New Zealand Celebrates 200 years of viticulture
The first record of vines planted in New Zealand was on September 25, 1819. It’s in a journal by Samuel Marsden, an Anglican missionary. (He was born in Farsley, less than ten miles from my home in West Yorkshire). He wrote that there were “about 100 vines of different kinds”. However, there seems to be no record of the varieties, and they appear not to have survived the ravages of a herd of hungry goats. He went on, “New Zealand appears to be very favourable to the vine, as far as I can judge. It will prove of vast importance in this part of the globe”.
The planting was at Kerikeri, in Northland. It’s a humid subtropical area, not a comfortable place to grow vines, being much more suited to citrus fruits. As an aside, it was James Busby, in 1836, that first commercialised winegrowing at nearby Waitangi. There he sold wine to British troops.
The history of New Zealand wine is fascinating, a roller-coaster ride, and a story for another time. Suffice to say that New Zealand’s ascendancy is but a recent phenomenon.
Meanwhile, in 2005
How to join in with the celebrations? Here’s the 2,000-word report written for WSET as a condition of my winning their Wine Trade Club Paten Scholarship. That scholarship was a trip to New Zealand, back in 2005.
2005 now seems as long ago as 1819. In 2005, the Kyoto Protocol came into force, while Hurricane Katrina ignored it and wasted New Orleans. Meanwhile, Angela Merkel became German Chancellor, YouTube started, and sexting became a thing. (There is no other connection between three latter events as far as I know). Most importantly, it’s been time enough for a new generation of children to grow to adulthood.
Anyway, New Zealand was the trip of my lifetime. Afterwards, Jancis Robinson published my report (see here). I remain eternally grateful for that. It gave me the confidence to continue my wine journey, though some say it’s all been downhill since.
Re-publishing this article now isn’t nostalgic. I think it’s interesting to compare it to how New Zealand actually developed in the fifteen years since. I hope you do too. Consequently, the report has had no changes made, so is warts and all. Instead, I’ve simply added a commentary, in red italics, where I think a brief update is useful.
And here’s an admission. Early on I say the first vines were from 1836. Now I know better!
So read on.
The Wine Trade Club Paten Scholarship 2005 winner’s report, by Paul Howard
Why New Zealand?
The WSET Wine Club Paten Scholarship allows the winner to study the wines of a country or region of their choice. Despite the great appeal of many wine-producing countries, I chose New Zealand without hesitation.
New Zealand has a long but frequently turbulent history of winemaking, with the first vines planted in 1836. (now wrong – 1819!) Their current reputation for high quality rests on radical developments that date back only to the 1970s and 1980s. Its image of “the riches of a clean, green land” is a relatively recent phenomenon.
New Zealand is a niche player, producing only 0.3% of the world’s wine and only accounting for 1.5% of the UK market. Nevertheless, the expansion of Kiwi wine is phenomenal, and the UK market has been a key element:
- The number of wineries has increased by 150% in 5 years. Now there are some 520, with a rate of establishment of one new winery opening every week. 2019: While growth has slowed, there are 716 wineries, a further increase of 27%;
- The productive area under vine has grown 250% in the last ten years, to 21,000 ha. It’s now 38,680 ha, a further increase of 46%;
- 2005 export volumes were not only at record levels; for the first time, they exceeded domestic consumption. 2019 saw 24 consecutive years of export growth;
- 41% of New Zealand’s wine exports are to the UK, a market that saw a 50% growth in 2004-2005. In 2019, while the UK’s share of New Zealand wine exports has fallen to 30%, this reflects Kiwi success in diversifying exports to other countries. The UK is still New Zealand’s second-biggest market and one that continues to grow year on year;
- New Zealand wine commands ultra-premium pricing. The average retail price per bottle in the UK is the highest of any country over the last 7 yrs, and although it continues to fall, as volumes and discounting increases, it still stands at £6.55, 75% higher than the all-country average of £3.75.
While New Zealand is most famous for its world-renowned and utterly distinctive Sauvignon Blanc, especially from Marlborough, it has far more to offer from a wide variety of white and red grapes. The New Zealand wine industry is characterised by diversity and innovation. The excitement this generates is palpable. What’s Hot? Some of the most important trends are summarised below.
Sauvignon Blanc is inescapable. It has made a huge international impact since the first plantings in Marlborough in the 1970s. Much of New Zealand’s growth has been fuelled by seemingly insatiable demand, and it now accounts for over one-third of plantings and over 70% of exports. Although grown throughout New Zealand, it is at its most classic in Marlborough. Because of demand, Marlborough is forecast to account for 50% of New Zealand’s total area under vine by 2008.
2019: this trend continues. Marlborough, with 26,850 hectares, has 69% of New Zealand’s vineyard, with the lion’s share (21,415 ha) being Sauvignon Blanc. Marlborough and Sauvie dwarf all other New Zealand regions and grape varieties, respectively.
The pungent Marlborough style is immediately distinctive, marked by herbaceous and tropical aromas. However, there are clear signs that there is increasing divergence from this. Some producers are aiming for ever higher concentrations of methoxypyrazine – the organic compound that characterises Kiwi Sauvignon. However, some of the wines are now so intensely aromatic that they risk becoming caricatures. In contrast, a style gaining ground is one more akin to French Sancerre. Here the pungency is kept in check; the aim is to produce less assertive softer wines that have more subtleness and minerality. Typically these are being produced by boutique winemakers seeking to differentiate themselves by expressing “terroir”. There is also considerable experimentation at all quality levels, e.g. by adding small amounts of barrel-fermented/matured wines to bring more complexity.
While there are no signs of consumer fickleness toward Sauvignon Blanc, most producers are expanding their ranges of other aromatic white wines, e.g. Riesling, Gewürztraminer, Pinot Gris and Viognier, and there are also considerable plantings of Chardonnay. There are many excellent examples of all these varieties, but arguably the variety likely to become the next success is Pinot Gris.
Pinot Gris is a fast-growing category. New Zealand’s 4th most planted white variety, (behind Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay and Riesling), it will overtake Riesling to claim 3rd place by 2008. (2019, it’s 3rd) Marlborough and Hawke’s Bay presently account for over 50% of plantings, but plantings are expanding in all regions. Pinot Gris has become the epitome of fashion. Many reasons are advanced for this, one being that it appeals to those tiring of Chardonnay, another that it is relatively straightforward to cultivate. A third is that it is an easy food match, particularly with New Zealand’s fusion cuisine.
However, New Zealand Pinot Gris has not developed a single style. While its malleability makes for considerable interest and versatility, it does impede consumer perceptions of what the grape stands for. There are perhaps four identifiable Pinot Gris styles.
The first is akin to Italian Pinot Grigio, dry, light and with no pronounced flavour, designed for early drinking. In marked contrast is an Alsace-style with ability to age, which is dry but much riper and bigger-bodied, with higher alcohol and a focus on a smooth texture.
The third style is recognisably New World, where the Alsace-style wine is given maturation in new French Oak. The amounts used vary by producer, from the subtle to the very high toast; in a way similar to that found with Chardonnay.
Lastly and perhaps the greatest expression of New Zealand Pinot Gris is an off-dry style where a little residual sugar enhances the wine’s silky texture and balance. These wines are sometimes barrel matured and again age well.
Over one hundred different examples of sweet “dessert” wines are made in small quantities in New Zealand, and a wide range of white grapes are used. Riesling is the most popular, but Chardonnay, Sémillon, Sauvignon Blanc, Gewürztraminer, Chenin Blanc, Pinot Gris and Viognier can all be found.
The most high profile sweet wines originate from Marlborough, but wineries in other regions are also now making examples of often outstanding quality.
These wines come in two main styles. Firstly there are Late Harvest wines, similar to the French Vendange Tardive or German Auslesen styles. Generally, these are delicate and gently sweet, with light, fresh fruit flavours.
Then there are the Botrytised wines, similar in style to the sweet wines of Sauternes or the Loire. Capable of great age, they have a refreshing acidity to balance their intense sweetness and a powerful array of honeyed dried fruit flavours imparted by Noble Rot.
Because the action of Botrytis is unpredictable and erratic, as it needs autumnal morning mists followed by clear warm days to flourish, so these wines are rarely made every vintage.
These world-class wines remain rare in the UK because the European Union currently considers them incompatible with EU standards. New Zealand requested derogation for sweet wines in 2000 and saw this restriction simply as a trade barrier. There is no resolution to the current impasse yet. (2019: this is no longer an issue, so check those sweet wines out!)
Pinot Noir is New Zealand’s red wine success. While it is capricious and difficult to grow, it has now become the second most planted variety, with over 4,000 hectares projected by 2008. (2019: 3rd, with 5,588 ha) In particular, the cool climates of Martinborough and fashionable Central Otago have been found to be especially felicitous. Here Pinot Noir remains the winemakers’ Holy Grail, with Burgundy their touchstone.
International accolades are numerous, and demand outstrips supply. Now many producers feel that a Pinot Noir in their wine range is becoming an essential badge of prestige. Consequently, plantings in other areas such as Marlborough and Hawke’s Bay are also increasing rapidly, and here there is potential to increase volumes significantly.
Comparisons with Burgundy are inevitable, but New Zealand Pinot Noir is rapidly developing its distinctive style, often with deeper colour, purer fruit and higher alcohol. While regional differences are apparent, the best wines do have Burgundy’s elusive complexity, texture and “pinosity” and are capable of ageing.
It is a testament to the skill and craft of New Zealand producers that poor examples are infrequently encountered. While most Pinot Noir can be classed as “good” – therein lies the challenge to improve still further – still only a handful are “great”, and these have now reached icon status.
However, the quality trend is still very much upwards. As site selection improves, young vines mature, and the newer Dijon clones come on stream, so the potential for New Zealand Pinot Noir will be realised. Meanwhile, “second labels” have emerged as a method of marketing volume production or younger vines at a lower price without damaging the reputation of the main winery brand.
A century ago Syrah was widely planted and known as “Hermitage”, but it has had a difficult history. Because of the cool, wet climate and vine vigour, Syrah frequently produced thin, acidic wine that lacked colour.
By 1984 there was no interest left in Syrah. The remaining vines were rescued from a viticultural research station and replanted at the Stonecroft Estate in Hawke’s Bay.
Hawke’s Bay is dry and sunny, and planting inland provides the extra heat that Syrah needs. In particular, the Gimblett Gravels and Ngatarawa Triangle are producing high quality distinctive red wines that need bottle age. These areas possess stony gravel soils, the remnants of old river beds. Their low fertility and free-draining nature reduce vine vigour and yields.
Since this initial success, a quiet revolution has occurred. In the last decade, Syrah plantings have grown over 400%, from 62 hectares to 264 hectares. (219: 441 ha). Three-quarters of this are in Hawke’s Bay (2019: 78%), with smaller pockets in Auckland and Marlborough.
There are dozens of award-winning wines emerging, with more in common with the Syrahs of the Northern Rhône than the Australian Shiraz style. Some producers are also co-fermenting it with Viognier, bringing deeper colour and aromatics similar to that of the Rhône’s Côte-Rôtie.
New pioneers in Waitaki
Waitaki, also known as North Otago, is New Zealand’s newest wine region, sited between the towns of Duntroon and Kurow on the Waitaki River and inland from South Island’s Pacific coast. The vines that have been planted here after painstaking viticultural research are creating considerable excitement.
Waitaki’s north-facing sunny slopes enjoy a mild climate suitable for producing fashionable “cool climate” varieties such as Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris and Sauvignon Blanc. Compared with rapidly expanding Central Otago to the south, grape growing is less risky here because of the moderating influence of the Pacific Ocean. Frost is unlikely, and the growing season is longer with lower peak summer temperatures.
The biggest single reason for the excitement is the limestone-based soil. In New Zealand, limestone soils that also occur in areas climatically suitable for grapes are extremely rare. Waitaki’s limestone may have different characteristics to that found in Burgundy, but it is this combination of soil, grape and climate that is unique in New Zealand.
Some of the leading lights of the New Zealand wine scene are already making wines from Waitaki vineyards, and the North Otago Vignerons’ Association (NOVA) has recently been created.
The first commercial vintage released was in 2004, and some of these wines are now reaching the UK in small quantities. The vines are very young, so it is too early to assess whether the limestone soils will be influential in creating a distinctive Waitaki style. However, comparing Pinot Noirs from Waitaki with Central Otago, the Waitaki wines show a more savoury character and have less exuberant fruit, but show the silky texture that is the hallmark of good Pinot Noir. This new region is certainly one to watch, and it was a special pleasure to be one of the region’s first wine tourists. (2019: there’s now 54 ha).
This article can only be the briefest of summaries about just some of the most important trends in the New Zealand wine industry.
There are other trends too, such as the growth in other aromatic white grapes such as Riesling, Gewürztraminer and Viognier and the development of other reds such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec and Merlot. Then there is a multitude of experiments with varieties as diverse as Sangiovese, Montepulciano, Tempranillo, Touriga Nacional, Zinfandel, Verdelho and even Pinotage. The importance of sparkling wines and the explosion in rosé production is also of considerable importance. (2019: experimentation continues, with varieties such as Grüner Veltliner, Albariño and Lagrein making some memorable wines).
The highly successful NZ Screwcap initiative has also been a big shift over just the last few years, and this is now gaining momentum worldwide. (2019: it’s hard to imagine the wine market without screwcaps!)
All this is due to experiment and innovation. There are high skill and quality levels, strength in diversity, and a pioneering spirit. Above all, there’s a willingness to take risks.
Add to all this stunning scenery, an outdoor lifestyle, abundant produce and vibrant food culture – exploring the New Zealand wine industry was both essential and life-affirming.
Finally, I would like to thank WSET for enabling this opportunity, together with New Zealand Winegrowers and the “Family of XII” for their assistance in planning the visit. Finally, I’d like to thank the two-dozen or so wineries that gave so much of their time, energy and wine stocks.
They have left me with an abiding love of Aotearoa, the Land of the Long White Cloud.
And in 2020?
New Zealand’s world-leading commitment to sustainability is particularly impressive. By 2018, 98% of vineyards were operating under independently audited sustainability programmes, including SWNZ, (sustainable), BioGro (organic) and Demeter (biodynamic) regimes.
Back in 2005, there were Kiwi Rosé wines, but they did not feature in my report. Since then, the worldwide boom in Rosé consumption means that this category has grown mightily. Pinot Noir is the mainstay, though other varieties contribute. Hence, the predominant style is light and fruity. Many examples are off-dry. However, there is a wide range; of other grape varieties, from bone dry to sweet, and in every different hue of pink.
So there you have it. So while things have changed, most trends remain. One thing for sure is that New Zealand’s success as an outstanding wine producer continues. Long may that be so.
And that abiding love? It’s still there.
I hope that I’m still around in 2036 to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the achievements of James Busby! Will I have made it back to New Zealand by then? More importantly, what might New Zealand and its wine be like in another 16 years, given the real test for all of us is climate emergency?