New Zealand is one of the youngest wine producing countries, yet its products are the stalwarts of many international wine cellars. We discover how this happened.
Ask anyone in the UK or in the US for that matter, which country they associate with sauvignon blanc – or even pinot noir these days – and chances are, they’ll say New Zealand; much to the dismay of the French. When you consider that Sancerre, the famous French white wine that has been the darling of international wine lists since the 1930’s, is made with sauvignon blanc, you’ll realise just how good a job New Zealand has done on cornering the sauvignon market. Kiwi sauvignon has brought along with it a new style of pinot noir; Burgundy-esque but with a touch more body and fruit. And chardonnay too; striking the balance between more fruitiness and high quality. And now the market loves these grapes from this country, we’re trusting New Zealand with pinot gris, gewurztraminer, albarino and other grapes that are still more famous elsewhere… for now.
Perhaps it’s the uninterrupted vistas across green lands, vast stretches of sea and the unbelievably fresh air you’ll find in this part of the world that has helped to catch our attention? The simplicity of the labelling and the clean, fruit-forward style of new Zealand wine seems to mirror the country it comes from in its generosity of flavour, yet high quality and no-nonsense approach. Add to that a burgeoning food scene, luxury accommodation surrounded by little else other than nature and we are totally in love with New Zealand as a wine, food and travel destination.
New Zealand feels like a relative newcomer to the wine producing scene, but records show the first official planting to have taken place in 1819 in the Bay of Islands. What followed was the arrival of enigmatic Scotsman James Busby however, a winemaker who’d made his name in Australia and who’d seen the potential on the other side of the Tasman Sea and started making wine to be sold to the British army. The winemaking industry steadily developed afterwards but waned after the phylloxera vine epidemic and Prohibition (amongst other delights). It picked up in the 1960s when international investment was followed by vast improvements in equipment and techniques.
The new age for New Zealand wine was about to begin. The winemaking potential of the Marlborough region was uncovered in the 1970s when a report was released and prompted the first commercial plantings. In these early tests, sauvignon blanc and chardonnay produced the most distinctive wines. It was in the late 1980s however, when Australian wine imports began to impose themselves on the domestic New Zealand market that Kiwi wine producers stepped up and launched an impressive export drive, which as we now know, was incredibly effective.
About this time, long after James Busby, came another iconic winemaker from Australia in the mid 1980’s in the form of pioneer Dave Hohnen Dave Hohnen; founder of the successful Cape Mentelle winery in Western Australia. Impressed by the samples of New Zealand sauvignon blancs he’d tasted, Hohnen established a winery named Cloudy Bay in Marlborough and produced a powerful sauvignon blanc that because of his reputation in Australia, was readily received at home and abroad. The rest is history; Cloudy Bay introduced the world to a rather different style of sauvignon that was easy to love and the rest of the country followed suit. First Marlborough, then Central Otago and other key wine regions with their own varietal expressions emerged to make wines that now rival the most famous in the world. Not bad for the new kid on the block...