New Zealand wine is quickly becoming one of the most sought after commodities in the world of wine. While it remains a relative newcomer to the scene, it burst onto the global wine world in the 1980s following some wildly successful Sauvignon Blanc.
After these first vintages from Cloudy Bay,(MacNeil 849), New Zealand wine was on the map and here to stay. Today, New Zealand wine provides some of the most unique and racy Sauvignon Blanc in the world, as well as some of the most elegant and earthy Pinot Noir.
The New Zealand wine world is a deeply interesting one and it looks set to continue to grow as palates develop a taste for these unique wines. Despite accounting for just 1% of global production, the demand continues to grow, (MacNeil 849). The regions all exhibit cool maritime climates, in an isolated wine world unlike any other.
This article into New Zealand wine will serve as a guide to this fantastic place. We’ll take you through the history and meteoric rise of New Zealand wine. We’ll also take a look at the terroir and key regions, as well as the grape varieties which have found the most success in this wine region.
You’ll be gasping for a glass of New Zealand wine by the end of it!
The History of New Zealand Wine
An Inauspicious Start
The modern history of New Zealand, not just New Zealand wine, begins with Abel Tasman, (MacNeil 850). Abel Tasman, (who Tasmania is named after), was a Dutch sea captain who landed in New Zealand in 1642. However, he quickly left after a startling and scary interaction with the native Maori people.
It wasn’t until 1769 that further contact would be attempted successfully. This can from the famous naval captain and explorer James Cook, during his circumnavigation of the globe. This was the first steps into the British colonisation of New Zealand.
Again, further progress was slow. Another 50 years passed before vines were planted on New Zealand soil. This was done by Anglican missionary Samuel Marsden. Then, another 20 years passed before any record of New Zealand wine occurred. This time they were cultivated by a Scottish man names James Busby.
Interestingly enough, both Marsden and Busby attested to New Zealand’s potential as a produce centre for wine, (MacNeil 850). Even then, due to the climate and terrain, it was clear that the land was exceptionally well suited to the growth of vines. The first small steps into the New Zealand wine industry had begun, but success was still a long way away.
For nearly the next 150 years, numerous pitfalls were faced by those trying to follow in the footsteps of Marsden and Busby. A key limiter to growth was the factor that viticulture was largely practised by British immigrants who, in short, didn’t know what they were doing. They had no real history of, or experience in, producing wine.
Then, the Temperance Movement gained lots of traction in New Zealand, (MacNeil 850). It’s hardly surprising that the New Zealand wine industry struggled to grow in the shadow of a group that preaches abstinence from alcohol.
This indifferent attitude towards wine remained for a long time. It wasn’t until after World War 2 that wine could be sold outside of hotels and banquet functions. It even remained absent from restaurants until the 1960s, (MacNeil 850)!
It’s worth noting that winemaking in New Zealand during the 19th century wasn’t limited to the bumbling British. Immigrants from the Dalmatian coasts, (in modern day Croatia), also began producing wine in the 1800s. Although, they also found little success.
A combination of mildew and phylloxera devastated early efforts and led to the winemakers to focus on hardier, hybrid grape varieties. These grapes had a higher sugar content and were largely used in the production of brandy and sherry-style fortified wines. The results were unimpressive. Thankfully, it didn’t remain this way forever!
The Rise to Fame
Things have changed recently in the world of New Zealand wine and they changed fast. Even in the 1970s, when people thought of New Zealand exports, they’d think of lamb. Lamb is great, but we’re all for the rise to prominence of New Zealand wines.
As we touched upon, the success of New Zealand wine is tied into one vineyard in particular – Cloudy Bay. It was with their release of a particularly exceptional Sauvignon Blanc, (examples of which you can still find today), that the wine world turned their attention to the new kid on the block.
Sauvignon Blanc had, in many regions, been relegated to a bit part player. A second fiddle to Chardonnay, that often produced unremarkable, middle road and unoriginal expressions. New Zealand wine changed that. Grassy, herbaceous pangs, melted into intense ripe tropical fruit notes. It was a well integrated bundle of nuanced and complex tasting notes that many hadn’t seen before.
From these first wines, a desire grew rapidly alongside demand. Winemakers saw this and acted. Between 1994 and 2013, the number of wineries jumped from just 30 to over 700. From 2003 to 2013, vineyard acreage doubled and finally, production grew by more than 50% between 2007 and 2011, (MacNeil 851).
The wheels were firmly in motion and the New Zealand wine industry was here to stay. From small independent growers, to huge global brands. Everything was happening in this burgeoning region. With that in mind, let’s take a deeper look into what makes this New Zealand wine so great.
The Terroir of New Zealand Wine
New Zealand is a stunning country, (just look at the above). Yet, these combination of stunning topographical factors all play their part in producing the New Zealand wine that we know and love.
Perhaps, the defining characteristic of New Zealand’s climate is the coolness of the whole country. The cool, steady climate allows the grapes to ripen fully and evenly. It is a gentle slow-ripening over a long-growing season allowing for flavours to reach their full concentration and intensity.
Elegant wines, with pure and powerful flavours. This is the end result of New Zealand’s growing conditions. Interestingly, all produce of New Zealand is often described as having an intensity of flavour few places can match. New Zealand wine is no different. The conditions for farming and viticulture are a marvel.
This classic coolness is largely imparted by the proximity to the ocean, which brings in an ever-lasting supply of cooling oceans breezes. New Zealand is comprised of two long, narrow islands. Across these islands, no vineyard is more than 80 miles from the sea.
Now, it’s worth mentioning that New Zealand wine is not without its issues. One consequence of this proximity to the ocean is rain. Rain in New Zealand is frequent and strong. Not only can this cause a dilution of the grapes at harvest time, but more crucially it can cause fungus and mildew to take hold of the grapes. This was something that the Dalmatian immigrants of the 1800s knew all to well.
However, New Zealand winemakers adapted rather spectacularly. With the help of top viticulturists, including the renowned Dr. Richard Smart, New Zealand adopted an innovative form of trellising. Trellising being the vertical and horizontal supports attached to vines to promote healthy growth.
However, traditional forms of trellising were ill-equipped to deal with the high levels of rainfall. Instead, they formed multiple layers of trellising. This gave the ocean winds more of a chance to blow through the vines and disrupt the fungus and mildew. This was so revolutionary that many other wine regions across the world have adopted similar methods.
This rainfall also means that certain soil types are more favourable. Well-draining soils are well suited to areas of high rainfall. Although, there is considerable variation. From the clay and volcanic rock soil in fertile river basins, to the deep, gravel like soil of Gimblett’s Gravel in Hawke’s Bay.
This variation stems from the rich geological history of this island. It sits right between two tectonic plates, the Indo-Australian and Pacific Plates. The constant activity has led to this great variety in the soil. Now, it’s time for a look into the different sub-regions of the New Zealand wine world.
The New Zealand Wine Regions
There is a clear and easy divide in the world of New Zealand wine. It’s best to separate it into the North and South Islands.
Auckland, or the territory surrounding the largest city of New Zealand, is an important wine region. This is largely due to it being the administrative centre for almost all the wineries in New Zealand. However, there is a small amount of wine produced in this area as well. It is largely a region of full bodied Chardonnay and Bordeaux-style blends.
Gisborne is another key area of production. It’s a small region on the East Cape and actually the site of the easternmost vineyards in the world. The wine to look out for is Chardonnay. The region is known for intensely ripe wines, with powerful notes of tropical fruit and honey.
Wellington is located on the South-East corner of the Northern Island. Two sub-regions in particular have built up a great reputation for Pinot Noir. They are Wairarapa and Martinborough. Studies into Martinborough actually showed the soils of this region to be incredibly similar to Burgundy, helping to explain the depth, structure and concentration of these earthy, elegant wines, (MacNeil 856).
Hawke’s Bay also requires serious attention. It is the second largest wine region in the whole country and can serve as a point of difference to many other New Zealand wine regions. In many respects, this is New Zealand’s Bordeaux. You’ll find high quality Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon. There’s also great Syrah in both international and Rhône Valley styles.
Now, we move onto the South Island. It’s notably cooler than the north and was actually very rural until the recent past. No commercial vineyards were planted on this half of the country until 1973, (MacNeil 854).
When discussing the South Island, or indeed New Zealand wine in general, Marlborough is the name of everyone’s lips. Today, 60% of all vineyards are planted in this region and it produces 70% of all the wine in New Zealand, (MacNeil 854).
It is known for the classic New Zealand style of Sauvignon Blanc, but you can also find high-quality Pinot Noir that is a noticeable degree fresher and fruitier than other expressions of this grape variety from New Zealand.
Just to the west of Marlborough, you’ll find Nelson and Canterbury. They’re smaller but both areas of stunning natural beauty and sources of high-quality Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir.
Last, on our list of notable New Zealand wine regions is Central Otago. Otago is a Maori word which translates to place of red earth. It’s clear where this name comes from due to the striking red, rocky soil found throughout the region. If one grape variety stands out here, it is Pinot Noir. It takes on an earthy, herbaceous character and often has a higher alcohol content than those found in Marlborough.
The Grapes of New Zealand Wine
Now, there are a wealth of successful grape varieties in New Zealand. You can find excellent quality red wine in the form of Merlot, Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc. For white wine, you’ll find world class Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc and also Riesling. These can be beautifully structured dry Riesling or sweet wines which have been taken by the Noble Rot.
Yet, there are two grape varieties that hold most people’s attention in the world of New Zealand wine and these will remain our focus for this article. They are Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir.
This is the grape that began it all for New Zealand wine. We touched upon the reasons that drove demand around this grape variety. Namely, the grapes complexity and expressive power, but also the sheer uniqueness of the wines that harnessed this grape.
New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc exhibits a wealth of flavours. You can note fresh herbal notes such as grass, wild herbs, watercress, green tea, even vegetal kicks of green olives, peas, green beans and asparagus. Then, you get the tart green and citrus fruit notes which bring the acid. Gooseberry, green apple, lime and grapefruit.
However, what often stands out for wine lovers is the tropical nature of these wines. New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc tend to display pronounced flavours of merlon, mango, papaya and almost without exception passion fruit.
It takes a lot of skill to bring these flavours out though. Without care, the vegetal and acrid nature can overwhelm the balance. This can lead some winemakers to leave just touches of residual sugar in the mix. They keep the wine dry and crisp, but can mask any undesirable flavours.
Next up, Pinot Noir. You can experience a wealth of styles from this small island. Whether it is fresh and fruity with big red fruit flavours, or deep, earthy, structured creations. New Zealand Pinot Noir is not a monolith.
Perhaps the most interesting thing about this grape’s history on the island is the legend that surrounds the first plantings of the grape variety. Enter, the Gumboot Clone.
‘Gumboot’ is a colloquial term for rain boots in New Zealand and as the story goes, this is how cuttings of Pinot Noir were first transported to New Zealand.
Supposedly, a New Zealand rugby player stuffed some cuttings into his boots before a return flight from Paris. These cuttings were from no other than the world-famous Domaine de la Romanée-Conti.
Well, they didn’t make it past customs. However, as fate would have it, the customs agent, (a man named Malcolm Abel), was also a grape grower. What are the odds? He took them home and is purported to have planted them in his vineyard, (although this is still a matter of legal dispute).
He also shared them with a friend, (Clive Patton), who continue to use these grapes after Malcolm Abel’s passing. The end result was stunning Pinot Noir in a Burgundian style. Clones of this spread out across the country and account for some of the best New Zealand Pinot Noir today, (MacNeil 855).
That’s the story of New Zealand wine. You don’t need us to tell you that it’s delicious. Make the most of the information above and get out and try some of the best from New Zealand that you’ve not sampled before. Cheers!
MacNeil, Karen. The Wine Bible. 2nd ed., Workman Publishing, 2015.
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