New Zealand: New Shores

Sauvignon Blanc remains the benchmark for wines from New Zealand, but new developments are emerging. Eckhard Hillmann reports.

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Ceres Wines (Photo: NZ wines)
Ceres Wines (Photo: NZ wines)

 

  • The most important grape varieties are Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir.
  • Excellent wines are produced especially on the South Island in the wine-growing regions of Marlborough and Central Otago.
  • 96% of the vineyards are cultivated sustainably.
  • Winemakers from Europe + US have invested, including Constellation, Pernod Ricard and LVMH.
  • Some large producers, such as Brancott and Estate Villa Maria, produce over half a million hl per year.
  • In total, between 260 and 330 million litres are produced, most of which is exported. Only 50 million litres remain in the country.

 

When Charles Darwin discovered vines in New Zealand on his world tour that began in 1831, he could not have guessed that this small island nation would one day develop into one of the most important wine-growing countries in the New World. Unlike its Pacific neighbour Australia, however, the road there was arduous and rocky. For more than a century, there were repeated moves to prohibit alcohol consumption.

New Zealand made its mark in Europe with a Sauvignon Blanc that is now one of the country's cult wines - Cloudy Bay. With its concentrated, intensely grassy, tropical fruit, Cloudy Bay introduced a new style of Sauvignon Blanc and made this variety the flagship wine of New Zealand. Promptly, the winery was taken over by Veuve Clicquot in the early 90s.

Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir are the most important grape varieties

In New Zealand today, 40,323 ha are planted with vines, of which 25,326 ha are planted with Sauvignon Blanc - this corresponds to 78% of the white wine varieties and 63% of the country's total wine production.

Among the red wine varieties, Pinot Noir dominates the scene, accounting for 73% of red wine production. Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah make up the remainder, with Syrah from Gimblet Gravels in Hawkes Bay attracting particular interest due to its origin.

Sauvignon Blanc is in short supply

First high prices, then no availability

Further expansion could be curbed by the extremely small harvest of 2021. In Marlborough alone, a spring frost caused crop losses of up to 30% according to a representative of Pernod Ricard, owner of Brancott Estate, one of the country's largest producers. Stocks are running low, and there is a growing global demand for Sauvignon Blanc in general and from New Zealand in particular.

Since the beginning of 2021, the price per hectolitre for Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc had risen from around 300 to 414 euros by mid-year. Since then, no prices have been quoted on the bulk wine market because there are no sufficient quantities available.

The rising prices are also due to the lack of labour, caused by the country's strict entry restrictions in response to the Corona pandemic.

This gap could, for example, be filled by the Loire and by Chile, which can gain a share on the world market with crisp, fruity Sauvignon Blancs, for example from Limari or the Casablanca Valley, at comparatively low prices. These customers who have strayed would then have to be won back once the cellars are full again.  

Well-known winegrowing regions on the South Island:

 

Marlborough...

Marlborough is a superlative winegrowing region in the north of the South Island, even though the South Island has only been planted with vines since 1973. 28,630 ha are now cultivated in the region, which corresponds to about 70% of the entire wine production. 22,777 ha are dedicated to Sauvignon Blanc. Well-known addresses are Seresin Estate, Dog Point Vineyard or Clos Henri.

...and Central Otago

Pinot Noir has made the Central Otago winegrowing region in the deepest south famous. Of the total 5,779 ha of Pinot Noir vines, 1,626 are in Central Otago. With a total of 2,024 ha of vineyards, more than 75% are planted with Pinot Noir. The Pinot Noirs from champion wineries like Felton Road or Rippon are among the best in the country.

Central Otago, with its diverse soil structures, offers a paradise for terroir-driven Pinot Noirs. Research and tastings have shown that Pinot Noirs from the Bannockburn, Bendigo and Lake Wanaka sub-regions, for example, differ and each has its own unique characteristics. Some of the most important organic or biodynamic wineries in the country are located here, such as Quartz Reef, Felton Road, Aurum Wine and Rippon, which is said to be the most photographed winery in the world.

Unlike other regions of New Zealand, Pinot Gris, Chardonnay and Riesling set the tone among the white varieties and Sauvignon Blanc plays only a minor role in Central Otago.

Fromm Vineyard (Photo: NZ wines)
Fromm Vineyard (Photo: NZ wines)

Focus on sustainability

In one respect, New Zealand was and is ahead of many winegrowing regions in the world. As early as the mid-1990s, a national program for sustainable economics in viticulture was launched, and today, 25 years later, it is bearing fruit. Already 96% of the country's vineyards are farmed sustainably, with 100% firmly in sight.

Many wineries are transitioning to organic or biodynamic viticulture, such as Felton Road, Clos Henri, Dog Point Vineyard, Schubert, Fromm and Quartz Reef. They have organized themselves as the OWNZ, the Organic Winegrowers New Zealand. They are also increasingly relying on natural yeasts to better emphasize the origin and terroir and to push technology into the background. Seresin Estate in Marlborough and the Quartz Reef winery in Central Otago are proponents of this trend.

Partners from Europe

The attractive conditions for viticulture in New Zealand also attracted winemakers from Europe in the 1990s, who set up wineries there or at least established a branch to their wine businesses in the Old World. The Swabian Kai Schubert from Waiblingen, for example, found ideal conditions here for his favoured grape variety, Pinot Noir. Or the Sauvignon Blanc specialist Henri Bourgeois from the Loire, who is one of New Zealand's established greats with his Clos Henri in Marlborough. The Austrian Rudi Bauer and his Quartz Reef winery in Central Otago also provide a good example of founding a successful winery in this propitious land, as does Berthold Salomon of the established Undhof Salomon in Krems, who collaborates with the New Zealand winemaker Chris Andrew.

 

 

"The diversity of soils, coupled with a wide variety of Cool Climates are an El Dorado for any winemaker"

From small to large: diverse structures and yields

Statistically, each winery cultivates just under 19 ha, but in fact that's only half the truth. While Marlborough's nearly 30,000 ha of vines are shared by 159 wineries, Central Otago's nearly 2,000 ha are cultivated by 134 growers, a clear sign of the region's appeal.

Because New Zealand is subject to more extreme climate fluctuations than other New World wine-producing countries, maximum yields per hectare vary from 7.6 tons/ha to 12 tons. In New Zealand, winemakers believe that higher yields are not necessarily detrimental to good or even excellent quality.

New Zealand has only a few truly large producers, such as Brancott Estate, Delegats (makers of Oyster Bay), the Constellation-owned Kim Crawford and Villa Maria. Of the 731 wineries, 645 produce less than 200,000 litres of wine per year, while 67 are between 200,000 and 4 million litres. Only 19 wineries bottle more than 4 m litres. Due to the climate, annual production varies between 260 and 330 m litres, of which almost 50 m litres remain in the country.

Important export countries

The most important export countries in terms of volume are the USA, the United Kingdom and - surprisingly - Australia. The latter was not always the case, because the two nations did not always consider each other in the matter of wine, but it is Sauvignon Blanc that accounts for the lion's share of exports there. Germany ranks 4th with a rather modest 13.5 m litres compared to 80.3, 80 and 65.8 m litres respectively for US, UK and Australia.

In terms of total value, the order remains the same for the top 3 countries, but Canada replaces Germany for 4th position. The average price per litre across all exports is €4.12 although this varies with the destination markets. Singapore, China and Hong Kong pay more than double this average: €9.38, €8.54 and €8.51/l respectively.

Outlook: What does the future hold?

Of course, Sauvignon Blanc will continue to play the dominant role, but there will be changes. In addition to the tropical fruit-dominant versions, there will increasingly be wines on the market that are produced with less technology and a stronger emphasis on their origin. Chardonnay and Pinot Gris are waiting in the wings to prove that New Zealand can do more than just Sauvignon Blanc. The exploration of Pinot Gris should be exciting, because the wines are produced more in the full-bodied style of Alsace as opposed to the light character inherent in the Pinot Grigios of northern Italy. 

Pinot Noir from New Zealand has long become a staple in many overseas portfolios. But Syrah from Hawkes Bay, especially that from the exclusive "Cru" Gimblett Gravels with its gravely soils comparable to the Haut-Médoc, is still awaiting its big discovery.

New Zealand is eager to experiment; plantings of Grüner Veltliner, Albarino or Malbec have long existed, not to mention the approximately 600 ha of Riesling. Think Pink - the hype about rosé has also long since reached New Zealand, Brightwater, Te Pa, or Hunky Dory are just a few examples.

What occasionally causes concern are the fluctuating exchange rates of the New Zealand dollar, for example against the euro.

New Zealand at a Glance

Vineyard area: 40,323 ha (32,493 ha white, 7,830 ha red)

Main grape varieties:

  • White: Sauvignon Blanc - 25,326 ha (63% of total production)
  • Red: Pinot Noir - 5,779 ha (14% of total production)

Largest region:

  • Marlborough with 28,360 ha (70% of total production)
  • Of which 22,777 ha Sauvignon Blanc (56% of total production)

Number of vineyards: 2032
Wineries: 731
Winegrowers/grape suppliers: 732
Average cultivation area: approx. 19 ha
Domestic consumption per capita: 17.7 litres, of which 9.6 litres NZ wine
Annual production 2021: 266.4 m litres, of which domestic sales 49.2 m litres

Main markets:

  • USA (80,252 m litres / €364 m)
  • UK (80,005 m litres / €273 m)
  • Australia (65,819 m litres / €235 m)
  • Germany (13,503 m litres / €35 m)

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