The New Zealand Wine Region

The New Zealand Wine Region

The New Zealand Wine Region

A Late But Great Start

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.

HISTORY

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.

CLASSIFICATION

The Geographical Indications Act of 1994 is New Zealand's current labeling law. It bans the misleading use of place names in general terms. Among future government plans are a Certified Origin system which will ensure that 85 percent of grapes come from the region, vintage and grape varieties named on wine labels. However, the Certified Origin system will not regulate grape varieties or styles within a region.

CLIMATE/CULTIVATION

Although New Zealand contains several micro-climates and a wide range of soil types, it's predominantly a cool country with a lot rainfall. Historically, many vineyards began on flat sites with poor drainage and extremely fertile soils. These, along with cool temperatures and unsuitable rootstocks, contributed to mildew, fungus, and phylloxera infestations, now those problems are mostly controlled by replanting.

The challenge most common in New Zealand vineyards has always been the uncontrollable growth of leaf canopy which results in under-ripe wines that have an aroma of vegetation. Today scientific vineyard management has developed broad canopy management via trellising and leaf-trimming programs that nearly eliminate the problem. This allows winemakers to make pleasantly aromatic and relatively high acid wines that can be very expressive of varietal character.

REGIONS

Auckland, the cradle of New Zealand's wine industry, struggled for years to find fine wine varietals suited to its warm, humid climate. As a population center it oversees massive wine commerce, mostly vinifying and blending wines from other New Zealand regions. Recently however, enterprising vintners with new vineyards on Waiheke Island and Matakana in the Auckland region have produced fine Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and other Bordelais varietals as well as limited Pinot Noir. These varieties appear to ripen well and show great promise here. And Chardonnays from the recently developed Kumeu River area near Auckland show lush varietal flavors; their typically rich style is balanced with a lively lemon finish and they are considered among the country's best.

With the lone exception of the South Island's Central Otago Vineyard, all winemaking areas are restricted to the eastern coastline; there are no viticultural areas on the west coast.

Gisborne, on the eastern side of North Island, has the luxury of a dual identity: over a third of the country's wine is produced here, the great majority becoming everyday bulk wines. But Gisborne also produces fine wines, claiming the title of Chardonnay Capital of New Zealand, where the country's largest producers and shoestring boutique wineries both vinify distinguished premium Chardonnays. These wines are known for charming peach, pineapple and melon fruit flavors as well as a clean freshness that makes them excellent partners to many different foods. Gisborne's climate also appears to be well-suited to growing fine Gewürztraminer.

Hawke's Bay, a historic wine-producing area near the eastern center of the North Island, frequently records some of the country's sunniest weather. Chardonnay is its most important varietal, followed by the declining historic variety Muller-Thurgau, Cabernet Sauvignon, Sauvignon Blanc and Merlot. Hawke's Bay Chardonnay is less forward than the Gisborne wines, but at its best exhibits strong citrus flavors and great elegance. The area's Sauvignon Blanc often has nectarine or stone fruit character, and is softer and less pungent than the better-known Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc.

The Hawke's Bay reds are produced in a Bordeaux style. The Cabernet Sauvignons, sometimes blended with Cabernet Franc or Merlot, have intense berry, sometimes cassis flavors; they often have a slightly herbaceous character and show strong oak from barrel age. Hawke's Bay is widely considered to be the Merlot Capital of New Zealand, and though Merlot is produced in smaller quantities than Cabernet Sauvignon, these wines are also oak-aged and known for firm structure, as well as herbal, red berry and earthy flavors.

Marlborough, though relatively young as a wine-growing region, has the largest wine acreage in New Zealand with more than 3000 hectares; its first vineyards were planted in 1973. This large flat river valley at the northern end of South Island contains a great variety of soil patterns, low soil fertility and good drainage, all of which allow winemakers opportunities for producing fine wines in a great variety of styles.

Marlborough wines first appeared on the international wine scene in 1985 with startlingly fresh, clean yet complex Sauvignon Blancs that made consumers sit up and take notice. Today Sauvignon Blanc is the most planted varietal, showing tropical fruit flavors and pungent capsicum herbaceousness that have come to represent the national style.

Chardonnay, Marlborough's second most popular varietal, is produced in a number of styles including sparkling. Like the Sauvignon Blancs, it often shows tropical aromas and relatively high acidity, and is rarely aged in oak. Riesling also thrives here and can produce both fine dry dinner wines and luscious botrytized dessert wines. The wave of the future may be found in Marlborough's youngest vineyards, where Pinot Noir is making news and quite a reputation with oak-aged wines of finely balanced structure and supple red fruit flavors reminiscent of young Burgundy. Made into sparkling wines, Marlborough Pinot Noirs can also display a refined austerity.

Across the Cook Strait on North Island, Wellington, around the town of Martinborough, has a cool climate, long dry autumns and gravel soils - all precisely suiting the requirements of the finicky Pinot Noir vine. Wines from this area, though still in limited production, rival the finest Pinot Noirs, and their refreshing acidity gives them the potential for further aging. Wellington also produces some botrytized Riesling which can be very fine.

Vintners in Otago, the world's most southerly wine region, have to reckon with the country's only continental (rather than maritime) climate. They maximize sunshine hours and minimize frost danger by planting on hillside vineyards, a rarity in New Zealand. Because of their peripheral location geographically, Otago vineyards produce small yields, but their wines can offer great concentration and corresponding character, particularly in Pinot Noir and Gewürztraminer, which show plenty of crispness.

PRINCIPAL VARIETALS PRODUCED IN EACH AREA

North Island:

  • Auckland - Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, Muller-Thurgau
  • Gisbourne - Chardonnay, Müller-Thurgau, Gewürztraminer
  • Hawke's Bay - Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Sauvignon Blanc, Müller-Thurgau
  • Wellington (Martinborough) - Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Riesling

South Island:

  • Marlborough - Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Müller-Thurgau, Merlot, Riesling
  • 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, Gewürztraminer, Riesling

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