Regional and Varietal Revolution
In the second half of the twentieth century the regional distribution and varietal mix of New Zealand winegrowing was transformed. From an initial base in Auckland and Hawke’s Bay in the 1960s, substantial areas in vines have been planted in turn in Gisborne, Marlborough, the Wairarapa, Central Otago and parts of Canterbury. The vine also has established a noticeable presence in the Auckland region at locations beyond its traditional base in West Auckland around Matakana and on Waiheke Island; in the Waikato at Te Kauwhata; and in Nelson.
Contemporaneously with this regional expansion, New Zealand winegrowers changed the varietal mix from hybrids and varieties suitable for fortified wine to the varieties of Vitis vinifera that flourished in the cooler and northern wine-producing regions of France. By the early twenty-first century, each New Zealand region was showing signs of developing its own specialisations in varieties of grapes and in the style of wines being produced.
South Island New Zealand Map Photo Gallery
In the 1960s and 1970s, very little was known about which varieties should be grown where in New Zealand, or the viticultural practices needed to produce grapes with the qualities to make table wines of distinction. Some individuals and organisations subsequently commissioned studies of the suitability of particular localities and regions for grape growing. Examples are those by Derek Milne, Wayne Thomas and the late John Marris, and the
Templars Hill, Mt Difficulty, Central Otago. Matt Dicey
Department of Scientific and Industrial Research and Ministry of Agriculture trials. But even these studies were noticeably silent or unreliable about which particular varieties to plant in different regions. They were often designed to convince people to invest in vine growing in these places rather than to assess growing conditions for particular varieties.
The varietal specialisation that has emerged in different New Zealand localities and regions has resulted mainly from trial and error by the enterprises planting the grapes and by the demands of the market. As the vine was planted in untried regions, few aspiring winegrowers examined all the available scientific evidence and maps and decided ‘this is where this variety should be grown’. Rather, grape varieties considered suitable for the locality were planted and growers and winemakers demonstrated that they were able to produce grapes with the desired qualities to make distinctive and appealing wines. Montana’s success in Marlborough with Sauvignon Blanc is an excellent example.
Each of the regions successively colonised by the vine required new learning – with regard to soils of different structure and textures, drainage characteristics, moisture retention, and climates with different seasonal nuances. The pioneering family firms in localities such as Martinborough, Central Otago and parts of Canterbury were seldom sure when they first planted grapes whether they had chosen the right sites or whether they would be successful. In Central Otago, for example, three of the pioneering enterprises – Rippon Vineyards, Chard Farm and Gibbston Valley -have all made excellent still wine from Pinot Noir. The last two have now decided to extend their vineyards or source grapes from localities of Central Otago more recently colonised by the vine where growers from sub-regions such as the Bendigo Terraces have demonstrated their ability to ripen Pinot Noir more consistently.
The major New Zealand companies, alongside the small winemaking firms, have been crucial influences on the dispersion of viticulture in New Zealand. Not only did they invest in the regions, but through letting contracts to grape growers the major firms have helped transform how grapes are grown. For many grape growers, choice of varieties has since been strongly influenced by the advice, even insistence, of the buyers – the winemaking enterprises – which, informally and in written contracts, have specified their preferences. In the early stages of the development of the industry, when grapes were in short supply, almost any fruit were acceptable. Today, the growing of different grape varieties to meet a specified number of tonnes per hectare, often with sugar levels and acidity also specified by bands, is standard practice.
Many of these grape-growing families – especially in Gisborne, Hawke’s Bay and Marlborough – were landowners with experience of growing other crops. Talking about what attracted his family into growing grapes, Phil Rose of Wairau River Wines said: ‘We’ve been growing things all our lives really. It was just something different. Vines are relatively easy things to grow once you understand the sort of philosophy of a vineyard. The industry survivors now have more than 30 years of experience producing grapes for wine during times when the demands of the wine companies have been escalating. As corporate firms write ever more sophisticated contracts that require, for instance, low and precise yields of Pinot Noir for their premium wines, these grape growers have the understanding of canopy management to respond. They know the environment of the land they own. Many who entered as grape growers have since started their own wineries. Grape growing and winemaking families on their own holdings are equally as skilled – some would claim more skilled – in integrating the quality of grapes required to suit the style of wine they seek. Experience and learning on the ground by winemakers and grape growers have driven the varietal and regional revolutions in New Zealand.