Oz versus Kiwi wine style differences

Like the Australian wine industry, New Zealand’s has enjoyed a decade of unprecedented, export-driven growth. However, New Zealand’s southerly latitudes and cooler climate dictates a vastly different wine-industry structure than Australia’s.

With New Zealand’s warmest significant growing region, Gisborne, sitting at about the same latitude as Melbourne, it’s only natural that the Kiwi industry focuses on a different suite of grape varieties and evolved to accept lower yields per hectare but more dollars per litre than Australian producers.

In the twelve months to August 2004 New Zealand vignerons pocketed the equivalent of $9 Australian for every litre they exported. Australian winemakers earned just $4.30 a litre.

New Zealand’s transition from bulk, low-end producer to high quality exporter can be seen not just in the export figures (7.9 million litres in 1994; 31.1 million in 2004) but in the dramatically changing vineyard landscape of the last decade.

In 1994 Gisborne and Hawkes Bay on the North Island and Marlborough at the top of the South Island each produced similar tonnages of wine grapes: 17,555, 15, 116 and 15,851 respectively.

Just one year later Marlborough assumed the top spot with 24,509 tonnes to Gisborne’s 22,289 and Hawkes Bay’s 20,632. Come the bumper 2004 vintage and Marlborough stretched her lead, harvesting 92,581 tonnes to a combined 55,595 tonnes from Hawkes Bay and Gisborne.

But there’s considerably more colour and depth to New Zealand’s wine scene than mere tonnages suggest. The nineties saw an explosion in the number of winemakers from 190 to 463, greatly expanding the palette of wine available.

In Marlborough, for example the number of winemakers trebled between 1994 and 2004 from 28 to 84 as the tonnage grew almost sixfold from 15,851 to 92,581. In the same period – in a parallel of its nineteenth century gold rush — trendy Otago’s winemaking population swelled ninefold from 8 to 75 and the crush from 175 to1439 tonnes.

Otago, led by Central Otago, was the only region in New Zealand to post a significant decline in production from 2003 to 2004.  Despite an increase in area under vines from 703 to 822 hectares in that one year, devastating frosts struck in spring, killing buds, and in Autumn, wiping out leaves — underling the risks inherent in very cool-climate viticulture.

The very promising Canterbury/Waipara region, on the coastal plains north of Christchurch, attracted 26 new winemakers in the period, bringing the total to 46. However, this is a real hot spot, favoured by Montana, New Zealand’s largest producer. Though wine-grape production increased fourteen fold, from 197 to 2825 tonnes in that ten years, its 635 hectares of vines ought to produce five thousand tonnes or more as younger plantings mature.

Reflecting the growing significance of pinot noir and a conspicuous success with it, the Wairarapa region, embracing Martinborough and Wellington, at the southern tip of the North Island, expanded its winemaking numbers from 21 to 49, its plantings from 174 to 675 hectares and its harvest from 501 to 2820 tonnes between 1994 and 2004.

And lovely, remote Nelson, two hours drive west of Marlborough, boasted 24 wineries in 2004, up from 9 in 1994. In the same period, the area under vine grew from 97 to 571 hectares and the annual grape crush from 366 to 4563.

And along with all these exciting regions, we can throw into the blend several dozen more winemakers and pots more grapes from Northland, Auckland, Waikato/Bay of Plenty and the ubiquitous ‘other’ category.

From these diverse sites, stretching in latitude from the high thirties to 45 degrees south, came 166 thousand tonnes of grapes in 2004, up from 76,400 in 2003 and 54 thousand in 1994. (The huge gap between 2003 and 2004, incidentally, reflects weather conditions rather than vast new plantings coming on stream).

And where Australian export success rides on immense volumes of warm-grown shiraz, chardonnay, merlot and cabernet sauvignon, New Zealand’s push is led overwhelmingly by sauvignon blanc. This variety alone accounted for 42 per cent of the 2004 grape harvest.

Chardonnay ran second by volume to sauvignon blanc, making up 22 per cent of the crush. Pinot noir, New Zealand’s emerging red specialty, ran third behind the two whites a little over 20 thousand tonnes or 12 per cent of the total crush – the three top varieties then accounting for three quarters of the country’s production.

However, it’s not the whole story. Merlot production is comparatively high at around nine thousand tonnes; shiraz is making a mark in a tiny way in the Hawkes Bay area; riesling has a handy niche at just under six thousand tonnes; and pinot gris, though more talked about than grown (1888 tonnes), shows considerable potential, especially on the South Island.

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 2007