A diverse climate, widely varying soils and the effects of Prohibition long restrained this Pacific island country's natural suitability for wine production. Not until the mid-1980's did it produce wines of sufficient quality and quantity to attract international attention, when highly aromatic Marlborough Sauvignon Blancs first gave outsiders a hint of this area's startling potential.
The development of the New Zealand wine industry has focused on refining cultivation techniques and progressive vineyard experimentation, culminating in today's determination to produce wines distinguished among the world's finest vintages. In some cases, the distances between wineries and vineyards can be daunting (cultivated area now spans 720 miles north to south), but technological innovations help ease this hindrance to fine wine production. Watchful but moderate government regulation allows innovation, and without the restraint of an established tradition, winemakers are free to express personal style. The great attraction of international acclaim encourages risk-taking among vineyard owners, who are among the world's most enthusiastic and experimental.
Fine wine appreciation was slow in coming to New Zealand, and early vintners concentrated on mass production. The first vineyard, established in 1835, provided undistinguished thirst-quenching wines to British troops, and until the mid-twentieth century, industry aspirations were correspondingly modest.
Early vineyard development roughly paralleled population growth, and has moved progressively north to south. In the twentieth century, the industry first developed in the North Island around Auckland, center of one-third of the country's population. Between 1960-70 it grew explosively toward the southeast into Gisborne and then further south to Hawke's Bay. In 1973 the first vineyards were planted in Marlborough on the South Island, and by 1990, this region at the island's northern tip had become (and continues to be) the nation's largest producer and leading region. Experimentation with even cooler, more southerly climates continues on South Island as far as Canterbury and even Otago, the world's most southerly vineyards.
Government and social policies have profoundly affected New Zealand's wine industry. The Temperance movement between 1910-1919 (whose residual blue laws restricted retail wine sales as late as 1990) limited expansion, as did the economic depression of the 1930's. But in 1958, the government moved to restrict the importation of wines and spirits. This guaranteed local producers a stable market and allowed strong new growth.
In 1981, the Closer Economic Relations agreement expanded trade with Australia by eliminating tariffs between the two countries. This forced New Zealand winemakers to compete with that country's much (ten times) larger industry and prompted heavy discounting. Still New Zealand production grew prodigiously until by 1983, vineyard expansion, large yields and low prices caused many producers to founder. In 1986 the government ordered one-quarter of all vines pulled out to stabilize the market. Most of these were high-producing varieties intended for bulk wines. At present, promising new vineyards again proliferate in smaller parcels, as the matching process between terroir and varietal becomes ever more successful.
In the 1990's New Zealand vineyard acreage more than doubled from 4,880 to 13,000 hectares (12,043 to 33,110 acres) in 2000, and continues to grow. While domestic demand has remained about the same, international interest propelled startling export growth in the same period, with over 20 million liters (5,300,000 gallons) sold abroad in 2000. The number of wineries nearly tripled (from 131 in 1991 to 358 in 2000) as export volume grew nearly fivefold, from 4 million liters (1,060,000 gallons) in 1990 to 19.2 million liters (5,088,000 gallons) in 2000. And the phenomenon shows no sign of abating, as reinvested profits result in ever better and more diverse wines.
Kiwi wine growers have used their resources wisely during this period of tumultuous growth. Sage viticultural practices decreased average vineyard yields by nearly one-half, from 14.4 to 8.2 tons per hectare (from 5.4 tons per acre to 3.3 tons per acre), an adjustment that reflects optimum production levels for the now-popular French varietals as well as decline of the prolific but less distinguished Muller-Thurgau and Muscat vines.
Although New Zealand contains a number of micro-climates and a range of soil types, it is generally a cool country with abundant rainfall. Historically, many vineyards were planted on flat sites with inadequate drainage and overly fertile soils. These, along with cool temperatures and inappropriate rootstocks, contributed to fungus, mildew and phylloxera infestations, now mostly controlled by replanting.
The most common challenge in New Zealand vineyards, however, has always been the rampant growth of leaf canopy, resulting in under-ripe, potentially vegetal wines. Today scientific vineyard management has developed extensive canopy management (trellising and leaf-trimming) programs that nearly eliminate this problem, allowing winemakers to make highly aromatic and relatively high acid wines that can be extremely expressive of varietal character.
As in other winemaking regions around the world, the "latest word" in vinification techniques is tradition. Manual harvesting, pre- and post-fermentation maceration and partial whole berry fermentation are all utilized in the pursuit of intense varietal character. Oak fermentation and aging (in both French and American oak) are also popular for Chardonnay and red wines.
For white wines, cold fermentation is the norm, with a few wines being barrel aged or blended for greater complexity. Oak fermentation and maturation on the yeast lees are used for "riper" styles of Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay, particularly in the northern regions, where blending with Semillon is also used to enhance complexity. The most famous Sauvignon Blancs eschew oak aging to maintain their clean, pungent aromas.
About three-fourths of New Zealand's wines come from white grapes, predominantly prestigious French varietals, with a few German grapes added for good measure. Chardonnay is the most produced white wine, followed by the now-famous Sauvignon Blanc, though these standings are expected to be reversed in the near future. Muller-Thurgau, Riesling and a small amount of Gew'rztraminer, Pinot Gris, and Semillon are other whites.
For reds, Pinot Noir is the flagship, the biggest producer as well as the wave of the future, projected to earn the same kind of attention for New Zealand that Shiraz did for Australia. In size and importance Pinot Noir is followed by Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon. New plantings of Syrah, Malbec, Cabernet Franc and even Zinfandel and Pinotage will add more choices in the future.
Nelson - Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Noir, Riesling
Waipara - Pinot Noir, Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay
Canterbury (around city of Christchurch) - Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling, Pinot Noir
Central Otago - Pinot Noir, Gew'rztraminer, Riesling.
New Zealand wine labels are regulated by the Fair Trading Act and the Food Act, both of which ban misleading statements (including, by implication, geographic claims). The Geographical Indications Act of 1994, which has not yet been implemented, will eventually delineate and assign names to wine sub-regions, and will also regulate the use of these names on wine labels.
Currently, if a single grape variety is mentioned on the label, that variety must comprise 85% of the contents when sold in the United States or UK (in New Zealand, only 75% is required). When more than one variety is mentioned, varieties must be listed in descending order of proportion. If sold in European Union countries or the United States, the wine must be 100% true to the stated varieties. Table wines in New Zealand may carry alcohol content up to 15%.