Wine played only a small, not to say minimal, part in my early life.

My parents kept a bottle of sweet South African sherry in a "cocktail cabinet", but the bottle rarely saw the light of day.

My next encounter with the mysterious liquid was on my 21st birthday.

My father had obtained, for a family dinner to celebrate the occasion, a rarity – a bottle of sparkling red Australian burgundy. It looked very enticing as it sparkled in the glass; the only thing we had ever seen that looked remotely like it was raspberryade – but the taste fell way short of our expectations.


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We concluded that "there wasn't much to" this wine stuff.

Some years later, after a couple of years at Oxford, I had become a little more familiar with wine in all its variety; I even had some idea of which wine went in which glass.

When I came home to see my parents, my friends were keen to show off the embryonic New Zealand wine industry, most of whose production seemed to be made in garages by enthusiastic amateurs.

I remember saying, somewhat sniffily, that "they won't make decent wine until they grow good grapes" – and it eventually became clear that others, much more knowledgeable than me, agreed.

Many of the early vineyards had been planted in Muller-Thurgau, an undistinguished white grape that produced large crops but made rather dull wine.

The far-sighted government of the day recognised that a potentially valuable industry was heading nowhere, so they offered subsidies to encourage growers to grub out their existing vineyards and replace them with some of the great wine grapes – including chardonnay and, significantly, sauvignon blanc.

I remember – back in London – feeling a thrill of national pride, as Cloudy Bay sauvignon blanc became the hottest tipple in the city's best restaurants.

The New Zealand wine industry has not looked back since. New Zealand sauvignon blanc redefined the world standard, and other grape varieties followed – chardonnay and pinot noir.

I had the pleasure of introducing Charlie Bennett, my friend and wine merchant in the small Cotswold town of Chipping Campden, where he had just been recognised as Britain's best small wine merchant, to the wines (and the chardonnays in particular) of Kumeu River – and those chardonnays still appear annually in the lists of the world's 100 best wines ,as well as on Charlie's shelves.

And hard on the heels of the sauvignon blancs and chardonnays have come the New Zealand pinot noirs, now also setting world-class standards.

It hasn't all been plain sailing. New Zealand sauvignon was so unexpectedly fresh and fruity that a leading British wine critic once felt prompted to damn it with faint praise, declaring that "it should take its place on the breakfast table."

And I remember explaining to the wife of the French Ambassador at a dinner party in London that New Zealand wine was building its reputation, whereupon she turned to me and said "monsieur, you must be mistaken.

New Zealand? Sheep, yes – wine, no!"

She won't remember that conversation but, if she did, she might have the grace to reflect on the fact that the average price of New Zealand wine across world markets is now higher than for any other nation's wine, including the French.

To be fair, that is not to say that the supremacy of the great French labels is under threat, but it tells us that there is almost literally no bad New Zealand wine, whereas the French sell a good deal of undistinguished wine on to world markets.

The success of New Zealand winemakers should come as no surprise.

We knew how to grow things – why not grapes?

And our experience, gained in dairying, of using stainless steel and of maintaining high standards of hygiene in preparing products for consumption has also helped.

Throw in the skill of European settlers and a Kiwi readiness to strip away the mystique and focus on the essentials, and you have what it takes to make a billion-dollar industry.

And the benefits from that success are not just economic. Wine has made us a more relaxed, a warmer, (dare one say, more civilised) people – and it has certainly brought me great pleasure.