Story: Wine

Joe Babich in the barrel room of the Babich winery

Sauvignon blanc, with its grassy smell, put New Zealand wine in the international spotlight in the 1980s. Since then, wine exports have boomed, with pinot noir another big hit. But for many years, tough licensing laws and New Zealanders’ taste for fortified wines limited the wine industry.

Story by Bronwyn Dalley
Main image: Joe Babich in the barrel room of the Babich winery

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First wine

Missionary Samuel Marsden planted New Zealand’s first grapes at Kerikeri in 1819. In the 1830s, James Busby made wine from his vineyard at Waitangi.


Some migrants came from countries that traditionally made and drank wine.

  • French settlers planted vines at Akaroa.
  • The Catholic Marist brothers, from France, made wine for church rituals. In 1851 they set up Mission Estate vineyard, which still produced wine in 2020.
  • Lebanese migrant Assid Corban planted vineyards in 1902. His company, Corbans, became New Zealand’s largest winemaker.
  • Dalmatians (people from Croatia) set up a number of vineyards in West Auckland, some of which became major wine producers.
  • Spaniards and Germans also made wine.

Government support

From 1897, the government planted grapes and made wine on its experimental farm in the Waikato. Wine expert Romeo Bragato became the government viticulturalist (grape-growing scientist).

Controls on alcohol

The temperance movement pushed for stronger laws against alcohol. From 1908, alcohol sales were banned completely in some areas. Wine could not be sold in restaurants from 1917.


Later, laws were less restrictive, and more New Zealanders drank wine. More vineyards were planted from the 1960s, and wine exports began. Today, large amounts of wine are exported, and New Zealanders enjoy visiting wineries and going to wine festivals.

Wine styles

Over time, styles changed from fortified wines like sherry and port, to table wines – first made from Müller-Thurgau and cabernet sauvignon grapes. In the 1980s, sauvignon blanc wines won prizes in international wine shows. New Zealand pinot noir and chardonnay wines are also very good.

Wine regions

Most vineyards were around Auckland until the 1960s, when Gisborne and Hawke’s Bay also became wine-growing areas. Later, vineyards were planted in Marlborough (where most New Zealand vineyards are today), Wairarapa, and Central Otago – the world’s southernmost wine-growing region. The wine industry has expanded, and many areas that were once farmland now grow grapes.

How to cite this page:

Bronwyn Dalley, 'Wine', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 16 June 2024)

Story by Bronwyn Dalley, published 24 November 2008