It wasn't until around 1836 that the first grapes were bought into New Zealand by James Busby, New Zealand's British Resident and very keen 'amateur' winemaker. The oldest existing vineyard was established by the Roman Catholic Missionaries in the Hawke's Bay, Mission Estate. While grapes were certainly grown and wine was produced in New Zealand, it was mostly for religious use or family consumption rather than as a principle income
This changed in the 1960's when a group of changes took place;
- New Zealanders had become a nation of travellers. They had experienced the diverse cultural regions of Europe with the wine and food harmony that is often present and wanted to see the same in New Zealand.
- Dalmatian immigrants who originally migrated to New Zealand to work in the Northland gum fields had moved to the rural areas that surrounded Auckland. There they set up orchards, vineyards and wineries to supply the local market.
- These families had created the fledgling viticulture industry and now started planting Vinifera table wine vines (wine grapes such as Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc). They began planting in new areas based on the vine's viticulture requirements rather than the previous regimes of planting close to the markets.
- New Zealand had a very strong dairy industry so were accustomed to managing large volumes of liquid in sterile conditions along with the use of refrigeration.
- Young winemakers were travelling and working in European, American and Australian wineries and bringing back the skills they learnt. This created a combination of “Old World” traditional European winemaking and science-based “New World” winemaking that was being developed in the USA and Australia.
- Liquor Licensing laws in New Zealand were being changed and relaxed, particularly around the consumption of wine with food in restaurants. The development of BYO restaurants had a huge effect.
- New Zealand's can-do, number-8 wire approach to problem solving meant lots of little wineries were created based on a dream to make wine and went on to be successful businesses.
By the early 1980's Marlborough's grape-growing potential had been discovered. The previously widely planted grape Muller Thurgau was being replaced by Sauvignon Blanc and the UK had discovered New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc. One critic describing the wine as the experience of being strapped naked to Elle McPherson while bungy-jumping into a bottomless pit of fresh Gooseberry leaves!
In the last 40 years that initial success in the UK has translated into a $1.72 billion annual export earnings with over 37,000 hectares of vineyard of which 22,000 hectares are Sauvignon Blanc. Our quality levels are very high and our wines command premium prices internationally, but we are still a tiny industry by world standards. Australia is 5 times larger production-wise, while Italy's production is 24 times the size of New Zealand's. New Zealand is truly are a boutique winemaking industry.
Internationally New Zealand’s wine reputation is based around the pungent zingy flavours and textures of Sauvignon Blanc which has so successfully made a home here.
We have developed a style and brand of Sauvignon Blanc that is recognised as an expression of our country and image overseas that is iconic and instantly recognisable. All of this of this has taken place in a very short period of around 40 years, which in terms of viticulture development is almost a blink in time.
New Zealand Pinot Noir has gained a place on the international stage on the coat-tails of Sauvignon Blanc's success. Dr Rowald Hepp makes a strong argument that with time, the quality of New Zealand Riesling, Pinot Gris and Sparkling wines will also be recognised internationally.
The story and success of Rosé has been an interesting update to this trend, particularly in the UK where there has been huge growth in Rosé drinkers. New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc was different in flavour and texture from other Sauvignon Blanc available, which in turn generated a market. However there has been a gap in the UK market for good, well-made Rosé.
New Zealand producers have been encouraged by their European importers to produce Rosé suitable for the UK market. As the wineries have developed the quality and style that suits the UK market, New Zealand drinkers have shared in that success by having a range of well made European-styled Rosé wine available in the domestic market. Our burgeoning love affair with Rosé for summer drinking which we are now enjoying has been created and developed by the UK market and is now the fastest growing wine style domestically.
Education is always an important part of product acceptance in a new market. Part of the challenge we have as a wine producing country is tailoring our international marketing to the level of actual knowledge of New Zealand and our wine. While Marlborough is recognised in the UK market as a quality production area for New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, in the Chinese market selling the New Zealand story and the fact that we produce great wine is a critical initial step. Recent research in the UK shows that white and red burgundy consumers are unaware that White Burgundy is Chardonnay and Red Burgundy is Pinot Noir. This is a necessary understanding we have to achieve to get those consumers to try our Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.
So while we have some interesting challenges internationally, New Zealand wines are continuing to find new markets and flourish as a quality producer on the world wine stage. New Zealand wines internationally are a success story and are already a $1.72 billion export earner for New Zealand.
Jim Harre, Chair of Judges, New World Wine AwardsJim Harre, Chair of Judges, New World Wine Awards