Amy Farnsworth on the tractor at Armoise, Hawke’s Bay, during the 2019 Chardonnay harvest / Photo by Robin Cranford
New Zealand hasn’t always been top of mind for natural wine drinkers. This may seem surprising considering the country’s clean and green reputation. Approximately 96% of New Zealand’s vineyard-producing area is certified sustainable and 10% is certified organic, with many producers also farming biodynamically. But export restrictions, geographic isolation and domination of a style (namely Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc) loom large over New Zealand’s relatively young modern wine industry.
Though natural wine producers have called New Zealand home for a time, the last three years have seen several new labels quietly enter the market and it’s likely more are on the way. Export regulations will loosen in the coming year, permitting producers to experiment and take more risks. Ultimately, though, it’s demand both locally and abroad that is the driving force for change.
“It’s changing because the market is changing,” says Lance Redgwell, owner and winemaker at Cambridge Road, one of New Zealand’s first natural wineries. “It’s also because there is confidence in numbers. There are frames of reference now, styles and techniques have been refined. There’s knowledge in the industry, people to ask and take advice from.”
In New Zealand and elsewhere, the exact parameters of what constitutes “natural wine” remain blurry. The general consensus, according to the official definitions of several groups around the world (S.A.I.N.S., AVN, VinNatur, Renaissance des Appellations, etc.) is that a natural wine should be from organically or biodynamically farmed fruit and made with as little chemical or technological manipulation as possible. This means wines that are fermented spontaneously with native yeast and without the use of any winemaking additives except for a small amount of sulfur, generally under 50ppm total. Wines are bottled unfiltered and unfined with the exception of gross filtration.
Here are some of the producers to know from New Zealand’s nascent natty wine wave.
Redgwell’s upbringing on his grandparents’ dairy farm and veggie patch on New Zealand’s North Island instilled in him a deep connection to the land. In 2006, this led to the purchase of some of the oldest vines in Martinborough, at the bottom of the North Island.
Redgwell farmed these vines organically from the beginning, transitioning to biodynamic practices soon after. His natural wine journey flowed from there, influenced by the European pét-nats (pétillant natural) and orange wines introduced to him in 2010 by his U.K. and Japanese distributors as well as by the late Mike Weersing, an American expat who founded one of New Zealand’s most boundary-pushing wineries, Pyramid Valley. By 2012, Redgwell had drastically pared down his winemaking, transitioning to 100% native yeast and reducing sulphur additions to zero, in some cases.
The Cambridge Road range is a flag bearer for New Zealand natural wine. It runs the gamut from fun, fizzy and textural, with colorful labels and names like “Down the Rabbit Hole” and “Weeping Tiger,” and more seriously structured bottlings like the winery’s Pinot Noir.
“As a smaller producer with my own cellar door, I was able to introduce this style of wine to an unaware public and slowly start the long process of educating people on the textures and joys of these styles,” says Redgwell.
Try: Cambridge Road Naturalist Pétillant Natural Rosé (Martinborough)