Our latest expert guide covers New Zealand. Compiled by MW Rebecca Gibb, it discusses the history, grapes, and regions of this important winegrowing country. Read an excerpt below.
New Zealand was a latecomer to winemaking in the Southern Hemisphere, with the first vines planted in 1819. Vineyards were established in Chile and Argentina around 100 years before the first European, Abel Tasman, even set eyes on New Zealand, in 1642. New Zealand’s initial plantings were in Kerikeri, in what is now Northland, a region that continues to make a small amount of wine in humid conditions. The cuttings were brought to the country from Australia by English missionary Samuel Marsden. There is no record of the wine these vines produced, if any, but in Marsden’s diary of September 25, 1819, he notes, “New Zealand promises to be very favorable to the wine, as far as I can judge at present of the nature of the soils and climate. Should it succeed it will prove of vast importance in this part of the globe.” More than 200 years later, his prediction has come true, but due to a blend of social, cultural, and legal impediments, it has taken a long time for New Zealand to fulfil its potential.
The major wave of migration to New Zealand in the 19th century came from Britain, a whisky-drinking, beer-swilling nation. There was no tradition of growing grapevines in Britain at that time, whereas the Spanish missionaries exported their wine culture to South America, and Central Europeans shipped vines to their new homes in South Australia. There were a few wine buffs among the British, including Scottish-born James Busby, who landed in New Zealand in 1833 and brought in cuttings he had previously imported to Sydney, Australia. Records suggest that these vines were responsible for producing the country’s first wine. In 1840, French naval officer Jules Dumont d’Urville tasted the fruits of Busby’s vines, having rowed ashore from his ship Astrolabe. In his journal, he noted that the vines were thriving and that he been given “a light white wine, very sparkling and delicious to taste, which I enjoyed very much.”
However, the impetus for planting vines did not come primarily from the British. French missionaries founded the Hawke’s Bay wine industry in 1851. Meanwhile, Dalmatians (from an area that is today part of Croatia) fleeing the clutches of the Austro-Hungarian empire forged a winegrowing community in west Auckland from the early 1900s, having first earned a living digging gum trees in the far north. The Dalmatian influence remains strong today, with names like Babich, Fistonich (Villa Maria), and Brajkovich (Kumeu River) recognized around the wine world.
New Zealand’s indigenous Polynesian population, the Māori, likely arrived on the island in the early 14th century CE. New Zealand was unknown by humans until that time, making it one of the last land masses on earth to be settled. Astonishingly, the Māori traveled to New Zealand by canoe from what is believed to be Tahiti, a voyage of more than 4,000 kilometers. The Māori lived alone in New Zealand for a little over three centuries before Europeans first made contact.
The Māori community is largely concentrated to New Zealand’s North Island, which is home to approximately 85% of today’s population as well as several marae, sacred meeting houses within traditional Māori villages. Māori tribes are referred to as iwi, which can be further divided into hapū.
Māori culture is visible in every aspect of New Zealand life—from its art and cuisine to its vernacular to its sporting traditions. The Māori language is also an official national language. Yet the Māori have faced several legal and social challenges in post-colonial New Zealand. This can be felt in the wine industry, where of the country’s 700 wine labels, approximately 80 feature Māori names while only 6 have Māori ownership or leadership. The TUKU Collective is an association of several of these producers who have banded together to promote Māori contributions to wine.
The pioneers of New Zealand’s wine industry faced many obstacles—not only the lack of wine-drinking culture in New Zealand but also societal attitudes toward alcohol in general. Drinking to excess was believed to be affecting the country’s moral fabric, and in the late 1800s, a strong temperance movement developed in New Zealand. Momentum built, and by 1910, 12 of the country’s 70-something electorates were dry, including the fledgling wine-producing districts of Masterton in the Wairarapa and Mount Eden in Auckland. The issue came to a head in 1919, when a national vote on prohibition took place. Local residents voted in favor of prohibition, but Kiwi troops stationed in Europe following World War I voted four to one in opposition. The soldiers tipped the balance, giving the embryonic wine industry a chance of survival.
The temperance movement didn’t go away, however. A legal hangover remained for most of the 20th century, with strict licensing laws making wine sales challenging. Pubs had to close at 6pm until 1967, while drinking wine in a restaurant was illegal until 1960. It wasn’t until 1989 that wine was sold at restaurants after 8pm and on Sundays. Single bottle sales weren’t permitted until 1955—previously, a minimum purchase of two gallons was required, effectively prohibiting direct-to-customer sales for wineries. Supermarket sales finally began in 1989; today, supermarkets account for 60% of all wine sold domestically.
Central to the modern New Zealand wine industry is Sauvignon Blanc. While Marlborough is now the grape’s undisputed New Zealand home, the first Kiwi example was produced in the warmer climes of Auckland. New Zealander Ross Spence had spent time in California studying at the University of Fresno, and when he returned home, he obtained some Sauvignon Blanc cuttings from the government’s research station, Te Kauwhata. He planted the vines in his Matua Road vineyard in 1968, producing the first commercially available wine in 1974. These initial vines were disappointing in terms of yield due to leafroll virus, but the freshness and bold aromatics of the resulting wines persuaded him to go in search of disease-free vines. He managed to acquire cuttings from the Department of Agriculture’s trial block at Corbans Winery. The block was due to be uprooted because of a lack of interest, and Spence removed propagation wood just weeks before it was consigned to history. Spence provided viticulturist Wayne Thomas of Montana (now Brancott Estate) with cuttings to plant the first Sauvignon Blanc vines in Marlborough in 1975. Montana produced the first commercially available Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc in 1979.
In the mid-1980s, the first examples of New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc made their way to overseas critics and wine buyers. The vibrant aromas, bold green flavors, and bright acidity captured international palates. While the wines are now less green in character and more refined, the signature of Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc continues to be its vivacity and aromatic exuberance.