In 1895 European wine expert Romeo Bragato surveyed New Zealand’s wine industry. He saw promise in several areas, especially Hawke’s Bay, but also Wairarapa and Central Otago. He thought wine could be a considerable source of wealth, so he urged the government to help winemakers by setting up a viticultural college and experimental farms.
In 1897 the Department of Agriculture began planting grapes – syrah, chardonnay, pinot noir, cabernet sauvignon and riesling – at its experimental farm at Te Kauwhata, Waikato. The vines grew well and a small winery was set up there in 1901.
As government viticulturalist in the Department of Agriculture from 1902, Bragato improved the research station and vineyard at Te Kauwhata, and another at Arataki, Hawke’s Bay, in 1903. Field days attracted winemakers keen to sample the station’s wine and to receive advice about the best grapes for the local conditions. Bragato’s 1906 booklet Viticulture in New Zealand quickly sold 5,000 copies.
Bragato provided healthy vines – European vines grafted on to American rootstocks – that were resistant to phylloxera, the root-destroying pest that had wrecked French vineyards in the 1870s. Bragato had seen infected vines in Auckland in 1895. Many had been uprooted, but not all were replaced with phylloxera-free plants.
Types of wine
Winemakers produced table wines from the classic European grape varieties, such as syrah, cabernet sauvignon and pinot noir for red wine.
New Zealanders, perhaps influenced by British traditions, preferred sweetish and fortified wines. Local producers obliged with port, madeira and sherry made from grapes such as palomino, and white wines made from grapes such as muscat and riesling.
There was usually little money in winemaking, and even less when disease affected vineyards early in the 20th century. Producers turned to lesser-quality cheap (and disease-resistant) hybrid grapes such as Albany Surprise, Baco and Isabella – and ordinary table grapes. None of these grapes made great wine, but they dominated the local industry for years.
Some wineries did good business. Bernard Chambers’ Te Mata vineyard (planted from 1892) went so well that he could employ a full-time winemaker, J. O. Craike, in 1902. By 1910, Te Mata’s wine production (over 55,000 litres) was New Zealand’s largest.
Social attitudes to alcohol consumption affected the industry. The temperance movement pushed for tighter laws around the sale and use of alcohol. Before 1881 wine could only be sold at hotels. In that year, special wine licences allowed growers to sell wine directly from their vineyards, but with a minimum purchase of two gallons (9.1 litres). The consumption of wine – never high in a country of beer- and spirits-drinkers – fell from over a litre per capita in 1882, to 0.74 litres in 1898.