In the 2000s New Zealanders grew cultivars of Vitis vinifera, the European or wine grape, as did 19th-century settlers. But between 1900 and 1970, a North American grape, Vitis labrusca, and hybrids of American and European grapes dominated New Zealand’s vineyards. Chosen because they were resistant to phylloxera – the root aphid that infected some young vines in the late 1800s – they cropped well, but generally produced inferior wines.
Of more than 8,000 known grape cultivars, only about 50 are grown in New Zealand. In the 1970s and early 1980s, Müller-Thurgau and cabernet sauvignon were the leading varieties. This had changed by 2007, when sauvignon blanc was the most common type planted (10,491 hectares), followed by pinot noir (4,441 hectares), chardonnay (3,918 hectares), merlot (1,447 hectares) and pinot gris (1,146 hectares).
Fruit of the vine
For decades Albany Surprise was the most widely grown table grape in New Zealand. Originating from Isabella, an American variety, it was selected and propagated by George Pannill at Albany, Auckland, around 1900. It is a prolific producer of large black berries with a sweet taste and tough skin.
Rootstocks and phylloxera
The root-ruining phylloxera aphid was found in some Auckland vineyards in 1895. Growers were advised to destroy all vines harbouring the pest, and replant with grafted European varieties grown on phylloxera-resistant American rootstocks – a practice that had saved the vineyards of Europe.
For over a century many New Zealand growers followed different pathways, growing American or hybrid grapes if phylloxera was present in their region, or ungrafted European grapes in phylloxera-free districts. For a time these strategies paid off, and New Zealanders drank fortified wines made from the hybrid varieties such as Baco and Seibel.
Slowly but surely, phylloxera spread throughout New Zealand – as predicted by early 20th-century government viticulturist Romeo Bragato. By 2007 it was present in all wine-growing regions, and many growers had pulled up their ungrafted European vines and replanted with grafted stock. New Zealand grape growers continued to investigate which rootstocks best suited their sites, and best matched the grape varieties and wine styles they wanted to produce. Most of the rootstocks used in New Zealand are derived from three American species – Vitis riparia, V. berlandieri and V. rupestris, or their hybrid combinations.
Table grapes are grown in greenhouses in northern New Zealand for export. Around 20 tonnes are air-freighted to Japan each year, where they are mostly sold as gifts. The most common varieties are Muscat of Italia (a green grape) and Black Beauty.
Table grapes sold in New Zealand are imported from Chile, Australia or California.