The New Zealand wine industry has been transformed in a couple of decades from a viticultural backwater producing mainly hybrid and fortified wines for the somewhat limited local market to one of the world’s great boutique producers of intensely flavoured Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris, Riesling and Chardonnay.
New Zealand Winegrowers: www.nzwine.com
The first vines were planted in 1819 by a missionary, Samuel Marsden on Kerikeri on the sub-tropical Northland above Auckland. However, James Busby is credited with producing New Zealand’s first known wine, grown in the sub-tropical Bay of Islands.
The Scottish-born Busby, played a key role in the establishment of the early Australian wine industry. He toured French and Spanish vineyards and returned with a hundreds of vine cuttings that were planted in the Sydney Botanical Gardens and his Hunter Valley vineyard. The progeny of these cuttings were eventually used to propagate many of the early Australian wine regions. He was also wrote a pioneering text on the wine production, a 270 page “Treatise on the Culture of Wine”.
Busby resettled to the Bay of Islands
Busby re-settled to the Bay of Islands in the mid 1830s and brought some cuttings with him. Busby’s wines were sold to British soldiers. The vines themselves were constantly grazed upon by introduced animals and finally wrecked in 1845 by British soldiers during their war with the indigenous Maoris.
Marist missionaries (Gisborne and Hawke’s Bay), French settlers escaping a prolonged agricultural recession (Christchurch) and Silesian German refugees fleeing religious persecution (Nelson) were responsible for the successful re-introduction of wine production to the new British colony in the 1840s and 1850s. The gold boom in Central Otago in the 1860s created a small market for wine at the southern end of the country.
The first vineyard was established in the Marlborough region in 1875, and at Masteron, near Wellington in 1883. Wine-making Dalmatian settlers on the Northland, who found the region too humid, began to resettle southwards in the west Auckland are in the 1890s. Lebanese and Dalmatian families around Auckland were the backbone of the New Zealand wine industry for much of the 20th century and were seeds of many of the modern wine corporations.
The industry had to face the constant threat of prohibitionism with wineries in some districts banned from selling their produce. Until 1961 restaurants were not permitted to sell wine. Like Australia the consumer preferences of early and middle decades of the century were dominated by fortified wines rather than dry table wines. Infestation with the phylloxera aphid was also widespread with growers introducing high yielding hybrid species that were bred to be phylloxera-resistant but not capable of producing great wines. This differs from Australia where vitus vitifera vines were grafted onto phylloxera-resistant rootstock. Unfortunately in New Zealand the allegedly resistant rootstock was itself often infested so the other option was taken up at the price of quality.
Until the 1970s there was little regulation of the production of wine unlike the tightly restricted control of the sale of wine. Winemakers routinely added liberal amounts of water, sugar – and even non-grape fruit juice. It wasn’t until 1981 that the Food and Drug regulations were amended to close-up loopholes to stop the sale of ‘flavoured wines’ masquerading as wines. New Zealand wine-makers can still legally follow the European practice of chapalisation – the addition of sugar. This is outlawed in Australia where the generally warmer conditions have led winemakers to do the reverse – add more acid.
All this is a background to the remarkable transformation that has occurred since the 1980s when the world discovered the pungent Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc, Central Otago and Martinborough Pinot Noir and Hawke’s Bay Cabernet. The drab hybrids and Muller-Thurgau have been mainly ripped out and replaced with high quality vitus vitifera clones. The technical level of the industry, brimming with Roseworthy graduates and flying winemakers with experience in Europe, Australia and America is as high as anywhere in the world.
Essential part of the tourist market
New Zealand has embraced the wine grape as an essential
part of its tourist market and is now one of the country’s most
important export industries. The prohibitions of the past are well and
truly gone - since 1990 even supermarkets have been allowed to sell wine.
There are over 600 wineries with new brands emerging almost weekly.
Unlike Australia New Zealand lies on the boundary of tectonic plates which gives it high rugged mountains, glaciers and much younger and generally more fertile soil. The best New Zealand red wine comes from sites such as the Gimblett Gravels in Hawkes Bay or Central Otago where the poor, alluvial soils lowers this excessive fertility. Historic sites from the 19th century are being rediscovered or revitalised.
New Zealand's wine regions are not as legally defined as in Australia (ie, exact boundaries) but regional indentity is becoming more important with the recognition that some regions have established in the world market. The following is a quick outline of the recognised regions in New Zealand. More details are contained in the regional introduction pages.
South Island regions
Nelson is the only region on the exposed western side of the South Island but is protected from the fierce westerlies by a range of mountains. While it is a small region it is capable of producing richly flavoured Pinot Noir, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Gris and lush Ice Rieslings.
Marlborough is the country’s largest wine region mainly
due to the Sauvignon Blanc phenomenon. There is also some decent Pinot
Noir, Riesling, Pinot Gris, Chardonnay and sparklings.
Canterbury is located around the east coast provincial city of Christchurch, It is a rather cold region but in the right vintages it can produce some rather good Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and sleek German-style Riesling. Muddy Waters produces what I think is New Zealand’s best example of Pinotage.
North Otago is located around the Waitiki Valley. It is a new region and is producing light bodied, crisp whites and Pinot Noir.
Central Otago, between Dunedin and Queenstown, is the world’s most southerly wine region and is most famous for its dark, brooding Pinot Noir that dominates the plantings. Flinty examples of Chardonnay, Riesling and Pinot Gris also are fairly common here.
North Island regions
Northland is a sub-tropical region to the north of Auckland. It had the country’s first vines but is a minor region that is too warm and humid for many varieties. Cabernet, Merlot, Malbec and Chardonnay are most widely planted varieties – along with the hardy South African Pinotage red wine variety.
Auckland is the home of the New Zealand’s historic wine corporations but most source their wines from other regions. However, there are still quite a number of boutique wineries to the west and north of Auckland that are producing quality Cabernet, Merlot, Semillon and Chardonnay from local vineyards A few small producers on the drier Waiheke Island in Auckland Harbour have had success with Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet France and Merlot.
Waikato is a minor wine region located on rainy agricultural land to the south of Auckland. The small local production includes Cabernet, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Riesling, Gewurztraminer and several obscure German cross varieties. Most wineries supplement their portfolio with grapes from other regions.
Bay of Plenty which covers the central north coast of the North Island is generally too fertile and humid for much viticulture with the wineries sourcing grapes from other regions. There is a little bit of locally grown Cabernet, Syrah, Merlot, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.
Gisborne, on the north-east corner of the island, is called Chardonnay Country and is a consistent producer of large amounts of reliable budget whites for the wine corporations when it avoids early autumn cyclonic downpours. Gewurztraminer seems to perform rather well here.
Hawke’s Bay, located on the east coast around Napier and Hastings, is New Zealand’s most famous (non-Pinot Noir) red wine region. Late ripening varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and Merlot do extremely well. Bordeaux-style blends are a common style. Chardonnay is the best of the whites.
Wellington covers the southern end of island
around the nation’s capital city. Most of the best wine comes from
Martinborough which has built an admirable reputation for its Burgundian
Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. The Sauvignon Blanc is more restrained than
the South Island style and there is plenty of good Riesling and Pinot
Gris. Cabernet tends to be a more marginal prospect here.