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29 Jan 2018 | Andy Acosta

Purity in a Bottle: New Zealand's Pristine and Forthright Wines

New Zealand is rightly famous for beautiful vistas, crystal clean air, a pristine environment and amazing geological variety. Think of the eye-wateringly gorgeous landscapes displayed in the Lord of The Rings movies - shot in New Zealand.

And for those of us interested in wine, the Land of the Long White Cloud (or Aotearoa, as the Polynesian Maori peoples named the South Pacific two island chain upon discovering it in the 1200s) is also world famous for deliciously distinctive, bright, crisp and fruity Sauvignon Blanc - although the modern New Zealand wine industry makes world class wines of all types and styles.

But it hasn't always been thus.

While there has been winemaking in New Zealand since the 1850s (early on, chiefly by the church for sacramental purposes), since it was settled almost exclusively by the beer-and-spirits-drinking English, and, there were no grapes growing natively when the Maori people arrived by boat from eastern Polynesia, there was no European-style daily-wine-with-the-meal tradition to speak of. If they drank alcohol at all in the predominately very conservative culture, the average New Zealander drank beer or spirits, not wine.

Up until the 1980s most of the wine produced was sweet and fortified, much of it produced by Dalmatian immigrants who arrived in the late 1800s and early 1900s, or very light and fruity - and cheap. There was virtually no fine wine produced or consumed and little concept of wine as a part of the daily table.

In the 1970s, international trade circumstances combined with local legislative and cultural changes to create the conditions that led to the birth of the modern New Zealand wine industry. Great Britain joined the European Economic Community which resulted in New Zealand losing its favorable trade terms for dairy and meat - agricultural interests now needed other profitable things to grow and export besides the meat and dairy products that then dominated the New Zealand agricultural sector.

Around the same time, New Zealand's legal codes changed to allow pubs to remain open longer (somewhat unbelievably, until this change, pubs were open only until 7 pm and not at all on Sunday) and to allow "bring your own" licenses for restaurants.  So the drinking culture began to change - New Zealanders could now drink more easily in public.

And with the advent of jet air travel, a new generation of New Zealanders ventured out from their isolated island chain with its cloistered, conservative culture to see the world, where they discovered the wine and food cultures of Europe. Change was afoot.

While looking for new agricultural products to lessen their reliance on the now less profitable meat and dairy export market to Great Britain, some forward-thinking folks came upon the easily grown vinifera grape used in winemaking.  They determined that money could be made by nurturing the nascent domestic demand for more and better wine and elbowing into the burgeoning international export wine market.  After all, they had experience growing many types of fruit throughout the islands; wine grapes were being grown in small quantities already; and some wineries already existed. Sauvignon Blanc was first planted and produced in this time frame and the rest is history.

New Zealand Today

Fast forward to now and the New Zealand wine industry is a mighty little international powerhouse, fighting way above its weight - after all, it's a country of less than 5 million inhabitants.  Total wine exports for 2016 year are up to $1.66 billion and have grown an average of 17% per year for the last twenty years.  New Zealand wine is now number three in dollar value of wine imported into the US at $500 million (2016), trailing only France and Italy.

While they've done this predominately riding the immense popularity of Sauvignon Blanc, the New Zealand wine industry has been busy diversifying, investing in itself and attracting foreign investment. There has also been an entire generation of New Zealand winemakers who have travelled the globe in pursuit of their craft, working and learning in places like Australia, France, Italy, Germany and the US. The results have been very impressive, with exquisitely made Pinot Noir rapidly becoming their second calling card.  Other top wines that are gaining in international fame are Syrah and Bordeaux-style blends on the red side and Chardonnay and Pinot Gris for the whites.

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