Terry Dunleavy: Wine deserves its place in the sun

NZ climate and right people give the world arguably the finest varieties of wine

Our wines, including Marlborough sauvignon blanc which has a reputation that stretches round the globe, are a 'flagship product'.
Our wines, including Marlborough sauvignon blanc which has a reputation that stretches round the globe, are a 'flagship product'.

One has to wonder how a metropolitan newspaper, on its 150th birthday, looking to the future, can fail to mention, even once, a product and a primary sector that's been in its midst for more than 110 of those years and earns more than a billion dollars annually while enhancing the name and quality reputation of New Zealand in over 80 countries around the world - wine.

Two personal reminiscences to illustrate: In 1988, as a founder member of the board of the New Zealand Food & Beverage Exporters Council, I found myself acting as sole waiter in the cafeteria sponsored by Air New Zealand at the New Zealand Pavilion at Anuga in Cologne, the largest food and beverage fair in the world.

Joe Pope, then general manager of the NZ Apple & Pear Marketing Board, brought in for lunch the chief food buyer on a huge German supermarket chain. I offered them a glass of wine. The German raised his eyebrows: "Neuseeland makes wine?"

"Ja," I assured him. He smelled and tasted. "But it's gut," he said, and I nodded: "Of course."

What he said then is burned into my memory: "A country that can make wine of this quality must do everything well." After lunch I watched him do another circuit of the whole pavilion with a new perspective on the whole range of New Zealand foods, wines and beers on the New Zealand court.

A few years ago, my wife and I were in Barcelona with four of our family who live in Europe. We went to lunch at a small restaurant behind that magnificent food market, La Boqueria. The Italian waiter heard us speaking English and asked where we were from. "New Zealand," we replied. He smiled back, "Ah New Zealand! Marlborough sauvignon blanc!"

It was the former agency, Trade New Zealand, that described our wines as a flagship product for New Zealand. For the simple reason that whereas just about every other of our national food exports comes to a restaurant dining table as an unidentified ingredient on a plate, our wine arrives in a bottle, with a label proclaiming its origin as New Zealand.

When I became the inaugural chief executive of the Wine Institute of New Zealand in 1976, our total exports, in round figures, were 300,000 litres valued at $400,000 fob. This year, 37 years on, for the year ending June 30, the export volume was 169.6 million litres, worth $1.211 billion fob. Wine grapes are now New Zealand's most widely grown horticultural crop, and wine, the largest horticultural export crop by value; in fact, our eight biggest goods export.

We are acknowledged internationally as leading the world in the popular white variety, sauvignon blanc, which accounts for some 80 per cent of our export volume.

While there are plaudits for our standards in other varieties such as riesling and chardonnay in the whites, and pinot noir (especially) and syrah in reds; there is a dawning realisation that, in fact, New Zealand is the top unfortified wine producing country in the world. Whereas others can lay claim to pre-eminence in one, two or three varieties or styles, New Zealand is at or near the highest international class in all varieties and styles, as, in addition to those names above, our methode sparklings, our sweet wines, and other varieties such as pinot gris, viognier, gewurztraminer (whites), rosé, cabernet sauvignon and merlot (reds) demonstrate.

There are two underlying reasons for the distinctive quality of New Zealand's export wine portfolio: our natural physical advantages, and our people.

We are, in viticultural terms, a cool climate country, with generally long autumns for even ripening, and two long narrow islands creating a maritime environment that seems to favour wine grapes in particular. We have clean air, enhancing photosynthesis, and soils not so rich as to free the vines from having to struggle a little.

When, post-war, we followed the Germans into cold pressure fermentation that required stainless steel tanks, unlike the Germans who had to invent the technology for themselves; we already had it, we simply adopted and adapted it from the dairy industry.

Our people came to grape growing and winemaking as newcomers, not weighed down as so many Europeans with generational methods of their forefathers, or production regulations designed to protect tradition but, in doing so, prevented experimentation with new methods and processes.

We were quick learners, willing not only to try new approaches, but willing also to share with others in our sector innovations that in other industries would be jealously guarded as trade secrets.

I can still recall, at early overseas trade fairs, expressions of amazement by wine people from other countries how much these "crazy Kiwis" were prepared to help each other out when they were supposed to be competing with each other.

Finally, not only did we implement an export wine certification scheme in the 1980s, we then led the world in terms of "sustainability".

In the mid-1990s, we laid the foundations for what is now Sustainable Winegrowing New Zealand, in which our vineyards and wineries are signed up to audits to prove their commitment to preserving the environment.

In 2005, New Zealand Winegrowers chief executive Philip Gregan, on a visit to London, bumped into retiring New Zealand High Commissioner Russell Marshall in the third-floor corridor of New Zealand House.

Mr Marshall told him: "Philip, I have to tell you that your wines have changed the way British people think about New Zealand."

The complete absence of any reference to wine in the publication Future NZ, suggests we may have a way to go in changing the way Kiwis think about New Zealand wines.

Terry Dunleavy was inaugural CEO of the Wine Institute of NZ (1976-91).

• Dialogue Contributions are welcome and should be 600-800 words. Send your submission to dialogue@nzherald.co.nz. Text may be edited and used in digital formats as well as on paper.

- NZ Herald

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