Uncorked: The most radical transformation of NZ wine

The past 15 years have seen major changes in the size and shape of our wine industry.

(Clockwise from top left) Steve Smith of Craggy Range; Blair Walter of Felton Road; Dorien Vermaas of Staete Landt Wines and Graeme Avery of Sileni Estates. Photo / Supplied/Frank Gasteiger
(Clockwise from top left) Steve Smith of Craggy Range; Blair Walter of Felton Road; Dorien Vermaas of Staete Landt Wines and Graeme Avery of Sileni Estates. Photo / Supplied/Frank Gasteiger

Cast your mind back to when screwcaps on wine were a rare sight; there was more chardonnay in our vineyards than sauvignon blanc and just over a dozen wineries down in Central Otago. How things have changed, with the past 15 years witnessing the most radical transformation of New Zealand's wine industry in its entire history.

Sauvignon blanc and pinot noir may be the undisputed flagship white and red varieties in New Zealand today, but 15 years ago our vineyards harked back to an era when the country was still getting to grips with what it could grow best.

Chardonnay was our most widely planted variety, although sauvignon blanc was hot on its heels and just hectares away from pole position. Now it's 12,000 hectares ahead of any other variety and has grown by over 1000 per cent. It was also a time when we had more mundane muller-thurgau in the ground than prize-winning pinot noir, while cabernet sauvignon was our number one red.

It has been a period when New Zealand wine has really started to be taken seriously. In 1997 we shipped 25 per cent of our wine overseas, while today it's 75 per cent, and worth $1.2 billion, becoming a major export industry.

As well as this success encouraging local wineries to proliferate - from 262 to 698 in this time - it also whetted the appetite for international investors. This saw some of New Zealand largest labels, such as Montana, Nobilo and Matua Valley, gobbled up by global drinks conglomerates.

There's also been a green revolution in the vineyards with the commercial introduction of Sustainable Winegrowing New Zealand in 1997. Now encompassing more than 95 per cent of the country's vineyard area, SWNZ has helped drastically cut chemicals used on our vines and inspired a growing number to join the ranks of our rapidly increasing organic wine movement.

We're drinking more wine now, with a per capita increase of 50 per cent in the past 15 years. And we're drinking more of our own labels, assisted by a five-fold increase in our wine production, the fact that we now produce world class reds as well as whites and that these have largely never tasted so good!

I caught up with wineries who are also celebrating 15-year anniversaries this year, to discover what the past decade and a half has held for them:

Steve Smith MW
Director of Wine and Viticulture, Craggy Range

"1997 was an interesting time: just before the real boom in Marlborough and Central Otago happened, Martinborough was very much centred on the township, and no one outside New Zealand knew of the Gimblett Gravels. It was a time of untapped possibilities particularly driving the New Zealand wine story outside Marlborough.

"When Terry Peabody approached me to set up Craggy Range in 1997, I knew the area soon to be known as the Gimblett Gravels was special, while Martinborough would create New Zealand's most serious pinot noirs and some very good sauvignon blanc - so away we went. It was unbelievably exciting, a chance to really create something special.

"At the time people thought we were mad buying such large parcels of the Gimblett Gravels in Hawkes Bay and Te Muna in Martinborough, at the time they were pioneering. The approach we took to viticulture and winemaking, and the cornerstone principal of 100 per cent single vineyard was different and it's worked. I would have bet a very large amount that syrah would not have been the most famous wine in our portfolio, but look what happened. It endorses the 'anything's possible' attitude!"

Blair Walter
Winemaker, Felton Road

"Back in 1997 when we released our first wine, Felton Road was only a dirt track and wasn't even on the local council's 10-year plan to be sealed. With the increase in traffic and other vineyards being developed it was tar-sealed two years later. It was a time when there were just 151 hectares of vineyard planted in Central Otago (today there are more than 1500ha).

"Felton Road always had solid aspirations to make the best possible wines and to be distributed internationally. However, we had no idea that the quality had the potential to be so globally recognised and accepted as some of the most interesting wines of the world. We are now in 35 countries in distributors' portfolios that contain the world's best wines.

"The image of Central Otago wines in general has certainly helped immensely to establish such premium positioning. Being quickly globally recognised for the quality of our wines put us amongst a peer group where organics and biodynamics is almost a given. This inspired us to explore this area in 2000, begin our conversion in 2002 and become fully organic/biodynamic by 2006."

Graeme Avery
President & CEO, Sileni Estates

"When Sileni was established in 1997, there were just over 200 registered wine producers and apart from the UK, New Zealand sauvignon blanc had not really been discovered in other export markets. Sileni did not have a sauvignon blanc until 2002 as we believed it would become a commodity and at the time preferred to use semillon as our New Zealand white wine.

"Our aspirations were to build a strong export-oriented company, but not having sauvignon blanc from the outset was recognised as a major mistake. From 2004, when we had reasonable quantities and we picked up three trophies for the Cellar Selection Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc 2004 at the London International Wine Challenge, this acted as a calling card and allowed us to more readily establish export markets in over 60 countries.

"The NZ wine industry has grown enormously on the back of Marlborough sauvignon blanc, as reflected in export earnings today of over $1 billion annually. Sileni has also grown, now ranking in the top 10 New Zealand wine companies, not a bad achievement in 15 years and considering there are now over 600 wineries!"

Dorien Vermaas
Co-founder, Staete Landt Wines

"When me and my partner, Ruud Maasdam bought our derelict apple and cherry orchard on Rapaura to change into a state-of-the-art vineyard, Marlborough was the only place that had already some internationally well known brands.

"But back in 1997, it was still filled with orchards and sheep paddocks, and the bank manager of one of NZ's biggest banks didn't shake hands with me as a woman.

"The Marlborough wine region was relatively small; the Awatere barely existed; there was no Southern Valleys water scheme so the Southern hills were hardly planted and Ward, Blind River and the North Bank didn't exist as wine growing regions.

"We did intensive soil research, which was one of the first times it was ever undertaken to that extent. The multi-block irrigation system that we installed following this was regarded as innovative and resulted in us winning the Environmental Award by the Marlborough District Council in 1998 for the economic usage of a scarce resource such as water.

"The last 15 years have been such an exciting ride in this industry, to watch it grow and to grow with it, the co-operation, respect, shared knowledge, support and friendship among most wineries.

"We have arguably the youngest wine industry in the world yet we are one of the biggest success-stories in the wine industry in the 20th century."

lorraine Leheny and Warren Gibson
Founders and winemakers, Bilancia

"We returned to New Zealand at the beginning on 1997 after making wine overseas. The wine industry seemed to be in a very positive, forward motion.

"Lots of new companies were established over the next five or so years, both big and small. One fortunate break for us was to secure a small parcel of pinot gris in 1998. There were less than 10 producers of pinot gris at that time and early success with that variety continues to be associated with our brand.

"The 15 years since establishment have been an interesting highway. We made the first wines under the Bilancia label from the 1997 vintage, released these wines in 1998, purchased the land for the la collina vineyard in 1997 and we began planting in 1998. Planting syrah, particularly on a hillside in 1998 now almost seems pioneering.

"Syrah remains the reason we will leave our winemaking roots in Hawkes Bay. Good Hawkes Bay syrah is one of New Zealand's truly unique wine styles."

FIFTEEN YEARS IN FIGURES

* In 1997 there were 262 wineries, this has grown to 698 in 2012.

* 1997 saw the wine industry with 8455 hectares of vines. This has rocketed to 33,600 hectares in 2012.

* The value of wine exports in 1997 stood at $75.9m. The value in 2012 is now at $2.1bn.

BIRTHDAY WINES

Staete Landt Annabel Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc 2011 $24
An elegant sauvignon that's seen a small portion spend some time in older oak for texture, with delicate notes of elderflower and nectarine underpinned by zesty lime and chalky mineral. (From Caro's, Fine Wine Delivery Company, Glengarry.)

Bilancia "la collina" Hawkes Bay Syrah 2009 $95
The past 15 years has seen the emergence of one of the country's flagship syrahs, hailing from Bilancia's precipitous hillside site. Elegant and velvety textured, the latest la collina delivers impressively pure and fresh damson fruit infused with notes of black pepper and liquorice. (From Fine Wine Delivery Company, Caro's, Point Wines, La Barrique.)

No. 1 Family Estate Cuvee No 1 Blanc de Blancs Marlborough Methode Traditionelle NV $35-$40
Daniel Le Brun established his specialist sparkling No. 1 Family Estate vineyard in Marlborough in 1997 - the source of this fine chardonnay-based NV with its classic citrussy and green apple blanc de blancs freshness, backed by richer nuances of bread crust, almond and cream. (From Glengarry, Fine Wine Delivery Company, selected New World stores and fine wine shops.)

- NZ Herald

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