Colonised by beer-drinking Brits and whisky-swilling Scots, New Zealand’s wine culture has been slow to develop. It wasn’t helped by a strong temperance movement in the early 20th century, which culminated in a close-run national vote on prohibition. The abstemious philosophy lasted for most of the century: New Zealand bar owners had to close at 6pm every evening until 1967 — initially a wartime measure, it lasted 50 years. Diners could not enjoy a glass of wine in a restaurant until 1960 nor could they buy wine in supermarkets until 1989.
However, in the past 40 years, the New Zealand wine landscape has changed dramatically. Wine bars and fine dining restaurants have emerged alongside the burgeoning wine industry, with more than 700 wineries spanning the length of the country, although two-thirds of production is based in Marlborough. The country’s small population of 4.8m drinks nearly 500m litres of alcohol each year; while wine represents 108m litres, New Zealanders continue to prefer the grain to the grape, consuming 2.7 times more beer than wine. New Zealanders also enjoy wines from across the Tasman Sea: Australia accounts for 75 percent of the country’s total wine imports, which total 40m litres. France is a distant second with 3m litres.
Given the green light to sell wine in 1989, supermarkets have since become the dominant force in New Zealand domestic wine sales. Approximately 60 percent of all wine is sold through supermarkets, with two main chains dominating the landscape: Woolworths, which owns Countdown, and Foodstuffs, the company behind New World and Pak’nSave supermarkets, which also owns the off-licence Liquorland.
Alan Jepsen is the category manager for beer, wine and cider at Liquorland, which has 129 stores nationwide. While beer and spirits outsell wine, it sells approximately 338,000 9-litre cases of wine annually. Australia and New Zealand dominate the wine shelves with just 3.5 percent of sales from further afield.
Wine specialist Glengarry, which has 18 stores in the metropolitan centres of Auckland and Wellington, has been trading since the first liquor licence was granted in 1945. General manager Liz Wheadon has worked for the company for 26 years and oversees purchasing. While New Zealand wine dominates most retail shelves, Glengarry forges its own path: overseas wines represent more than half of its wine sales and it is not Australia that takes top spot. French wine is its most important import, from $15 Languedoc brands to Bordeaux classed growths.
While overseas wineries may attempt to go direct to retailers, the best route is often via distributors, which include Negociants, Red+White Cellar and Eurovintage.
It’s rare to find a restaurant with a dedicated, qualified sommelier in New Zealand. However, the profession has been enjoying a small but growing presence in recent years with international arrivals leading the way. For example, the former head sommelier of Gerard Basset’s Hotel Terravina, Andrea Martinisi, moved to Auckland to become the food and beverage manager at fine dining restaurant The Grove. Similarly, Poland’s sommelier of the year 2017, Marek Przyborek, has settled in Auckland and taken charge of the beverage programme at SkyCity, a convention centre, casino and hotel with several restaurants and bars. However, the closure of the on-trade in New Zealand due to COVID-19 means their companies’ future is uncertain.
If there’s one sommelier to know in New Zealand, it’s the country’s first and only Master Sommelier, Cameron Douglas. He consults to six restaurants across the country, is a senior lecturer in charge of the wine and beverage programme at AUT university in Auckland and is highly involved in the Court of Master Sommeliers programme in Oceania.
The trade body
New Zealand Winegrowers is the national wine trade association that represents, researches and promotes the interests of the country’s grape growers and winemakers. It has offices around the world and is funded by a levy on members’ grape and wine sales.
CEO Philip Gregan has been in the role for 30 years. He started working for the body in 1983, when it was known as the Wine Institute of New Zealand. On the international stage, Jeffrey Clarke has been the man representing the New Zealand wine scene’s legal interests since 2014. He spent more than 20 years working as a lawyer at firms in New York and London before representing New Zealand in Paris at the OECD (Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development) and the International Energy Agency in a role with a state-owned energy company. In addition to general manager advocacy, he is on the presidential council of FIVS, an international federation focused on the sustainability of the global alcohol beverage sector, and represents New Zealand at meetings of the International Organisation of Vine and Wine.
Wine is now New Zealand’s fifth most exported product, which means the national government is keen to see it thrive and has provided plentiful funding for innovative research projects. For example, the Lighter Wines initiative is a government-backed NZ$17m ($10.38m) seven-year programme focusing on developing lighter-in-alcohol wines; in 2016, $12.5m came from the science and innovation ministry to build the Bragato Research Institute based in Marlborough, which opened in early 2020.
If you want to know about the sensory science behind New Zealand’s major variety, Sauvignon Blanc, go no further than Dr Wendy Parr, principal research officer at Lincoln University. Parr’s work has been instrumental in uncovering what makes New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc so distinctive. Her attention has recently switched to Pinot Noir and she is now part of the five-year Pinot Noir Programme, which seeks to increase production of Pinot Noir, the country’s most planted red variety, while maintaining high quality. The project received NZ$9.3m (£5.7m) in government funding and Parr will investigate how wine professionals perceive and conceptualise quality in Pinot Noir wines. The project runs until 2022.
One of the most important wine scientists on the North Island is Paul Kilmartin, a professor at the University of Auckland. He was responsible for setting up the postgraduate wine science programme in 2003, which he continues to oversee. Wine projects include ongoing research into the drivers of Sauvignon Blanc thiol aromas, including the important role of antioxidants at harvest. Kilmartin is also working on the Pinot Noir Programme, studying phenolic analyses, oxygenation and their role in wine quality.
On the web
Not a lot of people know it but Wine-Searcher, the world’s biggest wine search engine, is based in a rather unremarkable Auckland suburb. Founded in 1999 by Martin Brown, the price-comparison website boasts 4.7m monthly users, displaying prices of more than 20,000 merchants in 114 countries. In recent years, it has grown to include a comprehensive wine encyclopaedia and provides daily wine news from around the globe. British Master of Wine David Allen is the company’s wine director, having moved from London to New Zealand in 2017.
Polly Hammond, the founder and face of brand agency 5forests, is another expat who now calls New Zealand home, although she is rarely at home: she is now an in-demand speaker at wine conferences around the world, providing expert insight on wine branding in the digital age. She works with wineries in New Zealand and beyond, providing guidance on digital marketing among other things. In March 2020, she launched the Real Business of Wine, a series of webinars with Wine Business International’s editor-at-large Robert Joseph, discussing key industry issues with industry experts sharing their insight.
The media landscape changed dramatically in New Zealand on 1 April 2020 when Germany’s Bauer Media closed its New Zealand magazine operation, taking down much-loved titles and long-held wine columns.
Those who write articles and review wines online continue to survive while print media crumbles. For example, The Real Review is the brainchild of Bob Campbell, the second New Zealander to become a Master of Wine, and Australia’s Huon Hooke. Campbell has been involved in the national wine industry since 1973 and runs the site on a subscription basis.
In 2013, the Wine Writers of New Zealand was founded by a group of writers to “uphold a high standard of communication about wine”. The site came about in response to a number of reviewers who charged “submission fee” for each wine, which was deemed to be a conflict of interest. Such reviews remain a bone of contention for the writing community, but wineries continue to pay for a service that generally provides a rather generous score compared with other reviews.
When it comes to production, the biggest producers are a blend of locally and internationally owned companies including Japan’s Lion Nathan, whose wineries include Wither Hills; France’s Pernod Ricard with Brancott Estate; Australia’s Treasury Wine Estates with Matua; the New Zealand-owned Delegat (Oyster Bay) and Villa Maria. The vast majority of wineries (87 percent) are considered small, with annual sales not exceeding than 200,000 litres. That said, in the past decade, there has been a threefold increase in the number of “large” wineries whose sales exceed 2m litres. In that period, the country’s export volume has almost doubled while export value has risen 75 percent to NZ$1.8bn, making wine one of the country’s most exported goods.
Rebecca Gibb MW
This article first appeared in Issue 3, 2020 of Meininger's Wine Business International magazine, available in print or online by subscription.