culinary journeys WINE

a fresh, vibrant phenomenon

by Terry Copeland

When Samuel Marsden planted New Zealand's very first grape vines on September 25, 1819, nobody could have envisaged the shape, diversity or international success the local product would eventually have on the world stage. The slow beginnings and societal resistance to alcohol (and therefore wine) for the next 150 years, very nearly prevented the wine phenomena we know today.

It was the European immigrants, mainly from the Slavic nations, which kick started the commercial wine industry in the first three decades of the 20th century. Mostly for their own community's consumption, it wasn't until young New Zealanders began to travel overseas in the 1960's that a demand for quality wine began.

The Wine Institute of New Zealand was established in 1973 as a body representing the wine industry but it wasn't until a decade later that it provided a necessary industry based infrastructure. The haphazard nature of vineyard expansion during this time eventually caused an excessive oversupply of bulk made wine in the mid 1980's, requiring a governmental cash rescue package to save a potential lucrative industry. The money was used to pay growers to up-root 25% of the collective national vineyard to ease and stabilize the industry.

By the start of the 1990's, the total viticultural plantings had returned to the hectareage enjoyed in 1985, but this time, varieties such as pinot noir, chardonnay, sauvignon blanc and merlot replaced the lower quality vines like reichensteiner, grenache, palomino and sylvaner. Exporting of wines began in earnest - particularly to important markets such as London, and awards were being bestowed upon our wines such as sauvignon blanc.

It has taken a lot of hard work, but as the new millennium takes hold, the New Zealand wine industry is in a great position. Over $160 million of premium New Zealand wine was exported in the current year ending June, with volumes now making up a third of our production. Over 370 wine companies are registered with the Wine Institute of New Zealand, and the variety of wines is broader than at any other time in our history.

There are now over 9000 hectares planted in grape vines, although by international standards it barely exceeds 0.1% of the worlds supply. Significantly however, the percentage of premium wine produced here is the highest in the world. The maritime climate allows certain varieties to excel, whilst focusing the styles available to winemakers. Concentrating on these styles has given New Zealand a reputation for making high quality wines.

For over a decade, our sauvignon blanc has consistently been the worlds bench mark for that variety, our pinot noir is considered by many to be second only to Burgundy, and we can match it with the best with our chardonnay, riesling, and methode traditionelle.

Regional Style

Marlborough has long been considered New Zealand's premier grape growing region, with the Hawkes Bay following closely behind. There are now 10 well established, and uniquely differentiated wine regions in New Zealand, each specialising in particular styles. Chardonnay is the most planted grape variety, and the only variety to be consistently found throughout the country. This certainly reflects the international trends in 'New World' wine production.

Sauvignon blanc is the next most planted, with Marlborough producing the lions share. Pinot noir has crept up into third position, and it is this variety, the New Zealand wine industry's rising star, that will earn us the highest kudos in years to come.

Wine has now, at the beginning of the 21st century, become very much a part of our culinary culture. With the great diversity of food influences shaping the way we cook, there are an increasing number of people enjoying wine as an integral part of the gastronomic experience.

The clean green image of New Zealand, in general, is perhaps best captured in the fresh and vibrant wines we produce. New Zealanders can take pride in the wine paradise we live in and have created, for the rest of the world to enjoy. New Zealand wine, wine to share and take pleasure in.

Terry Copeland is a New Zealand based international wine consultant.

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