Johnson’s memory of the taste cannot be doubted. Yet the speculations in his second paragraph are flattering but flawed. New Zealand does not, even with the ‘perhaps inserted, have similar potential for any grape variety. Varieties such as Grenache, Mourvedre and Carignan, that for centuries have dominated the hot climates of the Mediterranean regions of France, are difficult to ripen in New Zealand. New Zealand’s latitude does not correspond to the places in the northern hemisphere where fine wines were born. Very little wine is produced from vines grown on volcanic soils in New Zealand, and the Sauvignon Blanc wine was certainly not ‘calculated to demonstrate all this’. Its intense fruit flavours resulted from a complex interaction of the variety with the climate and soils and culture of the place where these grapes were grown – the very essence of the French word terroir.
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Johnson is on the right track about New Zealand climates when he states that in many places warm days are followed by cool nights, the recipe for concentrated fruit flavours, although even this claim is difficult to verify when the minimum temperatures after the onset of ripening are compared between Burgundy and the Pinot Noir regions of New Zealand. In winegrowing terms, New Zealand is on the climatic edge. But its marginality has little to do directly with latitude and everything to do with the country’s narrow shape, terrain, and the maritime climate which results. New Zealand is able to ripen only some varieties of Vitis vinifera – those that originated in the cooler climates and prestigious appellations of middle and northern France. And in some years many of the regions developed by New Zealand winegrowers struggle to ripen even those.
As the Romans planted the Mediterranean varieties of Vitis vinifera in the Rhone-Saone Valley, and towards Bordeaux on the west coast, these precocious vines crossed with the indigenous grape varieties of Gaul. Those crosses of Vitis vinifera that ripened in the cooler climates of northern France and on the maritime west coast, as well as producing grapes and wines with desirable flavours, were nurtured, propagated and reproduced, often by layering them, using canes from mature vines. Over hundreds of years, the varieties that proved successful gradually became dominant in different localities and regions until during the first third of the twentieth century they were prescribed for each region in the Appellation d’Origine Controlee laws.
With no restrictions on which varieties are planted where in New Zealand, we have seen that varietal specialisation by region is emerging. Two questions are relevant. Where in France are the varieties grown that now dominate the New Zealand industry? What can we learn about natural environmental influences on the localisation of the vine in New Zealand by comparing them with France, especially their climates? This leads to an exploration of the way in which New Zealand grape growers have drawn on science and experience to wrestle with the complexities of a variable environment.
French varieties in their cool climates
The regional distribution of the six French varieties that dominate production in New Zealand helps make sense of the relationship between varieties and climate. Sauvignon Blanc is the main white grape in the upper Loire Valley in the hinterland of Sancerre and Pouilly, and also in Bordeaux where it is commonly blended with Semillon in both the dry Graves and the sweet Sauternes. Pinot Noir, considered by many to be the finest red wine grape, is also versatile. It is the main red variety of eastern France, notably in Burgundy, and is planted over 300 kilometres from Champagne in the north to Les Maranges in southern Burgundy. Chardonnay is the principal white variety of Burgundy, from Chablis in the departement of Yonne to the Maconnais, also a north-south distance approaching 300 kilometres. By being the second most important variety in Champagne, Chardonnay also extends its latitudinal range and, with Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier, provides complexity in blends of Champagne as well as in the Blanc de Blancs – Champagnes made from varieties with both white skins and flesh. Pinot Gris, the fourth most-planted variety in New Zealand, and Riesling the sixth, are both Alsatian varieties. Merlot, the fifth most important in New Zealand, has increasingly become the mainstay of the red wine industry of Bordeaux at the expense of Cabernet Sauvignon. The same trend has happened in Hawke’s Bay.
The dominant varieties in New Zealand, therefore, are among those that in the French appellation system are referred to as being locaux, loyaux, et constants in the regions where they are authorised. They are the varieties that occupy one or more of six regions that extend over this broad sweep of French territory from the Atlantic coast of Bordeaux, through the upper reaches of the Loire at Sancerre, into Burgundy in central France, and to Alsace and Champagne in the northeast of the country. Although the distances are considerable, these are among the French regions that are categorised as having cool climates and have reputations for producing fine wines. Each of them has its own climate, but as a group they have strong similarities. Their climatic similarity is one reason many wine writers and publicists attempt to differentiate the wine regions and sub-regions of France by the individuality of their soils.