New Zealand’s Wine Revolution

The following article was published in on Friday 25 November, 2011 by Justin Niessner.

New Zealand’s Wine Revolution

EVEN from a neighbourly Australian perspective, New Zealand seems inconspicuously tucked away from the rest of civilisation. But after a century of quietly producing some of the world’s best wines, the Kiwi secret has finally gone global.

Grape planting and wine production has roughly tripled in New Zealand over the last couple of decades. Sophisticated markets around the word are scooping up the country’s finest en masse, with Europe, Asia and the US ranking as the thirstiest customers in New Zealand wine’s boom time.

The most extraordinary aspect of the eruption in world appetite for New Zealand wine is the grassroots nature of the phenomenon. As enormous shipments of millions of bottles leave this diminutive country, scattershot across the Pacific in all directions, the reason for success is disarmingly simple – the wine is fantastic. No artificial incentives from the government, just a natural marketplace reaction to a quality product.

The formula for great wine across the Tasman is uniquely New Zealand. Through a combination of geographic luck and a no frills work ethic we’d recognise back home, New Zealand has sculpted a first-rate wine industry out of a few meagre valleys and some “number 8” wire.

“We’ve always found innovative ways of doing things and that’s what we call the number 8 wire mentality,” New Zealand Wine Directory founder John Bartlett said, evoking the fencing hardware iconic of Kiwi ingenuity. “A lot of that has spilled over into the winemaking industry in New Zealand and there’s a lot of really innovative winemakers here trialling new things all the time.”

While the great wine houses of Europe sag under the weight of their unbreakable traditions, New Zealand, like other New World winemakers, benefits from a no-rules, no-nonsense approach to this ancient art. Their freedom from convention has led to a movement in environmental vineyard sustainability and some revolutionary production concepts.

“We were the head of the screwcap initiative a few years back, shifting to screwcaps because of the failure rate of cork,” Bartlett said. “We have free reign to make what we feel represents or shows the land at its best, including climate and all the aspects of terroir. That’s why the wines coming out of New Zealand are so interesting. Different terroirs, different climates, different soil types, different winemaking techniques.”

Geography, soil and climate

Culture and craftsmanship are biggies in the wine world, but greatness in wine has always been rightfully attributed to the land itself. Like all Pacific islands, New Zealand is volcanic and geologically immature. Central mountain ranges block the westerly weather just enough to provoke grapes in the perfectly infertile sandstone of the eastern coast.

“Our wine, like everybody’s wine, is about where it comes from,” New Zealand Winegrowers chief executive Philip Gregan said. “New Zealand is a middle-latitude maritime country and that dictates our wine styles. Most other wine producing countries in the world have continental climates, whereas we are almost wholly a maritime climate.”

Gregan says New Zealand’s growing climate is unique among New World wine growers in its potential to infuse higher acid content into wines. But as the extremities of the North and South islands span some 10 degrees of middle latitude, a variety of viticultural conditions has allowed New Zealand to bloom into more than just a niche producer.

Sauvignon Blanc leads the way

When the outside world finally discovered New Zealand wines, one variety was the shining star. But it didn’t take long for that wine’s success story to give confidence and incentive to an array of aromatics that impressed even the most sceptical of traditionalist critics.

“Sauvignon Blanc is the variety that put New Zealand on the world wine map and it’s opened the doors for a lot of other varieties such as our Pinot Noir,” Gregan said.  “New Zealand is now acknowledged as probably the best producer of Sauvignon Blanc in the world. The thing that surprises people when they come to New Zealand from other places is the diversity of styles they see within Sauvignon Blanc and subregional variations and wine styles. It’s really quite exciting.”

The door opened by Sauvignon Blanc has animated the number 8 wire mentality in New Zealand as winemakers tinker with the possibilities of their diverse environment. The results have stunned some of the great sommeliers of Europe in blind tastings.

“We’ve discovered in New Zealand that we can grow all sorts of varieties right across the whole of the country and all its regions,” Gregan said. “We’re growing Syrah now, or what’s commonly termed Shiraz in Australia, up the east coast of the North Island, Gisborne and Hawke’s Bay to central Auckland and the Waiheke area. There’s a resurgence in things like Riesling and Pinot Noir. A lot of people are now exploring Gruner Veltliner and Arneis and a few other varieties as well. It’s really all about experiments here.”

Just a hop across the Tasman

Australians, as luck has it, are just about the only people in the world who can easily visit New Zealand. Even more down under than Down Under, our remote neighbours have managed to increase their international wine tourism despite isolation and the world’s current economic malaise.

“There’re a lot of people who come to New Zealand specifically to tour the wine regions which is fantastic,” Bartlett enthused. “Our country’s only 1000 miles long so they don’t have very far to go and can basically get in a car and drive the length of the country and visit all the wine regions in two or three weeks.”

“We are seeing more and more international tourists visiting wineries,” Gregan agreed. “That rise in international tourism numbers has paralleled the increasing success of our wines in the marketplace. As people have tried our wines overseas, they want to come and visit the place and see where those wines come from.”

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