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New Zealand Wines – Nobody does it better!!

February 27, 2024 by Antone Boustani

At first glance, the history of wine in New Zealand looks short - very short. Wines made from classic European grape varieties have only been widely available since the 1980s and only since the 1990s have the country’s Sauvignon Blancs and – later - pinot noirs carved out a significant presence in international markets.

Yet the grapevine was a common sight in the early colonists’ gardens, and by the time of the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi in 1840, the first recorded New Zealand wine was already bottled.  Wine has in fact had a long, tortuous, and fascinating history in New Zealand.

Samuel Marsden, an Anglican missionary, made the first recorded planting of grapevines at the Bay of Islands in 1819.  The earliest recorded winemaker was Scotsman James Busby, appointed the first British Resident in New Zealand.  When the French explorer, Dumont d’Urville, visited Busby at Waitangi in 1840, he was given “a light white wine, very sparkling and delicious to taste...”

French priests and peasants, Hawke's Bay pastoralists, Croatian gum-diggers and others preserved the flame ignited by Busby throughout the 19th century.  But the assaults of oidium (powdery mildew), the vine-destroying phylloxera aphid, and prohibitionist zealots together ensured that the early dreams of a flourishing antipodean wine industry faded.

The 1920s and ‘30s witnessed gradual but unspectacular growth.  The wine industry boomed during the Second World War - when duties were raised on imported wines – and expansion continued. During the 1950s and ‘60s, due to a string of legislative concessions by successive governments, including major reductions in the minimum amounts of wine that could be sold by winemakers, approval for more retail outlets, and the licensing of restaurants to sell wine in 1960.

An outstanding feature of the 1960s and 1970s was heavy investment by overseas companies, Australian and American.  The 1970s also brought an overall improvement in wine quality and heavy emphasis on the production of light, fruity, slightly sweet white wines, based on the heavy-cropping variety, muller-thurgau.
In recent decades, most Kiwi wine drinkers have developed a taste for fully dry wines, made from such classic varieties as Sauvignon Blanc, chardonnay, pinot gris and pinot noir, which now dominate the industry’s output.  Wine has played a key role in the emergence of the country’s thriving café culture. 

New Zealand wineries originally set out to serve the small domestic market, operating within a highly regulated economy.  But in 1985 the government moved to speed up the removal of barriers against overseas wines, allowing Australian wineries to contest the New Zealand market on an equal footing by 1990. 

Spurred into action by their heavy loss of domestic market share, the winemakers launched a sustained export drive.  The value of New Zealand’s wine exports has skyrocketed from $NZ18 million in 1990, to a forecasted rise to $2 billion by 2020.          

New wine companies are mushrooming, from Northland to Central Otago.  Thirty years ago, there were fewer than 100 New Zealand wineries; today the ranks have swollen to over 670.  The wine industry is forever abuzz with the excitement of new companies, new faces, new labels. 

Samuel Marsden observed almost 200 years ago that “New Zealand promises to be very favourable to the vine”.  His prediction has lately been brilliantly fulfilled. 

Exports surged to NZ$2.4bn (£1.14bn) in the 12 months to 30 June 2023, which represents the largest one-year growth in the industry’s history.

Clive Jones, chairman of New Zealand Winegrowers, said, ‘The New Zealand wine industry is now the most export-focused of all the world’s wine industries, with close to 90% of sales occurring outside our home market. The $450 million growth in export value in the past year testifies to the strong consumer demand for New Zealand wine in key markets, particularly Sauvignon Blanc.

‘Performance of other styles struggle to match this pace, but in export markets and at home, our range of highly distinctive wine styles is a critical contributor to our reputation as a producer of the first rank.’

Exports were up 19% in terms of volume and 23% by value, which suggests that wine lovers are prepared to pay a premium for quality New Zealand wines. The United States remained the country’s largest export market, as sales increased by 25% to NZ$870m in the past year. Further growth is expected over the next 12 months, and forecasts suggest that it could soon become a billion-dollar market.

Winemakers also welcomed a new free trade agreement between the UK and New Zealand, which removes several technical trade barriers on wine shipments. They hope that a similar agreement with the EU will come into force in early 2024.

However, it will be difficult for Kiwi producers to maintain current levels of growth over the coming year. The country’s overall harvest was down 6% in 2023 compared to the previous year, largely due to the impact of Cyclone Gabrielle. Production in Gisborne was down 43% year-on-year due to the cyclone, while Hawke’s Bay was also impacted, albeit to a lesser degree.

‘Climate change is clearly one of the key major challenges facing our sector,’ warned Jones, who added that budbreak and harvests are now occurring earlier each year. It threatens to impact the distinctive characteristics and flavours of New Zealand’s wines, which have underpinned its success in export markets.

To address the challenge, winemakers are researching new planting material and vineyard growing systems to increase productivity and to meet the challenges of a climate-altered world. Wine storage has become part of the discussion.

The return of inflation has been another headwind, as well as rising excise duties and increasing water costs, so there are plenty of challenges facing the industry.

On a brighter note, tourism numbers have rebounded, providing a significant boost to many small wineries, which heavily depend on visitors, many of them being wine storers and consumers. Open borders have also eased the labour shortages which plagued the industry during the Covid-19 pandemic. New Zealand Winegrowers remains confident that sales will continue to grow over the next decade, supporting more jobs and ultimately creating a more sustainable industry.

Sauvignon Blanc
It was no secret to us that Sauvignon Blanc is the most popular wine in New Zealand. Sauvignon Blanc accounts for over 70% of New Zealand’s total wine production.  Not only that, New Zealand exports over 85% of its Sauvignon Blanc outside the country.  That is why Sauvignon Blanc is New Zealand’s signature grape.

Why is Sauvignon Blanc No 1 in New Zealand?
One of the main reasons that Sauvignon Blanc is the most popular wine in New Zealand is its incredible taste!  It has a fresh, crisp palette with pronounced citrus flavours including grapefruit and lime as well as subtle tropical fruits like passionfruit.  

New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc is an easy drinking, refreshing wine that makes it ideal as a summer patio drink. It is also a perfect pairing for seafood or poultry.

Where is Marlborough, New Zealand?
Marlborough is pretty much in the geographical centre of New Zealand.  It comprises about 12,500 square kilometres (nearly 5,000 square miles) at the northeastern end of the South Island.  

Most of this land is rugged mountains and forested hills, and only a small portion in the valleys is suitable for growing grapes.

Blenheim is the economic and administrative centre of Marlborough.  It is referred to as the gateway of the Marlborough wine region. With a relatively small population of around 30,000, it is a great place to stay to discover the wineries of the region.  

We spent a couple of days here at a vacation rental property owned by a lovely local couple. It was a great spot to use as our base to travel around Marlborough.

What Makes Marlborough So Special for Sauvignon Blanc Grapes?
The unique flavour of Sauvignon Blanc from Marlborough is attributable to the country’s cool climate combined with lots of sunshine.  This is enhanced by the ocean breezes and distinctive terroir (soil) composed of sand and silt left by the receding glaciers.  

The rugged mountains surrounding the fertile wine valleys of Marlborough protect the vineyards from strong winds and frost helping to create a warm, sunny and dry climate that is ideal for growing the best Sauvignon Blanc grapes.

 Including Marlborough, New Zealand has 10 different wine regions spread across both islands.  Each region is unique and specializes in different wines due to the diverse nature of New Zealand’s climate and geography. 

 Here is a list of the 10 wine regions of New Zealand:

Wine Region Location Specialty
Auckland North Island Bordeaux style blends, Chardonnay, Syrah
Canterbury/Waipara South Island Pinot Noir, Riesling, Chardonnay
Central Otago South Island Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Pinot Gris, Riesling
Gizborne North Island Chardonnay
Hawkes Bay North Island Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot blends, Chardonnay
Marlborough South Island Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Pinot Gris
Northland North Island Chardonnay
Weikeke Island North Island Bordeaux Style Red blends
Wairarapa North Island Pinot Noir, Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay
Nelson South Island Pinot Noir, Riesling, Pinot Gris, Chardonnay

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Antone Boustani

Antone joined the Kennards Self Storage in 2012 as a Team Support Manager. Progressing to the roles of NSW Rostering Co-ordinator and Waterloo Centre manager led to the position of NSW Operations Manager in 2019. Antone has gained leadership skills at previous roles as a Manager at KFC and Decorug and did run his own business a Deli / Fruit shop called Naremburn Natural. He loves that we are the people that care and how that is achieved through procedures that enable our teams to offer great customer service. He is invested in improving himself and the team around him and believes that doing what you love is the key. Outside work Antone loves travelling overseas as much as getting on the open road and you can find him watching any type of sport but especially cricket.

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