Vines were first planted on New Zealand in 1819 by the Reverend Samuel Marsden. As was often the case in the New World they were introduced for sacramental wine and it was the first Resident (meaning British Government representative), James Busby, who is credited with starting the wine industry by importing a selection of vines from Europe and planting vineyards in 1836. Busby had been a teacher of viticulture and wrote books on viti and viniculture.
New Zealand is a long, almost 1,000 miles, and narrow north-south landmass divided roughly midway by a narrow sea channel separating it into two islands. There’s nothing between the South Island and Antarctica, and it is some 1,000 miles east to Australia from the North Island.
The north of the North Island was settled first by Europeans. It is closest to Australia, thus furthest from Antarctica, and enjoys a sub-tropical climate. Auckland, the largest city is here, and until 1973 all the commercial wineries were located on North Island.
The warmth and heavy rainfalls of the North Island caused mildew and rot among delicate vinifera vines and American and hybrid vines became the norm. It wasn’t until the 1960’s that vinifera vines began to ease out the hybrids.
Wine is grown and made the length of North Island but I think the premier wine regions on the North Island are Hawkes Bay (usually spelled without an apostrophe) on the east coast and Martinborough at the southernmost end.
Hawkes Bay is a long wide indent backed by plains and low hills and it’s the home to many long established vineyards and wineries. Perhaps the finest place is Gimlett Gravels which is a wide dry river bed revealed after the Nagaruroro river suddenly changed course during an 1867 flood. This gravelly bed was considered agriculturally useless until a trial block of vines was planted in 1981. Now it is a recognised appellation for some of the country’s finest red wines, especially Merlot, Cabernet and Syrah.
Martinborough is gaining a reputation for restrained Pinot Noirs. But fine wine is made the length of North Island.
But we might not have had the opportunity to taste wines from North Island had not a small winery decided in 1975 to ignore conventional advice and plant an unfashionable grape where it was supposed to be too cold for vines. Before the 1980s New Zealand wine was unknown outside the country; afterwards the world couldn’t get enough. The grape was Sauvignon Blanc: the vineyard was on South Island.
My North Island picks.
Bordeaux Blend – Clearview Estate ‘Old Olive Block (Hawkes Bay)
Pinotage – Muddy Water (Martinborough)
What is your favourite New Zealand wine? Tell us on our forum.
Peter F May is the author of Marilyn Merlot and the Naked Grape: Odd Wines from Around the World which features more than 100 wine labels and the stories behind them, and PINOTAGE: Behind the Legends of South Africa’s Own Wine which tells the story behind the Pinotage wine and grape.