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The New Zealand winegrowing revolution

The story of New Zealand wine is told in decades rather than centuries. As a result, we can observe the industry’s evolution at close quarters. What does the recent experience of a New World country reveal about the role of climate and soils in association with culture and history in shaping the evolution of a wine industry? What part has empirical experience of growing vines in different environments played in the evolving nature of New Zealand winegrowing? How have enterprises and individuals influenced the rapid geographic and varietal specialisation of vines and wines in New Zealand?

Although vines were first planted in New Zealand in the early nineteenth century, the modern wine industry dates only to the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. In 1960, only 388 hectares were planted in grapes across New Zealand, most of that in West Auckland and Hawke’s Bay. The vineyards were predominantly planted in American, disease-resistant, hybrid grape varieties and winemakers focused most of their efforts on sherry, port and liqueurs rather than table wines.

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Over the last four decades of the twentieth century and the first decade of the twenty-first, the map of New Zealand viticulture and winemaking was redrawn. In 1960, two regions – West Auckland and Hawke’s Bay – accounted for 85 per cent of the grapes being grown in the country. From the late 1960s, grape growers and winemakers colonised region after region and locality after locality – Gisborne, Hawke’s Bay, the Wairarapa, Marlborough, Nelson, Waipara and Central Otago have seen their area in vines expand. The interaction of enterprises and cultural and ethnic groups with the natural environments of the regions and localities they have transformed is the first key theme of this book.

But the revolution after 1960 cannot be understood without confronting a second key theme: the evolution of the varietal mix. Hybrid grapes like Groshek’s Albany Surprise gave way to Germanic varieties such as Muller Thurgau in the 1970s, which in turn gave way to Sauvignon Blanc and other classical varieties such as Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon and Riesling in the 1980s. Pinot Noir joined the mix both as a base for sparkling wine and more recently as a still wine of quality. By the 1990s, Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Riesling made up more than 80 per cent of all vines planted. Other vinifera varieties such as Gewurztraminer and Chenin Blanc rose and fell and rose again as knowledge of their vineyard management and vinification, as well as public tastes, evolved. Since 1990, more definite regional specialisation in varieties has begun to emerge in New Zealand. This is an indelible sign of the increasing knowledge accumulated by grape growers, winemakers and scientists about which varieties of grapes grow best where.

Knowledge of the natural environment and the varietal mix evolved together. In each new region, grape growers and winemakers have faced distinct natural environments. Each locality and region where vines now flourish has its own weather and climates and its own fine-grained distribution of soils. Vines have been planted progressively closer to the polar limit of their cultivation where temperatures and accumulation of energy over the growing season make it difficult to ripen some vinifera varieties, and early and late frosts become more of a hazard. Vines have also dispersed into regions where rainfall during the growing season is lower – an advantage in reducing the risk of fungus diseases, but a disadvantage, at least in terms of expense, in that irrigation is often necessary.

If, as many scientists suggest, some varieties produce special characteristics of flavour, texture and mouth weight closer to their environmental limit, these new localities also offer advantages. Pinot Noir is one example often cited. Such claims may need to be treated circumspectly in New Zealand, where almost the whole country may be considered as marginal for the production of some red varieties, such as Cabernet Sauvignon. Although fine Cabernet and Cabernet blends have been produced in New

Picking in Hawke’s Bay.

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