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Waiheke (Island) Winegrowers Association

www.waihekewine.co.nz

Auckland

Auckland is the historic commercial centre of the New Zealand wine industry. The sub-tropical Auckland wine region, at the top of the North Island is based on the scattered pockets of viticultural activity around New Zealand's main population centre. Over a third of the nation's population now live in the Auckland area.

Auckland skyline
The Auckland CBD sky-line

New Zealand wine-making was pioneered in 1819 to the north of Auckland in Northland. However, most of the New Zealand's early wines were made in more southerly climes. This changed in the early 20th century until the 1980s when the focus of the local wine industry mirrored the Auckland's demographic and economic ascension relative to New Zealand's historic capital cities (Dundein, and then Wellington).

Like Australia's Barossa Valley Auckland is home to most of the nation's largest wine corporations. The three historic giants of the local industry: Montana, Nobilo and Villa Maria are based here, as are most of the second tier of multi-region wine corporations such as Coopers Creek, Kim Crawford, Matua Valley and Delegats.

Serious commercial wine-making began in the area at the end of the 19th century. Dalmatians (from what is the now the coast of Croatia) migrated to work on the Kauri gum fields around Henderson, and later joined in with the Lebanese to work as agricultural labourers. They brought along their love of wine and also the rustic wine-making traditions of their homelands.

The region went through a substantial growth period during the mid twenties and into the 1930s with number of licensed winemakers reaching over a hundred. In the middle decades of the century over half of New Zealand's wine production came from this region.

However, there were two major obstacles to Auckland's wine industry. Firstly there was the constant flirtation by New Zealand's conservative leaders with prohibition. Until 1961 wine could not be served in a restaurant (it has now turned around so much in Auckland's funky bistro scene it is practically a criminal offence not to drink a local wine with a restaurant meal). The prohibition threat stalled investment in the recapitalisation of the local wine industry with modern technologies that revolutionised the Barossa Valley in the 1950s and the early 1960s.

Auckland skyline
One of the more unusual ways of getting grapes from the vineyard to the winery. Photo:courtesy Man O'War

This related to the second problem - many of the wines weren't that good. Even though it is at the northern tip of New Zealand it is one of the wettest and cloudiest spots in the country. The sub-tropical Pacific climate leaves the vines vulnerable to cyclonic floods, hailstorms and fungal diseases during the summer vintage. The shallow clay soils overlying a hard clay base have poor drainage and are often too fertile for the production of rigorous wines.

The primitive wine-making technologies exacerbated the problems and led the wines to be dismissed as "Dally Plonk". The main market for the local product was those who just wanted some cheap fortified wine.

The first glimmerings of the modern table wine boom in the late 1960s and 1970s led initially to a trebling in the scale of Auckland's vineyards. Soon the wine corporations realised that a better strategy was to invest in establishing vineyards in new areas that were better suited to premium table wine production. Initially this was at Waikato, about 60 km south of Auckland, and then on the east coast of the North Island at Hawke's Bay, and later at Marlborough on the South Island.

With the wine corporations looking elsewhere to source their grapes a number of small-medium local producers looked around the Auckland region for the best terroir to tweak out premium wines within a challenging region.

Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot are the most widely grown reds, with Chardonnay, Semillon and Sauvignon Blanc dominating the whites.

The suburban sprawl has pushed out most of the early wineries from Henderson northwards up to Kumeu and Huapai. The improvement in wines seem to reflect that the soils seem to have better drainage, are less vigorous than Henderson, and canopy management techniques are better understood.

A few small producers have been having success since the 1980s on the drier Waiheke Island in Auckland Harbour with Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet France and Merlot.

There are two new promising areas of viticultural expansion - at Matakana on Auckland's east coast and Clevedon, just to the south of Auckland. top

Soljans stall

Soljans is one of historic family owned wineries from Croatian immigrants

Kumeu River label

Kumeu River is another historic family owned winery

Villa maria label

Villa Maria is one of new Zealand's largest brands but accesses much of its fruit from Marlborough and Hawke's Bay

Villa maria label

Lunch at Kennedy Point on Waiheke Island (photo courtesy: Kennedy Point)