June 9, 2021|In Winery Spotlight

Johner Estate: Homegrown Wines With a European Twist

Nurturing the Wairarapa whenua with German precision and vision

Karl Johner with son Patrick

Nestled in the south-eastern corner of the North Island is the vibrant wine community of the Wairarapa. Here is an enclave of small wineries but with big voices, as their exceptional wines have made a massive impact in a short space of time, largely due to their world-class Pinot Noir.

Amongst them confidently sits quality-focused producer Johner Estate (pronounced, ‘Yo-ner’). Their wines undoubtedly speak of NZ, yet are infused with a European ‘sensibility’, thanks to the German owner Karl Johner who has what you might call, a foot in both camps. He crafts wonderful wine in opposite hemispheres, with family estates in Baden, in Germany’s Kaiserstuhl region and in Wairarapa’s Gladstone sub-region. Many a Northern Hemisphere newcomer to this area has been smitten – the land, the vines, the climate – as Karl, himself believes – the perfect terroir for Pinot Noir.

Since its inception 20 years ago, Johner Estate has gone on to expertly handcraft wines from the vineyard to the glass from classic varieties which are made in a distinctive yet traditionally European way. The Johner Estate wines are all about revealing delicate nuances and flavours whilst deftly showing great depth and a persistent finish.

Johner Estate “… love to push the boundaries of convention, yet their palates still have a classical bent. Could it be that their mantra is serious wines that are enjoyable and pleasurable right now – elegant, polished, and approachable but with structure to last”. – Dr Jamie Goode, Wine Anorak

Such was the Johner family’s commitment to their adopted homeland that they put a kiwi on their wine label. For some self-appointed arbiters of coolness, this may seem a bit naff. But for the Johners they are fiercely proud and protective of NZ’s native icon and what it represents. This is why they have supported the Pūkaha Mount Bruce wildlife restoration centre who do wonderful work in helping to restore the forest and native wildlife in the Tararua district. As part of Pūkaha’s conservation breeding programme, Operation Nest Egg, kiwi eggs are brought in from the forest and hatched in their nursery to give the chicks the best chance of survival. This is truly in the spirit of generosity and dedication to the whenua of the Wairarapa by Johner Estate.

The Johner Story:

Karl Johner learned his art at Geisenheim Wine Institute in Germany’s Reingau region. After which he moved to England and became involved in the early days of the English wine scene. Seeing the wine world through the eyes of English collectors, he realised the untapped potential of grape varieties from his hometown in Germany – the seeds for Karl’s vision were germinating.

In 1985, Karl, with his wife Irene and their children in tow, returned to the Baden area and their hometown of Bischoffingen on the Alsace border, to establish a small winery – Weingut Karl Heinz Johner. This was an 18-hectare estate on the western side of the Kaiserstuhl.

With Karl’s obsession for fine Pinot Noir, his conviction in the capacity of his terroir, and not to mention his inventive almost rebellious belief in doing things differently, he unwittingly attracted some controversy from both winemakers and authorities alike. Eschewing the usual German wine classification, he used oak barrels for his wines, experimenting with must concentration and some other ‘off-piste’ techniques. Consequently, the Johner family became instrumental in transforming the previously simple red wines of their province, into much more complex, rich, and modern expressions. Despite the initial opposition, the young winery established itself as a pioneer of a new German wine style, with an international reputation. In fact, Weingut H. Johner were amongst the first vintners in the region to adapt a quality regime and focus on great Burgundian styled wines.

By the mid 1990’s Weingut Karl Heinz Johner was enjoying critical acclaim. With son Patrick Johner following his father’s footsteps, the family decided to look at new wine regions further afield. The father and son team travelled to Australia and New Zealand. They fell in love with NZ, the cool but dry climate and of course, the wine produced – especially Pinot Noir from the Wairarapa region. Now their vision was to create refined, elegant Pinot Noir in New Zealand.


“Their approach to wine is international rather than dedicated to one or the other. The style of the wines is more in the elegant expression, capturing the bright fruit expression that New Zealand is renowned for, but sufficiently restrained to enable accompaniment with food.” – Raymond Chan Wine Reviews

The Johner Vineyard Terroir:

In 2001 the family had purchased a big block of land on the banks of the Ruamahunga river, near the historic Gladstone settlement, north of Martinborough.

Here they are blessed with free-draining river terraces and a cool climate with plenty of sunshine and diurnal temperature fluctuations ideal for aromatics and crisp acidity. Clay amongst the stony silt loams suits Pinot Noir very well, alongside lively Sauvignon Blanc and impressive aromatics. The focus of the wines is not set to upfront fruit. They embrace and strive for complexity.

On the alluvial soils they have since planted eight hectares of various Pinot Noir clones, originally selected in Burgundy, three hectares of Sauvignon Blanc and a further hectare of 10 trial varieties. By 2010 they saw the potential of Syrah, so they made an additional planting of half a hectare of Syrah.

Supplementing estate fruit with contracted grapes Karl Johner and winemaker Raphael Burki make a mind-boggling array of wines. Hand-picking all the fruit employed, their lees and wood-influenced wines show a light touch with winemaker inputs and follow their path of making food-friendly wines.

The Johner Philosophy:

At Johner they believe in the ‘circle of life’ and in ‘open soil’ viticulture. Adopting European philosophies to the vineyard, coupled with organic and biodynamic practices, Johner Estate has earned a reputation for clean fruit vibrancy, integrated by savoury notes and a minerality that gives backbone, structure, and length of flavour to the palate.

In the vineyards at Johner Estate, the most ecologically sound methods are adhered to, and all wine making practices are hands-on. Johner Estate is also completely self-sufficient. From growing through to the vinification, bottling, labelling, and selling, every process is overseen by the people at the winery and vineyard. At Johner Estate they pride themselves on knowing every single part of the journey that their wines take from the soil to your glass.

In 2010, an important addition to the Johner winemaking team was Swiss winemaker Raphael Burki. He had studied oenology at the same University of Geisenheim as Karl had. Raphael works with a boutique winery, Weinbau Ottiger in Lucerne, Switzerland. Also famed for producing premium and highly sought-after Pinot Noir. Appropriately, his experience and philosophy are in harmony with the Johner family’s too.


“Our wines reflect a more European style, with many layers of fruit, great depth, and a complex structure that lingers on and on’’. – Karl Johner, owner/winemaker

Johner Estate winemaker Raphael Burki

The Johner Wines:

Sauvignon Blanc is Johner’s best-kept secret! As it is in the whole Wairarapa where the plantings are second only to Pinot with 320 hectares cultivated. Johner Estate’s Sauvignon Blanc is intense and vivid with excellent perfume and a poised, mineral textural palate. There is a really good mix of herbaceous and tropical characters not quite as unidimensional as can happen with Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc.

2020 Johner Estate Sauvignon Blanc:
“Pristine and brightly expressed, the bouquet shows apricot, green rock melon, lemon zest and fresh fig characters, leading to a flavoursome palate delivering excellent fruit intensity and length. It’s juicy and lingering with plenty of tasty flavours”. 91/100 points (4.5 stars), Sam Kim’s Wine Orbit


“The Pinot Noirs are incredibly smooth, velvety, medium bodied with intense wow factor, due to their high but super well-balanced refreshing acidity adding length and depth to every, lingering sip. I love these wines…” – Joelle Thomson, Wine Writer

2019 Johner Estate Pinot Noir (Wairarapa):
“Sweetly fruited and beautifully complex, the bouquet shows dark cherry, roasted nut, dark mushroom, and mixed spice aromas, followed by a gorgeously supple palate that’s succulent and lingering. It’s elegant yet flavoursome with silky texture and polished tannins.” 93/100 points (5 stars), Sam Kim’s Wine Orbit


With Pinot Noir riding a wave of popularity, the fickle, low-producing grape often makes it difficult to find great value quality pinots – until you try and buy Johner wines!

Perhaps we should be hush-hush on this… but, actually, there’s a bit of a myth in the wine world – a higher price tag does not always mean a better-tasting wine. In fact, there are plenty of wallet-friendly bottles that boast rich, complex flavour profiles that’ll fool even the most discerning wine buffs. That’s not to say all inexpensive wines are created equal, however. And luckily for D&N devotees, Johner Estate wines continue to over-deliver for the price point! These are European-styled classy wines at ‘homegrown’ approachable prices.

The Johner philosophy is to nurture both their land and their people, to produce memorable wines that express a complex personality. Sublimely precise yet with an effortless drinkability. A winning combination.


“The wines have great depth, structure and elegance – representing our European roots combined with the intense fruit characteristics made possible by the New Zealand terroir.” – Karl Johner