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.
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.