me is the fact that sauvignon blanc occupies around 55% of Nelson’s vineyard area. Only Marlborough and Hawke’s Bay have more sauvignon blanc vines. Ask most wine lovers to name Nelson’s “hero” grape variety and they are more likely to nominate the more glamorous chardonnay or pinot noir, both of which perform with distinction at wine competitions.
Add the vineyard area of pinot gris, gewürztraminer, riesling and albariño together and you get 173 hectares (ha), still well behind sauvignon blanc at 610 ha, but comfortably in second place.
Nelson has two significant subregions: the Waimea Plains and the Moutere Hills. Waimea is Maori for “river garden” and was a popular spot for crops, orchards and hops before grapevines elbowed their way in. Soils in the Waimea Plains are stony, free-draining river gravels. Close proximity to the sea tends to moderate temperature extremes. Cooler conditions translate to crisper, punchier wines. Notable wineries on the Waimea Plains include Greenhough Vineyard, Brightwater Vineyards, Waimea and Seifried Estate.
The Moutere Hills, as the name suggests, allows vineyards to take advantage of the hilly terrain and to maximise sun exposure. Clay-rich soils, known locally as Moutere clays, produce more concentrated and longer-lived wines that offer some compensation for the difficulties involved in planting and maintaining hillside vineyards.
Nelson sauvignon blanc is, stylistically, not miles away from the Marlborough model, although it tends to have punchier acidity and more pronounced oyster-shell minerality. Assertive acidity, attractive purity and high energy are a feature of other varieties both aromatic and non-aromatic.
Nelson is famous for its artists and artisans. Wine fits neatly into that mix. Nelson offers a compelling wine trail and a rich hunting ground for wines that are not normally seen on shelves outside the region. Visitors are likely to find that the person behind the counter is also the owner and winemaker. Top wineries here include Neudorf, Kahurangi Estate, Moutere Hills, Himmelsfeld, Gravity Winery and ABEL.