Rotorua New Zealand Map

The rise of the classical vinifera varieties

Yet the evidence was there, in the plantings and in the wines, that the mainstays of the European industry – the viniferas – would also produce the best wines here and dominate the New Zealand industry. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, two winemakers in particular – Alex Corban and Denis Kasza (working with Tom McDonald) – began to experiment with and produce varietal wines from Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay respectively, or Pinot Chardonnay as it was then called.

The quality of the McDonald’s Cabernet Sauvignon was readily apparent in the Bakano, marketed first in bottles and later casks, but it was fully confirmed when McWilliam’s bottled it as the varietal Cabernet Sauvignon. All the wine commentators of the time, and the books on the industry since, applauded its quality and impact. The 1965 McWilliam’s Cabernet Sauvignon is legendary. This potential was demonstrated in other regions with the excellent Cabernet Sauvignons and Pinot Noirs that were made by Nick Nobilo from Huapai, West Auckland grapes, especially the Cabernet and other blends of 1976. Glimpses of Romeo Bragato’s enthusiastic reading of the potential for many regions of New Zealand to produce fine wines had begun to emerge.

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The transformation of the varietal mix of the New Zealand industry had begun in the early 1980s but was hastened by the vine-pull scheme of 1986. Because it was newly established, by 1980 Marlborough already had a larger area in Chardonnay, Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc, Gewurztraminer, Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinotage and Pinot Noir than Hawke’s Bay. Gisborne had the largest area in Chardonnay, Gewurztraminer and Pinot Noir of any region. The varietal mix at any date was strongly influenced, therefore, by the history and the stage of viticultural development of each region. Varieties removed by winemakers and grape growers during the vine-pull also gave a good indication of the direction of the industry. In descending order the varieties removed were Muller Thurgau (507 ha), Palomino (137 ha), Gewurztraminer (109 ha), Chenin Blanc (98 ha), Riesling (97 ha) and Cabernet Sauvignon (62 ha). The large area of Cabernet is surprising but was influenced by enterprises with cash-flow problems which needed the money to survive, as well as by adjustments in regions where this variety is difficult to ripen. The early dominance by variety was soon to change as new vineyards were planted in Hawke’s Bay, new regions were developed, and the opportunities of replanting were realised.

Regional specialisation in varieties

By the 1990s, some regional specialisation in varieties was apparent in the larger regions (Table 3.3). In 1990, Muller Thurgau was still the dominant variety in Gisborne, Hawke’s Bay and Marlborough, but the future was clear because Chardonnay was the second most-planted variety in two regions and the third in the rest of the country. By 2000, Sauvignon Blanc had streaked ahead in Marlborough but Chardonnay was the top variety in all three other regions. Gisborne trumpets itself as ‘Chardonnay Capital’ and the figures show that this is so. It also remains ‘Bulk-wine Capital’. When the area in Muller Thurgau and the Muscat varieties (remnants of the 1960s and 1970s experience) are combined, they total almost the same area as Chardonnay. Hawke’s Bay is the single major producing region where red varieties are dominant. Despite Chardonnay having the largest area, the combined area of the two Bordeaux varieties, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, is higher than that of Chardonnay. Hawke’s Bay’s versatility is seen in the substantial area of Sauvignon Blanc being grown there.

Marlborough, though, is Sauvignon country, with 47 per cent of its vineyard in this aromatic variety. New Zealand’s reputation for making fine wine continues to be built unduly on the distinctive qualities that Sauvignon assumes in the Marlborough terroir. Marlborough is also the only major region where Pinot Noir is one of the top five varieties. In the 1990s, most Marlborough Pinot Noir was blended with Chardonnay in Methode Traditionnelle. With the quality of the still Pinot Noirs coming out of Marlborough by 1998 and Montana’s plans to develop Marlborough into a major still Pinot region, the area in this variety has continued to grow. Auckland, although having a much smaller area in vines, had a similar mix of varieties to Hawke’s Bay in 2000. Thirty-seven per cent of its vines were in Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, reflecting the uniqueness of the Matakana and Waiheke Island environments and the skill of its grape growers and vinifiers in making quality Bordeaux-style reds, as well as the ability of the rest of the Auckland region to grow these varieties.

In 2000, each of the remaining regions of New Zealand had fewer than 1000 hectares of grapes although they were growing rapidly. For instance, as recently as 1980, Wairarapa (the locality of Martinborough) had only 7 hectares in vines, while Central Otago had fewer than 20 hectares. In 2000, Central Otago was growing over 220 hectares and the area in vines in the Wairarapa was over 300. As viticulture has diffused south, the varietal mix becomes distinctive (Table 3.4). Pinot Noir, in particular, but also Riesling and Pinot Gris, become proportionally much more important. By 2000 in Canterbury, Central Otago and Wairarapa, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay dominated.

In 2010, in both Central Otago and the Wairarapa, Pinot Noir was the most planted variety. It was Wairarapa that established New Zealand’s reputation for making Pinot Noir still wines during the 1980s, with parts of Central Otago and a few examples of wine from Canterbury also showing their potential in the same decade. Central Otago has enhanced its reputation, and other regions, notably Nelson and Marlborough, have shown that they can compete in making Pinot Noirs of quality. Distinctive wines made from Riesling, Pinot Gris and Sauvignon Blanc also originate from all four regions and, like Marlborough, they also have the option of producing Methode Traditionnelle from Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.

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