New Zealand is a country of varied landscapes and dramatic geographical features including glaciers, placid lakes, live volcanoes and of course, vast mountain ranges. The wines produced in New Zealand are as wide-ranging as its landscape which is why we Brits have fallen in love with them. Our love of Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc has been well documented, and continues to inspire the question, what next? However, top Pinot Noirs, Chardonnays and Syrah are slowly making their way into Mainstream outlets in the UK as we continue to explore our love affair with this eclectic couple of islands. It’s a good thing we love the wines so much given New Zealand’s domestic drinks market has historically been dominated by beer and still is to this day, with consumption 3.5 times that of wine.
New Zealand’s first vines were planted in 1819, however it took until the 1840s for James Busby, a British resident, to make New Zealand’s first recorded wine. Domestic wine consumption was mostly of Australian imports until 1958 when the government introduced tariffs, allowing local producers to compete with the more established Australian brands. From the first plantings in 1973, Marlborough has been the epicentre of New Zealand’s wine industry and still accounts for 70% of all New Zealand’s land under vine. This kicked off a rapid expansion in land under vine culminating in 1983 with an enormous harvest creating a surplus collapsing prices and leading to a vine pull scheme, although this was short-lived. Weirdly, at this point, the Swiss grape Muller Thurgau (famous for thriving in cool central European climate) was the most planted grape and quality was relatively average until the mid-1980’s, when Dr Richard Smart’s canopy management techniques were introduced to promote ripeness through stripping the canopy and focusing the vines efforts on the fruit rather than growing lots of leaves.
It’s difficult to discuss New Zealand’s wine history without talking about Sauvignon Blanc, however it was only introduced in the late 1970’s, now it accounts for 63% of New Zealand’s vineyard area. However, it is still primarily planted in Marlborough with Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc accounting for 56% of land under vine in New Zealand – we don’t call it a “Savalanche” for nothing… In 1960, total production was around 450,000 cases, by 1983 that stood at 6.4m cases and by 2019 this has risen to 33m cases! That represents an increase of 400% in just under 40 years. As an agricultural country without a long history of wine production and who have felt considerable Australian in?uence in their wine industry, it is unspringing that there is a cult of the winemaker here rather than one of terroir. Although there are now estates focusing on individual sites and terroirs, most wine remains an agricultural product, made with minimised risks and with the winemaker’s stamp visible on the finished product.
New Zealand lies between 34° and 46° South, to put this in a European context, it is the equivalent area of Tunisia to the Southern tip of Burgundy. However, don’t be fooled into thinking New Zealand enjoys the same climate as its northern counterparts. The cooler ocean currents make New Zealand colder and wetter, for example, Hawke’s Bay, which is the same distance from the equator as Puglia, has a climate more like that of Bordeaux. Another misleading index is the heat summation figures, although often useful in other countries, it doesn’t consider the lack of cloud cover in summer and this intense sunlight can ripen fruit in areas that would seem too cold on paper.
New Zealand is a country of extremes with the broadest distinction being between the warmer North and cooler South Islands. The far north has a sub-tropical climate, whilst Central Otago is cool continental. New Zealand is a mountainous and wet country, which whilst excellent for pasture, can be problematic for vines, with excessive vegetation growth which can hinder ripeness and encourage fungal diseases. For this reason, wine regions are mainly focused in the rain shadow of the mountains.
In most regions, soils are fertile and there is no shortage of rainfall, which can encourage vines to grow excessive foliage at the expense of fruit development if a strict canopy management system is not used. Most wine production takes place on alluvial river valleys and plains, with the deposits typically being old decomposed sandstone mixed with some limestone. Despite the damp climate, these free draining soils can sometimes lead to water stress in dry periods in summer and as such irrigation is widely practiced in many regions.