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by  Bronwyn Dalley

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.

19th-century origins

First wine production

New Zealand’s wine industry is as old as European settlement. Missionary Samuel Marsden planted the country’s first vineyard at the mission station in Kerikeri, in late 1819.

The arrival of British Resident and wine enthusiast James Busby in the Bay of Islands in 1833 marked the real start of winemaking in New Zealand. Busby had learned the craft in Bordeaux, and had written two books on grape growing and winemaking.

Plants from his family’s vineyard in the Hunter Valley, New South Wales, were used for the vineyard he planted around his residence at Waitangi in 1833. French explorer Dumont d’Urville drank an early vintage in 1840, describing it as ‘a light white wine, very sparkling, and delicious to taste’. 1 Perhaps this was a type of chardonnay, said to be Busby’s favourite wine.

A vintage estate

New Zealand’s oldest surviving winemakers are Mission Estate, set up in Hawke’s Bay in 1851. The Catholic Marist brothers moved south from their Whangaroa vineyards, growing grapes in Gisborne in 1850 before planting their first Hawke’s Bay vineyard at Pākōwhai in 1851. Moving to Meeanee in 1858, they planted another vineyard, and sold their first red wine commercially in 1870. The brothers first grew grapes in Greenmeadows in 1897. Mission Estate’s winemaking has been based there since 1910, although the Marists are no longer involved.

Early vineyards

A few other vineyards were planted in the late 1830s and early 1840s. Around the Whangaroa area from 1839, the Roman Catholic brothers from the Society of Mary (Marists) grew grapes to produce wine for sacramental purposes.

None of these vineyards lasted long, but during the 19th century, there was a steady planting of grapes for wine from one end of the country to the other. Most vineyards made small amounts of wine for their owners, but some winemakers sold to the public. English winemaker Charles Levet and his son made a living from their 2.8-hectare vineyard on the Kaipara Harbour between 1863 and 1907.

  1. Quoted in Keith Stewart, ‘On the grapevine.’ New Zealand Heritage 106 (Spring 2007), p. 7. › Back

Migrant groups and the wine industry

European settlers with a strong tradition of winemaking and wine drinking played a key role in New Zealand’s wine industry.


The first generation of French settlers at Akaroa in the early 1840s planted vines. The Roman Catholic Marist order had a lasting impact, especially in Hawke’s Bay from the 1850s.

The French began the wine industry in Central Otago. In the 1860s, gold miner Jean Feraud produced wine from his Monte Christo vineyard near Alexandra. French-born Hermanze Beetham, with her husband William, planted vines at their Wairarapa property from 1883.

The French influence on winemaking was strong through the 20th century, with local producers visiting France for ideas, advice and training.

Germans and Spaniards

Germans pioneered winemaking in Nelson in the 1840s, and in Gisborne in 1921 when Friedrich Wohnsiedler established a vineyard. Alsatian migrant Israel Wendel planted a vineyard around his Auckland home in the 1870s. He later opened Wendel’s Wine Bodega, New Zealand’s first licensed wine shop.

Spanish winemaker Joseph Soler (who anglicised his name from Jose Sole) produced wine from his Whanganui vineyard from the late 1860s. His wines won major prizes at international exhibitions in 1880 and 1886. His nephew Anthony Vidal joined him in 1888, then set up his own vineyard in Hawke’s Bay in 1905.


Lebanese migrant Assid Abraham Corban planted the Mt Lebanon Vineyards at Henderson in 1902. Trading as Corbans wines, at first he sold wine from the back of a truck that travelled around the region. Assid Corban took a leading role in organising New Zealand’s wine industry, and was an early member of the New Zealand Viticultural Association and the New Zealand Wine Council. Corbans was the country’s largest winery by the 1960s.


Dalmatians (Croatians) had the most significant influence on New Zealand’s wine industry. In the 1890s prejudice and then legislation forced them from the kauri gumfields where they had worked, so Dalmatian families began planting grapes and producing wine, mainly around the West Auckland area and in Hawke’s Bay.

The three Frankovich brothers were among the first to turn to wine production. Between 1899 and 1913, they expanded their vineyard on the Whangaparāoa Peninsula until the 4.5-hectare property produced over 18,000 litres of wine a year. Fourteen Dalmatian vineyards were working around Herekino by 1906. In 1916 Josip Babich and his brothers planted vines at their Kaikino property, then shifted to Henderson in 1919.

More Dalmatian wineries started in the 1930s and 1940s. These included Selaks (planted by Marino Selak from 1934); Nobilo (planted by Nikola Nobilo from 1943); Soljans (planted by Frank and Rona Soljan from 1939); San Marino (later Kumeu River), where founder Mate Brajkovich crushed his first grapes in 1944; and Delegat’s (planted by Nikola Delegat from 1947). Of the 80 or so small vineyards around West Auckland in the 1950s, Dalmatian families owned about 90%.

Some of the wineries originally founded or worked by Dalmatians became the country’s largest wine producers. Andrew Fistonich, founder of Villa Maria, became a licensed winemaker in 1949. In 1944 Ivan Yukich produced the first vintage for what would become Montana Wines.

Industry expansion, 1890s–1910s

Future prospects

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.

Government support

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

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.

Industry in flux, 1910s–1960s


Government viticulturalist Romeo Bragato retired in 1909 and the Department of Agriculture’s viticultural division was disbanded. The industry went into decline. Imported wine was often cheaper (due to low tariffs) and usually better, so local standards dropped further. The New Zealand Viticultural Association, formed in 1911, went into recess between 1918 and 1939.

There were about 70 vineyards with licensed winemakers by 1913, but producers went in and out of business quickly. In 1925 about 40 vineyards were licensed to make wine, including the first in the southern hemisphere founded by a Chinese person, Joe Ah Chan, who established the Gold Leaf Vineyards (later Totara Vineyards) near Thames that year. The number of vineyards leapt to 100 by 1932.

The 1930s economic depression took its toll: there were no bidders when the government’s viticultural research station at Te Kauwhata was put up for auction.

Red, red wine

Tom McDonald started making wine in 1921 when he was just 14 years old. In 1927 he bought Taradale Vineyards, producing mainly fortified wines. Red wines were his passion. His 1965 cabernet sauvignon showed that good red wine could be made in New Zealand.


Changes in licensing laws affected the industry. A ‘no licence’ zone began in the Eden electorate in 1908, meaning that vineyards could produce wine, but not sell it in their own district. The zone bisected Assid Corban’s Henderson vineyard, so he sold his wine just outside the boundary. In 1918 the zone extended to include all of Henderson.

The heyday of the prohibition movement was over by 1920, but restrictions continued. Concern over the quality of wine led to tighter licences for winemakers after 1914. From 1917 diners were no longer able to consume BYO wine in restaurants after 6 p.m., and hotel dining rooms could not serve wine after 8 p.m. There was a ban on further wine-shop licences from 1920.

Easing restrictions

Higher tariffs on imported wine from the mid-1930s boosted the market for the local product for a time, but government policy could be fickle. Cheap Australian wine flooded the market in the late 1940s, and the local industry suffered. The minimum quantity of wine sold at vineyards was reduced to just over a litre in 1955, and eventually a single bottle (750 millilitres) in 1959. Licences were granted to more wine shops, increasing the number of outlets where people could buy wine.

More vineyards were established, especially in West Auckland and Hawke’s Bay, where Australian firm McWilliams began planting from 1947. Winemakers adopted new techniques: in 1958, Corbans introduced stainless-steel wine tanks – more hygienic than wooden vats.

Expansion sometimes came at the expense of quality. Wine was adulterated with food colourings or dyes, had high levels of bacteria, or was made from sugar, water, and fruit other than grapes. Separate licences for the manufacture of fruit wines were needed from 1953, but watery wine continued to be made until the early 1980s.

Changing habits

New drinking tastes developed. Migrants from Europe during and after the Second World War wanted table rather than fortified wines. Some New Zealanders who served overseas during the war experienced new ways of dining and developed a taste for wine. The country’s first food and wine society began in 1954.

Foundations for the future, 1960s to mid-1980s


More vineyards were planted from the 1960s: in 1960, they covered about 390 hectares, jumping to over 5,000 hectares (around 60 vineyards) by 1982. The volume of wine produced soared, from about 4 million litres in 1960 to over 50 million by 1980. New Zealand wine also went out to the world: in 1963 Auckland firm Corbans made the first major export of New Zealand wine.

The geography of the industry shifted as winemakers learned more about matching grapes to local conditions. The Auckland area lost its dominance to Gisborne and Hawke’s Bay; by the end of the 1970s, these two regions had the largest area under vines. Other areas opened up. Marlborough’s first large commercial plantings were made in 1973, and within a few years, the country’s biggest winemaking firms had moved there.

Investment and organisation

Overseas investment boosted the local industry, helping winemakers buy much-needed new equipment. New York firm Seagram bought a 40% share in Montana Wines in 1973, pushing a major period of growth, and more Australian companies entered the local market.

The wine industry also became more organised. In 1975 several groups merged to form the New Zealand Wine Institute, giving the industry a single voice to promote its interests.

Wine styles

Most local wines were fortified, although the climate did not suit their production. But from the 1960s, table wines took over. Table wine was just 12% of wine produced in 1962, but had surged to more than 73% by the early 1980s.

Changing social habits meant that people wanted to drink wine with their meals. Restaurants could become licensed from 1960, and other places were soon selling wine, including theatres, cabarets and taverns. In 1976 the ‘BYO wine’ tradition in unlicensed restaurants became legal. BYO stands for ‘bring your own’ – meaning that diners can bring their own wine to drink with a meal. In 1979, the first restaurant at a vineyard opened, at Vidal’s in Hawke’s Bay.

New grape varieties replaced the cheap American hybrid grapes. Müller-Thurgau became the most common white wine grape planted during the 1960s and 1970s, cabernet sauvignon the most common red. Winemakers looked to the mass market, and both of these grapes formed the basis of what came to be called ‘Chateau Cardboard’ – the cask wine made in abundance and sold in cardboard boxes. New Zealanders’ sweet palate was still catered for: ‘Marque Vue’ and ‘Blenheimer’, from the McWilliams and Montana labels, were among the most popular of the era.

Mid-1980s crisis

Expansion didn’t occur without hiccups. Higher sales tax on local wine forced up prices, and in the tight economy of the mid-1980s, wine drinkers were reluctant to buy. Bumper vintages saturated the market, so big producers slashed prices. The smaller family-run wineries suffered in the price war, and some went out of business. Even major producers struggled: Villa Maria, which had bought Hawke’s Bay producer Vidal’s in 1976, went into receivership in 1985.

A glut of lower-quality wine led to the government, in 1986, paying growers to pull out their vines. Up to 25% of the national vineyard was uprooted, mostly around Gisborne and in Hawke’s Bay. Production slowed, and it was not until 1993 that the area in vines reached the pre-1986 level.

The wine boom, 1980s and beyond

Drifting south and east

The area planted in grapes grew significantly from the mid-1980s: by 2006 there were over 22,000 hectares – a 400% increase in two decades. From the late 1990s growth increased: there were 238 wineries in 1996, and 530 in 2006.

Vineyards continued their drift south and east to the most suitable climates and conditions for growing grapes. Nine major regions were recognised: Auckland, Waikato, Gisborne, Hawke’s Bay, Wairarapa, Nelson, Marlborough, Canterbury, and Central Otago. The Marlborough region dominated more and more, but from the later 1990s, Canterbury, Wairarapa and especially Central Otago grew rapidly.

Most winemakers produced a range of red and white wines, but there was variation between (and within) regions. Hawke’s Bay and Auckland were particularly known for cabernet sauvignon and merlot; Wairarapa, Canterbury and Central Otago for pinot noir; Gisborne and Waikato for chardonnay; and Marlborough and Nelson for sauvignon blanc. Some groups of producers adopted the French concept of ‘terroir’ – a distinct localised ecology and climate – to define their wines into sub-regions, such as the Gimblett Gravels wine-growing district in Hawke’s Bay, which produces red wines in particular from the gravel-laden soils of a former riverbed.

Wine changed the landscape, as farming and horticulture gave way to the vine. In Central Otago, vineyards snaked along the rugged landscape. Their names mirrored the terrain: Mt Difficulty, Black Ridge, Quartz Reef. The industry revitalised once sleepy rural service towns. Weekending Wellingtonians headed for Martinborough and Greytown in the heart of rural Wairarapa on the wine trail.

Social changes

Wine became much more a part of life for some New Zealanders. Consumption increased, especially of local wine – although imports comprised a good share of the local market. Landmark legal changes helped: a 1999 amendment to the Sale of Liquor Act 1989 allowed the sale of wine in supermarkets and other off-licences on Sundays. Interest in local wine increased during the 1980s, and food and wine festivals in wine-growing regions became very popular.

New World, new markets

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.

Wine styles

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.

Screwed up

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 supported screw caps, but most 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.

External links and sources

More suggestions and sources

How to cite this page: Bronwyn Dalley, 'Wine', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 30 May 2024)

Story by Bronwyn Dalley, published 24 November 2008