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The International Wine Industry
The New Zealand Landscape, Wines and Amazing Export Growth
Wednesday, 21st February, 2007  - David Farmer

The view looking south across the Kawarau River gorge to the vineyards of Chard Farm in the Gibbston Valley, Central Otago on the South Island of New Zealand. The Gibbston Valley is one of a number of places in Otago that is rapidly gaining a huge reputation for pinot noir.

New Zealand wine exports grew 30% last calendar year. Some of the country increases are staggering such as a 47% jump to Australia while Canada is up 60% and Denmark (no doubt off a low base) is up 51%. The figures for the giant U.S. market are hardly shabby showing growth of 25% (another report says growth is higher than this figure).

Even more positive is that these figures are not at the low price end but at the premium end. Sales of pinot noir for example grew 41% - and pinot out of N.Z. is not cheap.

All of which has me reflecting upon the extraordinary story that is New Zealand wine. The quality of wine from a great number of new world areas like Chile and Argentine has leaped ahead but New Zealand belongs in another league.

Something magical has been happening for a number of years though you can trace the origins back to the expansion of vineyards into new regions such as Marlborough and the increase of plantings in the 1980ís.

And these new vineyard regions produced wine of such high quality and drinking appeal that with time the wines began to sell themselves.

So why is the wine quality so high? Obviously the vineyards and the wine making skills are of the highest order but another bigger aspect must be at play.

New Zealand is a small piece of land right in the middle of a vast stretch of ocean and strategically straddles the latitudes associated with fine wine. There is no other wine country like this. The maritime climatic variables that this sets up must be a very big factor influencing the wine quality. Other landscape features such as the mountain range along the western side of the south island and the southern end of the north island create a rain shadow so some inland areas are quite dry during the summer ripening months.

Indeed it is remarkable how variable the range of local climates is from quite fierce heat as can be experienced in Otago to more temperate regions closer to the ocean. Couple this with cool evenings and you have a range of conditions to make better than average wine.

As an experiment in the variables that make up terroir and the influence this has on wine flavours New Zealand also provides a valuable insight. Many of the vineyards that are situated on river terraces are one step removed from hydroponic farming as the fine to stony soils the vines are planted in are quite different to soils that have formed from the degeneration of underlying bedrock.

If soil was particularly important in flavour development, as many European winemakers suggest, you could hypothesise that New Zealand would make very ordinary wines.

The opposite is the case and the complexity and flavour development in New Zealand wines suggests that climatic factors plus how water is delivered to the vine are by far the biggest influences from the myriad factors that make up terroir.

Over the coming years we will hear a lot more about the astonishing wines of New Zealand and I for one already find the best pinots give a most satisfactory alternative to the best of Burgundy, a comment I would not have made ten years ago.

I have written a lot about the landscapes of New Zealand vineyard areas and you will find these in the section titled Regional Studies.

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