We’re starting our tour of New Zealand with this FUN FACT: New Zealand is both the most isolated and smallest (by volume) wine producing country in our world. It is 1,000 miles away from its nearest neighbor, Australia, and produces just 1% of the world’s wine.
Remote and low-volume it may be, but its impact and place in our industry is certainly one to be examined.
On a personal note, I choose to travel next to New Zealand in order to decipher a distinction in the wines produced—as compared to the grown varieties’ Old World origins and to its New World neighbors (specifically the U.S., Australia, and South Africa).
For a simplified version of this material, please see the original Wine Region Overview: New Zealand. (More suited for WSET Level 3 Studies.)
With its predominantly cool maritime climate, it’s no wonder that crisp white wines are the name of the winemaking game. And if your first guess was that Sauvignon Blanc rules them all—you’d be right. As the The World Atlas of Wine (8th edition) states, “Early examples of Marlborough Sauvignon in the 1980s opened a Pandora’s box of flavor that no one could ignore and, most importantly, no other part of the world seemed able to replicate.”
Today, Sauvignon Blanc makes up about 60% of total area under vine and, as of 2018 accounts for 86% of New Zealand‘s export market. And, PS, 90% of all New Zealand wine is exported.
While the Atlas notes that New Zealand is more reliant on one grape variety than any other country, it’s also important to recognize just how long and skinny New Zealand is. It’s latitude ranges from 36° and 46,° which means there is a range of microclimates that can cater to a series of other grape varieties—notably Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Pinot Gris, as well as Bordeaux varieties and, surprisingly (at least to me) Riesling as well.
A Bit of Kiwi Wine History
Although the first grapes were planted back in 1819, wine production didn’t begin until about the 1840s. And it took even longer for New Zealand to form a thriving wine industry, even just within the country. Early English settlers preferred beer to wine and FUN FACT: the country’s beer consumption still outweighs wine at 70 liters per capita for beer and just 20 liters for wine, according to the Oxford Companion to Wine.
New Zealanders have also had to contend with the temperance movement in some form or another since 1894 until about 1987. In fact FUN FACT: New Zealand supermarkets have only been able to sell wine since 1989 after having passed the Sale of Liquor Act (creative name). Before that, sales had to channeled through hotels (at one point the country’s only liquor outlet), wine shops, and restaurants.
I think it’s interesting to note that Prohibition was never formally introduced in the country. The bill was, but the vote was always in favor of alcoholic consumption. In fact, according to New Zealand History the U.S.’s economic downturn following Prohibition greatly influenced people’s opinion on the issue.
New Zealand did experience their own depression era following the first World War. I love this quote from a winemaker as reproduced in the Oxford: “We had to sell the grapes to get the money to buy the sugar to make the wine.”
My text makes a note that New Zealand has a long-standing dairy industry that supports the country’s manufacture and export of butter and cheese. In fact, if I understand correctly, this is still their most lucrative agricultural product. What it means for wine, funnily enough, is that the strict standards regarding hygiene and temperature control for dairy farmers were easily adapted into wine production, “delivering clean, consistent, and reliable wines.” The Oxford also notes that “an efficient domestic stainless steel industry developed to serve New Zealand‘s dairy industry [which] has provided economy and ingenuity in winery tank design.” Go dairy farmers.
The Lay of the Land
As noted, New Zealand‘s latitude in the Southern Hemisphere ranges from ranges from 36° and 46.° It is both the most southernly and the most easterly wine region in the world. “If New Zealand were in the Northern Hemisphere, the country would stretch from North Africa to Paris,” the Oxford notes. “But the moderating influence of the Gulf Stream on European vineyards results in hotter growing conditions than in the vineyards of equivalent southern latitudes.”
It is the cool Pacific Ocean that moderates most of New Zealand‘s wine regions, which, again, equates to its predominantly maritime climate. The exception to the rule: Central Otago, which is completely sheltered by mountain ranges on all sides and, thus, has what is referred to as a “semi-continental” climate. More on that when we get to the South Island article.
The North and South Islands are separated by the Cook Straight and there is a general climatic distinction between the two islands: most wine regions of the South Island have a cool climate, whereas those on the northern tip of the North Island have a moderate climate.
Vineyards are mostly planted on the east side of both islands. On the South Island, the Southern Alps shelter those east-side vineyards from excessive rain and strong winds that can come in from the Tasman Sea to the west. Despite that protection, it’s noted that New Zealand’s wine regions still receive ample enough rain (650 mm per year for those who like numbers), and thus fungal diseases are a potential risk, especially in the warmer North Island.
New Zealand is also known for high UV radiation, long daylight hours and large diurnal ranges. In fact, FUN FACT: according to my text, UV radiation in NZ can be 40% higher than places of similar latitude in the Northern Hemisphere, due to (perhaps) a hole in the ozone as well as low levels of pollution (I want to live here…). And, FYI: increased UV radiation can enhance the development of wine grape colors and tannins.
INTERESTING AND SOMEWHAT AMUSING FACTOID: The early European settlers brought along black birds and song thrushes because they missed their sound. They also brought along sparrows to eat insects that would eat the crops—but these birds, too, would eat the crops. The problem is that New Zealand did not and does not have predatory birds. And so, to this day, these brought-in birds continue to be an agricultural pest.
When it comes to vineyard management…
“New Zealand is a green and pleasant land,” describes the Oxford. Put together all those sufficient rainfalls and high UV, and add in long hours of sunshine and fertile soils—it all equates to the need for diligent canopy management to prevent excessive vegetative growth, herbaceous-flavored wines, and of course mitigate fungal disease.
Vineyard managers typically train fruit zones higher than “normal” in order to prevent additional UV radiation from reflected sunlight off the soils. As you can imagine, with a high UV, sunburn is also an issue, so again canopy management, specifically leaf positioning, is extremely important. It’s noted that this higher fruit zone also aids in hand harvesting, though machine harvesting is more common on flatter vineyard sites, which the Oxford says is “the norm in a country where land is plentiful.” However, it does go on to say that with the prices the wine now commands, growers are now beginning to justify the expense and labor involved in hillside viticulture.
Typical trellising is the traditional VSP with two canes, but some large-volume producers will use use more complex trellising systems that have as many as four canes (such as Scott-Henry).
Despite low planting densities, yield per vine is actually quite high and, according to the Oxford, averages about 70 hL/ha annually. And, bonus: there are no restrictions on irrigation, vineyard management practices or yields.
Despite the good amount of rainfall, irrigation is a common practice for New Zealand growers, as many areas have free-draining alluvial soils and experience strong winds that increase evapotranspiration. Catch 22 AHEAD: Planting trees as wind breaks/barriers is a natural way to decrease affects of wind but…but….THE BIRDS!!!!!
Additional risks: “Unsettled weather,” as my text describes it, brought to you by the South Pacific whose tropical cyclones cause issues with flower and fruit set and harvest if/when it happens during those seasons.
NOTE: There is a growing interest in organic and biodynamic viticulture. About 10% of NZ producers hold organic certifications. The country also created Sustainable Winegrowing New Zealand — an initiative which includes an independently audited certification program focused on environmental, social, and economic factors.
LET’S MAKE WINE!!!!!!
WOHOO: With no GI-specific winemaking regulations, experimentation with different techniques to create new styles is quite common. And chapitilization is allowed and is common to help kick-start ferment during particularly cool vintages.
The Oxford notes that a further disadvantage of being a remote island is that winemaking equipment is quite costly to import into New Zealand. But, as noted, the country does domestically manufacture its own stainless steel tanks. This is extremely helpful, as typical Sauvignon Blanc is made with low fermentation temperatures and in neutral vessel (usually stainless) to retain all those primary notes and Interesting Factoid: cultured yeasts are used to enhance the aromatic profile. ML, oak ferment, and oak aging are all avoided.
BUT new-fangled SB as well as other whites (mentioned above) may be made with barrel ferment, lees stirring, and either partial or full ML (really?). Some kids are experimenting with skin contact as well, leaving percentages of production in contact with skins for up to two months to add texture and aroma. AND increasingly common among small-volume producers is the use of high levels solids in fermentation, ambient yeast strains, skin contact or oak aging. Let’s meet these guys.
White wines are made in a full range of sweetness levels, with the use of noble rot for premium Semillon (question: where is Semillon grown in NZ?) and Riesling. Some producers simply use long hang time to meet the sweet or the winemaker may let fermentation stop naturally or halt fermentation using SO2 and filtration.
High-volume, fresh/fruity red winemaking is probably as you’d suspect: mid-range fermentation temperatures, cultured yeasts. Premium red winemakers (your producers of Pinot Noirs and Syrahs) are supposedly playing around with varying percentages of whole bunch-inclusion during fermentation which TASTING NOTE: provides an herbal or floral note. With Pinot Noir a pre-ferment cold soak is common to help extract more color and aroma, and the wines are usually matured in large oak. If talking about your full-bodied Bordeaux varieties, these guys are typically matured in French oak barriques. Extraction during fermentation of red wines varies depending on the specific variety and desired style.
SOMETHING WORTH MEMORIZING: This is taken from the Atlas, as when I read it, I thought, “This is worth memorizing.” (Actually, that’s exactly what I wrote in the margin…)
“The four main Pinot regions —Marlborough, Martinborough, Central Otago, and Canterbury — each have their own styles, but New Zealand’s Pinot is generally as easy to appreciate as its Sauvignon [Blanc].”
SCREWCAPS FOR EVERYONE! Even premium wine producers: According to the Oxford 99% of all NZ wines are sealed this way due to history with TCA as well as incidence of premature oxidation and bottle variation. In fact, in 2001, New Zealand producers founded the New Zealand Screwcap Wine Seal Initiative “to assist members with any technical aspects of application and to promote the new seal to an often skeptical market locally and in export markets.” (the Oxford).
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