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Although vines have been planted in New Zealand for the best part of 200 years it is only in the last 30 or so that quality wine has been produced. In that time the country has become famous for producing what must rate as some of the world's finest Sauvignon Blanc, and a vast choice of wine styles are available from powerful reds to intensely sweet dessert stickies.
It was James Busby who first planted vines in New Zealand in the Bay of Islands. This Scotsman is often referred to as the 'father of Australian viticulture' such was his expertise with vines after studying the art of wine making in France. French missionaries planted more vines, partly as a result of the need for sacramental wine, and gradually the trend spread around the country. It was in fact Croatian settlers around West Auckland who were responsible for larger scale planting of vines around 1890, and they continued to make wine well into the 1930s. Their importance in the industry's development should be noted.
The problems caused by oidium in the late 1800s (also known as 'powdery mildew') and phylloxera, plus the that fact that many wine consumers drank 'old world' wines, prevented expansion to any great extent. It should also be noted that the preferred drink for the masses was, and still is, beer. Strict licensing laws didn't help matters as the prohibition movement gathered momentum in the late years of the nineteenth century. At its peak alcohol was very nearly banned altogether during the First World War - prohibition was actually voted in but was fortunately overturned by the votes of returning servicemen! The downside is that the prohibition laws sent a great many wine producers out of business. A few continued and the period between the wars saw a slow increase in wine production as new vineyards were planted. Many vines were American hybrids which was New Zealand's preferred solution to the Phylloxera blight (as opposed to most other viticulturists choice of grafting European vines onto American rootstocks), as they were resistant to the troublesome root louse. As recently as 1960 the American Isabella vine was the most widely planted grape variety.
When import restrictions were lifted in the late 1940s the New Zealand wine industry suffered as a result of decent Australian wines flooding the country. The harsh wine laws continued to determine exactly how wine was distributed; until 1948, when single bottle sales were permitted, wine had to be sold through hotels and only in somewhat large quantities. Restaurant licences were granted in 1960, BYO was permitted from 1976, and gradually the number of outlets selling wine increased. Overseas investment came in the form of Australia's McWilliams and Penfolds who both set up operations in New Zealand. When government legislation designed to push the country's wine industry into the modern age was implemented in the mid 1980s New Zealand emerged as the quality producer we now know. This involved the uprooting and replanting of a quarter of the country's vineyards - Hawke's Bay and Gisborne were much improved as inferior varieties such as Muller-Thurgau were replaced. More attention was paid to what went into the bottle and quality rosé considerably to combat the imported Australian which had become very popular. Domestic producers looked overseas for a new market; one of the most positive results of the new found quality was on the export side which from just over $1m to over $18m between 1983 to 1990, mainly due to the new wave of New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay. By 1997 it was up to a staggering $75m with a large proportion of exported wine heading for the UK. More new laws were passed which allowed supermarkets to sell wine and before the end of the century grocery and other similar outlets were responsible for over 40% of domestic wine sales.
The scale of development is an outstanding success story and several New Zealand wineries are household names for many of us. It may be comparatively recently that the wines of New Zealand are showing their true potential (despite the somewhat ignorant words on Kiwi reds by Robert Parker!), but with exports rising and respect growing all the time who knows what the Kiwis can achieve in the new century?
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