Local sales of New Zealand wine were important, but producers looked more to the export market. The volumes exported grew steadily – half a million litres in 1982, over 7 million in 1992 – then boomed from the end of the century to reach over 57 million litres in 2006, passing domestic sales in the process.
Winemakers traded on the country’s ‘New World’ status, producing wine that was higher in alcohol and had a more oaky taste than that from traditional wine-producing areas. New Zealand was a bit player in the global scene, but a distinctive flavour gave its wine a niche overseas, first in the United Kingdom and later in the United States. In 1998 New Zealand joined the New World Wine Producers group to promote freer and fairer trade in wine.
Smelly socks and cat’s pee
Sauvignon blanc put New Zealand on the world wine map. The 1985 vintages from Cloudy Bay and Hunter’s introduced the British public to New Zealand wine. The ‘smelly sock’ or ‘cat’s pee’ whiff of sauvignon blanc is connected with wine from the Marlborough region, where Montana Wines first planted the grape in 1973. Ross Spence of Matua Valley Wines had introduced the variety in 1969, with a commercial release in 1974. By 2002 it took over from chardonnay as New Zealand’s most commonly planted grape.
Slick marketing helped, especially at tastings in London – New Zealand wines had gained a profile there from 1986, after Hunter’s sauvignon blanc won an award at the Sunday Times wine club festival. Producers quickly saw the potential of New Zealand’s distinctive take on sauvignon blanc, and from the later 1980s, plantings of this grape expanded.
Improved winemaking methods and new markets also boosted red wine production. Te Mata Estate’s 1982 Coleraine was a benchmark in local red wine production, but New Zealand reds generally had a poor reputation. The big expansion started in the later 1990s, as growers and winemakers learned to work with the temperamental red-wine grape pinot noir. By 2006 it was the second most widely planted grape, helping make the reputation of regions such as Central Otago and Wairarapa.
New Zealand wines led the way in the move to seal bottles with screw caps (Stelvin caps) instead of corks. A group of New Zealand winemakers experimented with the cap in 2001 as a way to stop ‘cork taint’ and ensure consistency of taste. The New Zealand Screwcap Wine Seal Initiative was launched in late 2001. Not all winemakers or critics support screw caps, but many producers have adopted them.
Ownership and organisation
The industry’s massive growth piqued offshore interest. By the early 2000s, big overseas corporates had moved in. Some of the key local players had already merged – the largest producer, Montana, bought its biggest local competitor, Corbans, in 2000. The next year, Montana was snapped up by Allied Domecq, the world’s second largest wine and spirits company. That in turn was taken over by Pernod Ricard in 2005.
Most New Zealand wineries remain small and family-run, even though some big production houses and signature labels such as Cloudy Bay, Dry River or Felton Road are partly or completely foreign-owned.
The industry’s growth has also fostered a more organised infrastructure. In 2002 New Zealand Winegrowers was formed to promote the industry and foster the export market. Polytechnics offered courses in viticulture and oenology (the science of winemaking), and specialised wine research institutes began.