The origins of New Zealand wine are as foggy as their inlets. The little we do know is thin history. James Busby, New Zealand’s British Resident and first keen amateur winemaker, brought grapes to New Zealand by 1830, planting them and carefully tending them on his Waitangi estate. Whatever wine he made from them, however, he kept largely to himself.
In the South Island, French Roman Catholic missionaries planted small vineyards that they tended themselves, now called Mission Estate. These grapes were primarily used for the priests’ own religious use and personal enjoyment, and it wasn’t until 1865 that the winery itself was formally established. The influence of the wine was minute, and it wasn’t until the close of the century that vineyards were established in other parts of Auckland and Northland regions.
One visionary that deserves his own piece of history was David Herb. He owned a small block of land called Auntsfield in the Fairhall Area of Marlborough. In 1873, Herd planted a small field of vines on his land–a brown mutation of Muscat Petite Grain. He made wine until he died in 1905, producing only a small scale which was shared amongst the family and surrounding townsfolk. When he passed, his son-in-law Bill Paynter took over and continued his father-in-laws tradition of Brown Muscat wine until 1931. These vines were at some point tilled under, making way for food crops instead.
By the time wine was ready to make its formal entrance, there was hardly a grape vine left in the country. And the few vines there were weren’t making any good wines. The lack of interest in wine meant that there were few regulations on it’s production. New Zealand wine makers would often add water and sugar to their underripe or poor grape yield to add bulk and sweetness. This produced wines of such poor quality, it is no wonder that the local population lost interest. New Zealand’s alcoholic preferences were decidedly in favor of beer, mead, and whiskey.
A Youthful Revival
As often seems to be the case when it comes to any sort of revolution, it was the young generation of New Zealanders that brought about the change. In the 1960’s, New Zealand had opened its doors for travel, and many young people had gone out into the ‘Old World’ of Europe, discovering the wine and food harmony that France, Germany, Italy, and England perpetuate so well. They wanted to bring this magic back with them. Young winemakers learned the methods of the European, American, and Australian wineries and took home with them the newfound skills and knowledge. They were eager to create their own wines.
The interest of these travelers sparked ideas in the Dalmatian immigrants who had originally migrated to New Zealand to work in the Northland gum fields. They partnered with these newly developed vignerons, and set up orchards, vineyards and wineries in the areas surrounding Auckland to supply the growing local market with the Old World traditions. They began with table wines such as Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc, and placed strict regulations on the proper production of wine–no more sugar and water added, ever.
New Zealand, already used to handling large volumes of liquid foodstuffs due to their thriving dairy industry, was quite capable of handling the slowly growing amounts of wine produced by these fledgling viticulturists. In addition, the influence of the European and American wine technology made the further necessary developments swift. Liquor licensing laws became more relaxed, allowing consumption of wine with food in restaurants, and eventually supermarkets.
The entrepreneurial spirit of the New Zealanders meant that many of these small family ventures became successful businesses. The government also gave a push to supporting the local wineries by inflicting high taxes on all imported wines, making them quite expensive. The public responded well, and imported wine now occupies a very subordinate position in the New Zealand market, four bottles of local wine being consumed for every one imported bottle.
But it isn’t just the locals sipping a glass of Chardonnay anymore. The emphasis that the 1970’s brought on excellence and quality changed everything. A region that is so perfectly suited to produce and grow cannot help but reap a bounty of excellent wines.
In the last 30 years, international wine critics (especially in the UK) were won over so completely, that $1.2 billion annual earnings and over 34, 000 hectares of vineyard are devoted to export to the UK. The wines themselves are priced at a premium, comparable or exceeding wines produced in such regions as France.
What began as a few acres of Brown Muscat in a poor mans field have blossomed into gem-like Sauvignon Blancs, and liquid gold Chardonnays that travel the world and are drunk by presidents and princes. A suitable reward for the indomitable spirit of the Kiwi’s.