New Zealand winemaking heads south

New Zealand’s wine industry has undergone profound changes in the last thirty years. Forced by a shift from fortified to table-wine production, its centre of gravity has moved south away from Auckland.

Unlike in Australia — where major growing areas like South Australia’s Riverland, the Barossa and McLaren Vale were able to shift fairly easily from fortified to table-wine production — New Zealand wine makers virtually abandoned the Auckland area to expand or establish plantings in more suitable climates to the south.

In 1998 Auckland’s vineyards contributed just 866 tonnes of grapes to a national crush of 76,536 tonnes, ninety four per cent of which came from just three regions: Gisborne (23,649 tonnes), Hawkes Bay (22,751 tonnes) and Marlborough (25,558 tonnes).

Gisborne, local wine maker Denis Irwin once told me, is New Zealand’s easternmost vineyard. It’s vines, near the shores of Poverty Bay, are the first in the world to see the sun each day.

Gisborne’s reputation rests largely, as Michael Cooper writes in ‘The Wines and Vineyards of New Zealand’, on its ability to produce big volumes of table wine at the right price.

Vines were established at Hawke’s Bay, on the west coast, several hours’ drive south of Gisborne, in 1851. Although the landscape is periodically re-arranged by cataclysmic earthquakes, the region remains an important quality producer and — though it goes against Australian pre-conceptions of New Zealand wine — Hawkes Bay produces some very good reds.

I have fond memories of touring New Zealand in the early eighties, savouring Vidal and Te Mata Cabernet Sauvignons after weeks of nothing but sauvignon blanc.

Important as Gisborne and Hawkes Bay are, New Zealand’s international reputation rests predominantly on wines made from one grape variety from a region that was not planted until the 1970s.

Montana established broad-acre plantings on the gravelly Wairau River Plains in the vicinity of Blenheim, Marlborough in 1973. This sunny but cool region burst onto the international scene with sensationally pungent, fruity sauvignon blancs within ten years of those early plantings. And in just 20 years it overtook Gisborne as the country’s largest wine producing region.

I think it was a 1980 Montana Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc that caused a sensation at Canberra’s National wine show in 1981. It set the scene for New Zealand’s continuing dominance in the sauvignon blanc class.

A few years later it was Selaks (albeit with a Hawkes Bay sauvignon blanc under a Farmer Bros label) carrying off the Canberra trophies.

Then David Hohnen of Cape Mentelle, Margaret River, established Cloudy Bay, Marlborough. Hohnen showed his competitors, if not how to make Sauvignon Blanc, certainly how to take it to the world. He also head hunted Selak’s winemaker, Kevin Judd.
But there’s more to New Zealand wine than three big vineyard areas and sauvignon blanc. And the industry shape is markedly different from what we have in Australia.

In 1998, premium white grape varieties made up about 36 per cent of Australia’s total grape crush and premium reds 31 per cent. And the premium white/red gap is narrowing rapidly. By 2000 the combined red/white should increase to 72 per cent of the total from today’s 68 per cent.

In New Zealand, premium wine grapes make up a larger proportion of total output than in Australia (84 per cent versus our 68 per cent in 1996) and whites totally dominate the quality landscape: premium white grapes accounted for 66 per cent and reds 18 per cent of the total crush in 1998.

New Zealand production has been rising rapidly. It leaped from 55 thousand tonnes to 78 thousand between 1986 and 1998. Given New Zealand grape yields varying 8.2 to 12.2 tonnes per hectare in recent years, total crush on 2000’s 8,700 hectares should be between 71,300 and 106,100 tonnes .

If sauvignon blanc dominates our consciousness of New Zealand wines, it’s not the only variety drawing international acclaim. Cool ripening conditions, abundant sunshine and a wide variety of locations suggest a particularly bright future for riesling, chardonnay, pinot noir and pinot-noir-chardonnay-based sparkling wine as well.

In the 1996 Canberra National Wine Show two New Zealand wines outclassed all that Australia could throw at them. Corban’s Amadeus Brut 1992 carried off the Kit Stephens Trophy for best bottle-fermented sparkling wine. And Martinborough Vineyard (located near Wellington) took the Rydges Hotels Trophy with its 1994 Reserve Pinot Noir.

The latter wine enjoys a cult following globally as do Tim and Judy Finn’s Neudorf Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc and the Rieslings and Gewurztraminer of Weingut Seifried, the Finn’s neighbours at Moutere, near Nelson on the north western side of the South Island.

In brief, New Zealand now provides the world with one of its best value, most interesting and affordable dry whites — Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc and through the work of small pioneers is making tiny volumes of quite exquisite, elegant dry reds and whites . I’ll report on those mid August after a flying visit.

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 1998 & 2007