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- History - A history of New Zealand's wine and winemaking

History of New Zealand's Wine

The winemaking industry in New Zealand may have begun in 1819, when the first vines were planted on North Island. It may have begun in 1836, when an Australian winemaker made New Zealands first wine. Or it may have begun in 1873, when the country produced its first wine for commercial purposes. Any way you look at it, winemaking in New Zealand was extraordinarily slow to develop.

When phylloxera devastated the countrys vines at the end of the 1800s, New Zealand approached the problem differently than other countries. Instead of grafting their own vines onto American rootstock, they simply planted American vines and used American grapes to produce New Zealand wine.

In addition, New Zealand growers were permitted to add both sugar and water to wines to increase volume and compensate for underripe grapes. American vines and these questionable practices produced wine of such poor quality that, for much of the 20th century, most of the wine drunk in New Zealand was actually imported from Australia.

As if that wasnt bad enough, New Zealand barely rejected a law mandating the national prohibition of alcohol in 1919. Although prohibition was never established, the government discouraged alcohol consumption in a variety of ways. Through the 1950s, wine could not be sold in shops or in restaurants, and it wasnt until 1990 that supermarkets were finally allowed to sell wine.

The situation began to brighten in the 1970s, when growers started to place more of an emphasis on quality. Hardy grapes were replaced with superior vinfera varieties, and the government finally put limits on the amount of water that growers could add to wine. Local interest and government subsides led to an explosion of production, and exports soon became a major market.

Today, New Zealands wine industry is thriving. In 1990, New Zealand exported only 9% of its wine. By 2002, that number had climbed to 66%. New Zealand wines are sold and prized throughout the world, and New Zealand winemakers can finally put themselves on the same level as their Australian neighbors. New Zealand produces primarily Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, and Pinot Noir, and is especially famous for the grassy aromas and the grapefruit tang of its Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc.

- Overview - An overview of New Zealand's wine today.

Overview of New Zealand's Wine

When people think of New Zealands wine, they tend to conflate it with Australias. Nothing could be further from the truth. Winemaking in New Zealand developed at a much slower pace than in its western neighbor, and New Zealand still produces only a tiny fraction of what the giant Australia can muster. But all that began to change in the 1970s, and New Zealands wine industry has absolutely exploded in the last fifteen years. Today New Zealand exports two thirds of its wine and is quickly making a name for itself on the world scene. In particular, its Sauvignon Blanc has garnered international recognition for its grassy and herbal aromas and its grapefruit tang. Gone are the days when New Zealand and Australia are lumped together into a single wine region. Today New Zealands premier wines can stand shoulder to shoulder with the best of France or California.

Major

- Central Otago

Central Otago

Overview

Central Otago is a region full of distinctions and extremes. It is the most southern wine region in the world. It grows nearly two thirds Pinot Noir. Is cool and dry – very dry. Its production grew twenty fold between 1995 and 2005. Vineyards lie in the summer sun against a backdrop of snow-capped mountains that become ski resorts in the winter. Half the challenge of growing grapes in Otago is selecting a site that will create a warm pocket of air and allow grapes to ripen fully. Otago is known for its good reputation, its full, supple Pinot Noir, its lean Chardonnay, its Burgundian-style Pinot Gris – and for its high prices.

History

The first vines in Otago were planted in 1976, but development was sparse and very slow until 1994, when Pinot Noir began to take off. As recently as 1995, no one knew what sort of grapes to grow in Central Otago. Local growers were so confused that they would even the advice of traveling wine journalists. No one dreamed that a region as cool as Otago would ever be red wine country. Ten years later, Otago had defied the odds, become the fastest-growing wine region in New Zealand, and produced Pinot Noir of world renown.

Geography

Central Otago is the southernmost wine region in not only New Zealand, but in the world. Otago lies almost at the southern tip of New Zealand’s South island, and its vineyards are almost entirely inland.

Temperature

In terms of heat summation, Otago is the coldest wine region in New Zealand. Despite the general cold, however, summer temperatures in the daytime can be among the hottest in New Zealand. At night it’s a different story, as temperatures can fall by as much as 30 degrees Celsius (55 F). Precipitation is very low – signs outside some vineyards even go so far as to remind passers-by that they are in a water-conserving desert.

Topography

There is extreme variation within the Otago region, with craggy mountains lining the horizon. In general, vineyards are on warm, north-facing hillsides to ensure that the grapes get as much sun as possible. The most densely planted region so far is Bannockburn, located between Lowburn and the Cromwell Basin.

Terroir

The central question of Otago wine is how Pinot Noir grows so well with so little heat. First, there is an exceptional amount of sun in the summer because Otago is so far south. Second, there is little rainfall and even less cloud cover, so the sun is nearly always shining through. In fact, humidity is so low that grape rot is virtually nonexistent. And third, there is a huge diurnal temperature difference that proves beneficial to the grapes. Ripening occurs during warm daytime hours, but cool nights preserve acidity and nourish vibrant fruit flavors. Finally, the soil in the region is schistous loess. Its heavy texture is good for Pinot grapes, but water turns it to powder rather than clay, and it provides excellent drainage.

Yearly climate variations have a large effect here, and Pinot Noir can range from grassy in cool years to fragrant and perfumed in warmer ones. The relatively warm Cromwell basin produces dense, ripe flavors, where the slightly cooler Alexandra and Gibbston areas produce Pinot Noir that tastes of more supple, juicy fruit.

Important Varietals

Pinot Noir
Chardonnay
Pinot Gris

- Marlborough

Marlborough

Overview

Pick a spot in the Wairu Plains and look toward the horizon, and you’ll see nothing but vines in every direction. You’re standing in the heartland of Marlborough, New Zealand’s largest and its best-known wine district. It’s young, it’s hot, and its reputation is only getting better.

Marlborough’s fame is built upon its Sauvignon Blanc, which is known for its intense flavor, its aromas of grass, herbs and gooseberries, and its grapefruit edge. In addition to Sauvignon Blanc, Marlborough grows large amounts of early-ripening Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. In recent years, it has added to its variety and begun production of méthode champenoise sparkling wines.

History

Unlike Hawkes Bay, Marlborough has no long tradition of winemaking. The first vineyard here wasn’t established until 1973, when the large Montana Winery established planted vines. Since then, however, growth has been incredible. Today, Marlborough accounts for more than half of New Zealand’s production, and more than 80 vineyards now call the region home.

Geography

Located on the northeast coast of New Zealand’s North Island, Marlborough sits where the Wairau River empties into Cloudy Bay. The terrain is, in a word, sublime. The landscape ranges from rugged coastline to open plains, and wherever you look are vines and vines.

Termperature

Marlborough is cooler than the growing areas on the North Island, but it is also dryer with more sunlight during the growing season. Summer temperatures are warm during the day but rarely hot, and at night the temperatures are downright cold, dropping to 10-12 degrees Celcius. In fact, the biggest challenge the region faces is frost. When it looks like there might be a frost, vineyard owners go so far as to hire helicopter pilots to fly low around the fields and keep the air moving so nothing freezes. When helicopters are unavailable, growers get creative with wind machines and small fires throughout the vineyard.

Topography

Marlborough owes much of its success to its topography, as its vineyards are blessed with protection from all sides. To the north, the Marlborough Sounds shield vineyards from winds blowing off the ocean. To the south, the Kaikoura mountains block chilly winds blowing north from the Antarctic. And to the west, the Richmond Range absorbs rainfall from clouds coming in from the east, protecting Marlborough from excess precipitation.

Terroir

The sharp drop in nighttime temperature makes Marlborough ideal for growing acidic grapes like Sauvignon Blanc. During the daytime sunlight hours, grapes ripen normally. But when the temperature drops at night, ripening activity shuts down and the grapes are able to maintain their acidity. This process is crucial to the production of Marlborough’s excellent Sauvignon Blanc, with trademark tropical fruit tastes, grapefruit tang, and hints of herbs and strong grass. Relatively cool temperatures in Marlborough favor late-ripening varieties such as Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot noir, and Chardonnay, and the well-draining soil is composed of a layer of stony loam lying on top of deep free-draining shingle.

Important Varietals

Sauvignon Blanc
Pinot Noir
Chardonnay

Minor

- Auckland/Northland

Auckland/Northland

Auckland and Northland are small regions near the tip of New Zealand’s North Island. The two most popular varieties are Chardonnay
and Merlot. Cabernet Sauvignon is also produced, but is gradually being replaced with Merlot and Cabernet Franc because the region’s warm, wet climate creates thick foliage on the vines and makes it difficult for Cabernet Sauvignon to fully ripen. The Kumeu River subregion in Auckland is particularly well known for its dense, complex Chardonnay made in the Burgundian style. Winemakers here ferment the wine in oak barrels instead of stainless steel and regularly stir the lees to give the wine a nutty, complex flavor.

- Canterbury

Canterbury

The Canterbury district is located on the east edge of the South Island, northeast of Central Otago. The principal growing areas are in the flat around the city of Christchurch, where the climate is cool and dry and the soil rich and alluvial, and slightly north in the hills of the Waipara subregion. Here the soil is more chalky and the weather is slightly warmer. In both regions, however, frost still presents a threat when fall temperatures drop at night. Making sure grapes ripen fully before the temperatures drops is always a challenge when the weather is this cool, and earl-ripeners are the norm. The Canterbury region produces a variety of wine, including Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, and Riesling.

- Gisborne

Gisborne

Gisborne is New Zealand’s third largest wine region behind Marlborough and Hawkes Bay, but it is not yet known for the quality of its wines. Most of the grapes here are crushed by large wineries to make cheap table wines, but in recent years the area has been trending toward smaller wineries interested in improving quality. The climate is warmer and wetter than Hawkes Bay to the south, and this proves a mixed blessing. The high precipitation and fertile, alluvial soil along the region’s low-altitude river plains allow for very high yields, but the moisture throughout the growing season can also cause rot and problems with the harvest. Chardonnay is by far the most popular variety, but Gewürztraminer is making itself known as well.

- Nelson

Nelson

Located on the northern tip of the South Island, Nelson sits just east of Marlborough and shares the general climate of its larger neighbor. The production of Nelson itself is small, but on the rise due to skyrocketing real estate prices in nearby Marlborough. Although Nelson contains a variety of soils and microclimates, the soils in the Upper Moutere growing region are mostly clay-based. The water retention of the clay helps the susceptible Pinot Noir grape survive during the summer months. Nelson also grows Chardonnay.

- Gisborne

Gisborne

Gisborne is New Zealand’s third largest wine region behind Marlborough and Hawkes Bay, but it is not yet known for the quality of its wines. Most of the grapes here are crushed by large wineries to make cheap table wines, but in recent years the area has been trending toward smaller wineries interested in improving quality. The climate is warmer and wetter than Hawkes Bay to the south, and this proves a mixed blessing. The high precipitation and fertile, alluvial soil along the region’s low-altitude river plains allow for very high yields, but the moisture throughout the growing season can also cause rot and problems with the harvest. Chardonnay is by far the most popular variety, but Gewürztraminer is making itself known as well.

- Waikato/Bay of Plenty

Waikato/Bay of Plenty

Located Northwest of Hawkes Bay and Southeast of Auckland, the Waikato region is a small wine producer with only 12 wineries. A warm climate, rains, and heavy moisture have brought mildews and rot, and the area is no longer as important as it once was. The soil here is principally a heavy clay loam, and the region grows mostly Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon.

- Wairarapa

Wairarapa

Located on the southern tip of New Zealand’s North Island, Wairarapa sits just across the Cook Strait from Marlborough. It enjoys a similar climate to Marlborough’s, boasts numerous small premium wineries and produces high-quality wines. However, odds are you’ve never heard of it. The reason is that most of its well-known wines come from a subregion called Martinborough, and Martinborough’s fame has eclipsed the name “Wairarapa.” Martinborough is especially is known for its Pinot Noir, but also for its Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay.