White Wine Types – The 4 Most Popular NZ White Wines

9 min read

White wine is undoubtedly the perfect accompaniment to summer activities like picnics, family gatherings and fun with friends around the barbeque. However, because everyone’s taste is different, it can be hard to work out which white wine types you are likely to enjoy. What’s more, the ideal wine for a picnic lunch might not be the perfect match for your favourite sweet dessert or the romantic dinner you have planned. 

Of course, you could just stick with the same brand you always buy, but where’s the fun in that? You might not even have discovered your true favourite yet. 

When it comes to deciding which white wine types suits you, a great place to start is with a quick overview of the most popular varieties, and what you can expect from each. 

These four white wine types are currently the most popular in New Zealand and in the world: Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Riesling and Pinot Gris

white wine glasses being clinked

Sauvignon Blanc 

Pronounced: saw-vee-nyon blonk 

New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc has been a firm favourite since rising to popularity in the 1970s. In 2021 it is New Zealand’s most widely planted variety, representing 61 percent of the national vines currently bearing fruit.  Almost 90 percent of those vines are found in Marlborough

Sauvignon Blanc: What to Expect

The reason for this wine’s popularity lies in its fresh green flavours and the zing that comes from its high acidity. Straw-coloured and with medium body, this wine tastes quite different as it ages. Younger wines are greener and more herbaceous, with notes of freshly-cut grass. Older wines develop fruit favours, such as nectarine, gooseberry, passion fruit and red capsicum. The best Sauvignon Blancs manage to combine these two styles, with herby flavours balanced by fruit, with silkiness complementing tartness.

sauvignon blanc sign at vineyard

Foods that go well with Sauvignon Blanc

A flavoursome wine, Sauvignon Blanc is fabulous with soft cheese or goat cheese, seafood, salads and herby dishes (when in doubt choose something green). For sauces, steer towards those with a citrus, garlic or tomato base. Due to its high acidity, this wine does not generally go well with sweet dishes.

Serving and cellaring Sauvignon Blanc

Traditionally, Sauvignon Blanc is a wine to drink while it is still aromatic and tangy, usually within 18 months of the vintage. However, the oak-matured styles can mature well for several years. 

Cellar: 3-5 yrs

Serve chilled in a white wine or picnic glass, at 7-12°C/ 55°F 

Sauvignon Blanc Regions to Look for

Marlborough Sauvignon Blancs with their crisp, pungent styles have become the darling of the world. However, the wide diversity in sites and soil types around New Zealand produces some wonderful variations on this favourite. For a softer, riper style with rich tropical flavours, try a bottle from Hawke’s Bay. If you prefer an intensely aromatic drop, where tropical fruit is balanced with cool climate herbaceous elements, then a Sauvignon from Nelson is your perfect pick.

white wine and cheese board


Pronounced: shar-doh-nay

During the 1990s, plantings of this internationally fashionable variety exceeded those of every other grape. Today top-quality Chardonnay can be found in every wine-growing region of New Zealand. Less fashionable than it was 20-30 years ago, Chardonnay remains New Zealand’s most prestigious and award-winning wine. 

Chardonnay: What to expect

Chardonnay is made in a variety of styles, but you can always expect a pale golden colour and intense flavour. This wine is full in the mouth and characterised by bursts of flavour. 

chardonnay sign at vineyard

What is the Difference Between Oaked and Unoaked Chardonnay?

One of the confusing things about Chardonnay is the difference between unoaked and oaked styles. While Chardonnay’s reputation suffered a little from the heavily oaked styles of the eighties, which were not everybody’s cup of tea, not all Chardonnays are oaked or overpowered by spicy smoke flavours. 

Oaked Chardonnays have complex, vanilla flavours imparted by their oak barrels. They also undergo malolactic fermentation. This secondary fermentation involves a special kind of bacteria called Oenococcus Oeni, which converts malic acid to lactic acid. This works to enhance the creamy, velvety texture of the wine. Due to the complexities gained by oak aging, Chardonnay is one of the winemaker’s favourites, leading to some outstanding wines.

Unoaked Chardonnay is fermented in older ‘neutral’ barrels or stainless steel to honour its natural flavours. These styles are fresh with the flavours of green apple, lemon and pineapple.

Foods that go well with Chardonnay

Chardonnay is a versatile wine that pairs well with both savoury and sweet dishes, depending on the style.

For unoaked Chardonnay, choose more delicate foods such as oysters, vegetable risotto and sushi.

Oaked Chardonnays are punchy enough to stand up to oily fish, fowl and pork with rich sauces. Creamy foods work beautifully with this complex wine, especially pumpkin and squash, but Chardonnay also pairs well with foods that have lots of umami, such as mushrooms.

Cellar: 3-10+ yrs, depending on the quality

Serve chilled in a white wine glass, at 45-55°F / 7-12°C

chardonnay and oysters

When to drink Chardonnay

While unoaked Chardonnay does not necessarily benefit from aging, well made oaked Chardonnays can be cellared for ten years or more. 

Chardonnay Regions to Look for

Great Chardonnay can be found in boutique vineyards all around New Zealand. Wines from Auckland and Northland have ripe tropical fruit flavours. Gisborne is known for wines that drink very well in their youth, characterised by ripe peach flavours. Bold wines with grapefruit and stone fruit flavours come from the Hawkes Bay region and cellar very well. The cooler climates of Nelson and Marlborough produce wines with distinctive stone fruit characteristics and subtle minerality.


Pronounced: REESE-ling

Thanks to our German settlers, Riesling was one of the earliest plantings in New Zealand. This fresh aromatic wine really started to gain popularity in the 1980s, becoming our fourth most extensively planted NZ white wine. Riesling vines flourish in cool climates with dry and sunny autumn weather, so it is not surprising that 90% of Riesling is grown in the South Island. 

Riesling: What to Expect

This expressive white wine is made in a variety of styles, which can present a confusing challenge to the novice. Riesling can either be very sweet, to balance out its natural acidity, or bone dry. In general, Riesling is a light-bodied wine with fruit flavours and hints of honey, lime, apricots, jasmine and earthy minerals. 

riesling sign at vineyard

Foods that go well with Riesling

The high acidity of this wine means it pairs well with rich foods like duck, pork and bacon and is especially good with citrus, garlic or cream-based sauces. Sweeter Riesling is also an excellent match for spicy Indian and Asian foods. Late harvest Rieslings work beautifully with sweet desserts or a soft cheese platter.

When to drink Riesling

Medium to sweet Rieslings are generally better when younger. Drier ones need time to develop fully. Over time, the wine will develop toasty honey notes, a mineral complexity and slight diesel characteristics.  

Cellar: Sweet to medium up to 5yrs, dry 5-10+ yrs

Serve chilled in a white wine glass, at 3-7°C/45°F 

Riesling Regions to Look for

If you love the flavours of stone fruit and spice, then try a Riesling from sunny Nelson. Marlborough Rieslings tend towards the dry or off-dry styles and are overtly aromatic with intense lemon/lime flavours balanced by spice. Crisp and flinty styles with notes of green apples and citrus can be found in the hills of North Canterbury. With such a variety of styles, it is no wonder that this grape is a particular favourite with winemakers.

risling and curry

Pinot Gris 

Pronounced: pee-noh-GREE

Pinot Gris has enjoyed a dramatic rise in popularity since the 1990s, and is now New Zealand’s third most popular white wine variety. Confusingly, Pinot Gris has two names. Called Pinot Gris by the French, the exact same wine is known by the Italians as Pinot Grigios. New Zealand embraces both of these names in classic Kiwi style. Pinot Gris is not to be confused with Pinot Noir, its sophisticated red wine sister. 

Pinot Gris: What to Expect

With a pale straw-coloured tint, this wine is velvety on the tongue. Pinot Gris manages a perfect balance of earthy with sweet and has medium-high acidity.  You can expect strong fruit notes of citrus, quince, green apple, pear and honeysuckle, spiced with subtle hints of cloves and ginger. New Zealand Pinot Gris tended to be in the medium sweet bracket but is now trending towards more off-dry or dry styles. Sometimes the fruit flavours confuse the palate, making a dry wine taste sweeter than it really is. 

pinot gris sign at vineyard

Foods that go well with Pinot Gris

This wine is a wonderful match for savoury and spicy foods. Fish, seafood, creamy pasta dishes, grilled chicken, roast pork, and cheese are all enhanced by the sophisticated flavours of Pinot Gris. 

Serve chilled at 7-12°C/45-55 °F in a white wine glass

Cellar 1-4 years – this is a wine to be drunk relatively young.

Pinot Gris Regions to Look for

45 percent of New Zealand’s Pinot Gris is grown in Marlborough. Wines from this cooler region tend towards more aromatic styles, with peach, red apple and cinnamon characteristics.  The warmer climate of Hawke’s Bay results in riper, more concentrated flavours in a wide variety of styles. For a full-bodied Pinot Gris with peach and pear flavours balanced out by complex spices, try a bottle from Gisborne. 

white wine and pasta

White Wine Types: Be Adventurous

The trick to finding your own favourite white wine lies in being a little adventurous and trying something new. Starting with these four white wine types, and exploring the different styles from various regions is a great way to find the perfect wine for your taste. If you’re lucky enough to be travelling in New Zealand, a visit to some of our beautiful vineyards is the perfect way to while away a summer’s day and taste some of these gorgeous NZ white wines for yourself.