Vinifera varieties dominated the fledgling wine industry in nineteenth-century New Zealand. Much of the accumulated knowledge about growing these classical varieties disappeared during the first two decades of the twentieth century when the wine industry declined. The industry’s period of modest growth from the 1920s was propelled by lesser varieties – first by the American Vitis labrusca varieties and then by the hybrid varieties. Romeo Bragato had imported American vines into New Zealand when he was charged with combating the phylloxera that he had discovered. He grafted vinifera varieties that would produce fine wine on to disease-resistant rootstock. But when he left New Zealand in 1909 and his grafting programme was abandoned, the labrusca vines were planted on their own roots.
The Concord sport, Albany Surprise, for a long period the most common New Zealand table grape, derived from these vines. From the mid-1850s, plant breeders in France experimented with crossing Vitis labrusca and other American vines with Vitis vinifera. They were attempting to breed vines bearing grapes with interesting characteristics, and to provide wine varieties more resistant to the fungus disease oidium that was seriously affecting the French vineyards. Some interesting hybrids resulted, especially from the plant breeder Seibel, but they all had a flavour derived from the labrusca parentage. It became known as ‘foxy’. It was not surprising that the disease-resistant hybrids found their way to New Zealand. In the 1930s and 1940s, when vineyard area was beginning to expand, they were distributed from the Te Kauwhata Viticultural Research Station and planted widely.
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The first reliable statistics, in 1960, show the varietal mix that had resulted from the plantings of the period from the 1920s (Table 3.2). Hybrids dominated. Almost 50 per cent of the vines in production in 1960 were hybrid grapes. Seibel 5455 was the dominant red hybrid, and Baco 22A the dominant white. Among the vinifera varieties, Palomino and Chasselas each had about 20 hectares, and the Riesling-Sylvaner cross (now called Muller Thurgau in New Zealand) just under 20 hectares. Palomino is used in Europe to make sherry in very warm climates; and Chasselas, a variety with low acid, is used mainly for bulk wines, usually in cool climates. Both have the advantage of being reasonably resistant to diseases and are heavy croppers. The Ministry of Agriculture vineyard survey of 1960 recorded just 3 hectares of Chardonnay being grown in New Zealand and 6 hectares of Cabernet Sauvignon, almost all of them in Hawke’s Bay. Considering this unpromising base, the development, in the next 30 years, of an industry producing quality table wines from almost all of the best varieties is a notable achievement.
The hybrid varieties, especially the Seibel 5455 and 5437 together with Baco 22A, survived for some time. As late as 1980, with Palomino added, they made up a larger area of the national vineyard than all other varieties combined. During the initial expansion of vineyard area in the 1960s and 1970s the hybrids continued to be planted in substantial numbers. In 1975 there were almost 500 hectares of hybrids in production compared with 179 hectares of Cabernet Sauvignon and 52 hectares of Chardonnay. But it was the vinifera cross, Muller Thurgau, which dominated the planting of vines in the 1970s. By 1980 there were 1819 hectares of that grape growing in New Zealand – 737 in Hawke’s Bay, 638 in Gisborne and 324 in Marlborough. No other variety reached 100 hectares in Marlborough and only 33 hectares of Sauvignon Blanc was planted there by 1980. The Riesling-Sylvaner cross known as Muller Thurgau was dominating even the exciting new regions (Table 3.3).
The dominance of Muller Thurgau during the 1970s is striking. It reflects the requirements of the New Zealand industry in that period. Muller Thurgau grows well over much of New Zealand and is relatively disease free. It yields well. It is not difficult to attain over 20 tonnes per hectare and have fruit of reasonable quality. In the early 1980s much of New Zealand wine was marketed in 4- to 6-litre cardboard casks and Riesling- Sylvaner was the dominant variety in these. As companies competed for market share and the demand for simple, fruity table wine was growing, the large producers could not afford to neglect it. Some companies, led by Nobilo, very successfully marketed their Muller Thurgau in bottles, a feat that they were later to repeat with their very successful 1990s promotion of the label White Cloud – initially Muller Thurgau and Muscat in another guise.
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