While spilt beer and cigarette ash were being mixed to a stale slurry in the carpets of our pubs and lounges, Viggo Dufresne was outside in the blue light of sea pebbles on bare puckered knees, intent. Before him dangled a fruit crop of rare beauty and purity: bunches of luminous grapes lovingly wrung from his tiny South Island plot facing Tasman Bay.
It was early evening—one of those drawn-out, pellucid autumn evenings characteristic of Nelson. Dufresne was using a hydrometer to check the sugar level in his Seibel grapes. There was no wind, but he squinted into the sky anyway, looking south, trying to read the weather.
Inside a concrete shed to one side of the vineyard, a vat of earth’s blood was already heaving and tossing as its wild yeasts converted sugar to alcohol in grapes hand-picked a few days before. The year was 1967. Dufresne was bringing in the first licensed vintage of his Ruby Bay winery.
It was a moment of some historic significance—his was only the second grape-wine licence to be granted in the South Island—but no glasses were clinking in the Department of Agriculture. Officially, a dim view was taken of Nelson—and the rest of the South Island—as areas in which to produce wine. In the early 1960s, Te Kauwhata Research Station had run tests over a six-year period and concluded: “Conditions in the South Island do not appear to favour grape growing for wine . . . wine production in the South Island [is] a difficult and doubtful proposition.”
While German immigrants who planted the South Island’s first serious vines in Nelson in 1843—to desert them a year later—would have agreed, Dufresne adamantly did not. In his opinion, there was no better place, and he was angered that it had taken 12 years’ experimentation with 50 varieties to find out what grew best; information which could have been supplied by the Department of Agriculture.
Dufresne was a purist. His idea was to shepherd the volatile issue of the grape; to let it be itself. He refused any chemicals or even cultured yeasts. Old whisky barrels were simply tossed in the tide to deodorise them. The lips and teeth of Ruby Bay Red drinkers were the wine’s only filter.
“Peasant’s wine,” he called it, yet it was cultured people—intellectuals and artists who were its loyal drinkers. And when it went on to win a bronze medal or two, the old renegade whose vines shot out of pebbles coughed up by the sea could savour the satisfaction of proving the experts wrong.
Dufresne was not, by any means, the country’s only winemaker left to a solitary struggle against the cultural grain. North Island, South Island—in a sense it made no difference, for up until 20 years ago, Aotearoa might have been translated “land of the long white froth.” Officially and unofficially, beer was best: the beverage of the common man, the heart of the working life.
Wine inhabited a twilight world. Student types, intellectuals and foreigners might stash a bottle of Bakano (McWilliams’ first dry red wine) under the arm as they headed for a party, but they weren’t straight-living people.
In 1967, New Zealanders were downing 110 litres of beer per head compared to only 3.6 litres of wine. Who in those days could have seen past the six o’clock swill to the grape fever of the 1990s, when, in Marlborough alone, there are now 47 winemaking licences? Who could have foreseen the national popularity of food and wine festivals-23 of them, at last count—or predicted the haul of international medals won by our winemakers?
In fact, this country’s beer consumption has decreased every year since 1987. In 1995, 98.8 litres of beer per capita were imbibed, while table wine had more than quadrupled from 1967 levels to 16.8 litres. For the same year, on a top-22 list of international wine consumption (in which the US and UK do not rate), we occupied 20th place. France, at 63.5 litres per head, headed the list—no surprises there; Australia, with a wine industry a generation older than ours and ten times the number of hectares planted in grapes, only narrowly edged us out to take 18th place, with 18.2 litres.
Yet until recently, if New Zealanders wanted to drink wine communally, they had to organise a special event. There were no taverns to accommodate them. There were no wine bars, and pubs had no table wine.
To be sure, forerunners of today’s wine festival were held as early as the 1960s. For example, you could quaff or dance at the Connoisseurs Club festival, organised by a beer brewer and held annually for a decade from 1968. In unbridled vivacity, it would be hard for any of the 23 wine festivals now held around the country to outshine it. A train took participants to West Auckland, where tents with wine and food were arrayed around a park. Slav musicians and dancers in whirling ensembles mingled with festival-goers, wine sloshed in glasses, there were dogs and children underfoot. All was colour and spontaneity a new country.
Fads flourish and decline. The festivals now seem all too familiar. At its peak, the New Zealand Wine & Food Festival, held on Wellington’s waterfront since 1990, attracted 15,000. This year 2000 turned up. The Marlborough Wine & Food Festival, Wellington’s bigger and older provincial counterpart, is also seeing a drop-off. It may have something to do with beer-hall thinking being applied to wine, a drink of intimacy. Wine’s soft charm is easily bruised by indecorous trappings.
By the early 1970s, wine drinking was becoming one of the social attributes of the urban well-to-do—a trend helped along by television cooking programmes such as Graham Kerr’s Galloping Gourmet. At the same time, a steadily rising standard of living for the bulk of the population brought wine within the reach of meat-and-three-veg families.
Montana’s launch of the plastic-bag-in-a-box wine cask in 1974 gave a major boost to wine consumption. “Chateau cardboard” was humdrum wine, yet it was a treat. Even with fish and chips, a tumbler of wine conjured a convivial mood although maybe it was just the blood sugar going to your head. Until 1983, when regulations requiring a minimum of 95 per cent grape juice in table wine were introduced, much of what passed for wine was no better than lolly water.
But the mists of ignorance were clearing. Vin ordinaire alfresco no longer meant furtively sipping the contents of a brown paper bag, but families in the sun enjoying a BBQ or picnic. The wine cask’s convenience quickly made it an institution, and despite the huge increase in bottled wine consumption in the past decade, cask sales are still only 10 per cent down from the 60 per cent share of the domestic market they enjoyed in 1985.
By 1976, you could at last legally take wine to a cafe, or call in at a winery cellar and buy its vintages by the bottle. Wine was poised to start tripping off the collective tongue—wine clubs, wine trails, wine columns in magazines and newspapers. The hoisting of cold frosty ones had never engendered such attention.
New zealand may be characterised as a hops-mad country, but the seeds of our love affair with wine were present at the colony’s birth. In 1840, Dumont d’Urville anchored the Astrolabe in the Bay of Islands and popped in on our first winemaker: James Busby, the British Resident. Sipping Busby’s Waitangi white, the French explorer was moved to comment: “Judging from this sample, I have no doubt that vines will be grown extensively all over the sandy hills of these islands, and very soon New Zealand wine will be exported to English possessions in India.”
Busby’s efforts were eclipsed by another enterprising Englishman, Charles Levet, who established the country’s first commercial vineyard in 1863. With his son William, Levet erected a crude manuka trellis and planted vines on 2.8 ha of poggy Wellsford clay. The pair produced wines for 40 years, supplying the country’s first licensed wine bar, which opened in Auckland’s Symonds Street in 1881, and wetting the whistles of several Auckland governors with their port, sherry, and Madeira.
Other pioneering vineyards were planted by the Breideckers at Kohukohu and the Spaniard Jose Soler at Wanganui—the latter winning several international awards.
The government’s contribution to the fledgling wine industry consisted of summoning Italian viticulturist Romeo Bragato from Victoria in 1895 to dash about the country, sniffing out winemaking territory. Bragato’s moist, enthusiastic nose turned up a vision—more prophetic than realisable, as it turned out—of one large smiling wineland. He urged the government to get “capitalists” to invest, especially to rescue the French viticultural outpost at Akaroa from its death spin, because he said it could produce wine akin to that of Moselle and the Rhine and acquire worldwide fame.
He was similarly aglow at prospects for Central Otago, Hawke’s Bay, the Bay of Plenty, Wairarapa, Whangarei, Waikato and Wanganui. And for a nation soon to be in rip-roaring production he had a solution to the problem of securing barrels: Nelson planted wall-to-wall in oak trees.
A sanguine spectacle, and—as today’s 275-and-growing wineries attest—not so very hyperbolic. But how was Bragato (and those inspired by him) to know that a grim line-up of phylloxera, prohibitionism, the Depression and two world wars was waiting in the wings?
Phylloxera was the first scourge to arrive on the scene. The American root-chewing aphid, which laid waste to virtually all Europe’s vineyards in the 1870s, surfaced in New Zealand in 1885. New Zealand vines were all varieties of the European grape Vitis vinifera, and were similarly susceptible. In America, another species of grape, Vitis labrusca, had long coexisted with phylloxera, and was resistant to its effects. The grapes of labrusca were good to eat, but they produced beverages far inferior to those derived from the grapes of vinifera.
Bragato recommended that vineyards be replanted with viniftra vines grafted to labrusca rootstocks, but for some time his advice was ignored. Eventually, in 1895, government passed the Phylloxera Act, giving inspectors wide powers to seek and destroy offending vines. Not all growers were pleased. After George Alderton had his small infected planting torn out, he protested to a parliamentary committee: “The greatest blight that has ever befallen on the fruit industry is not of the bug species. It is the interference of the government through an army of inspectors.
These parasites are harder to get rid of than all the bugs. The law does not permit us to spray them with their only certain specific—buckshot . . .”
Many growers, suspicious of viniftra in any form, replanted with straight labrusca vines or hybrids between the two species. (Albany Surprise, a favourite with home gardeners, is a sport from the labrusca variety Isabella and dates from this era.)
The rise of prohibitionism as a popular and political movement brought further privations to the struggling wine industry. Although the country escaped national prohibition (enacted in the U.S. in 1920), many winemaking livelihoods were imperilled by laws which carved the country up into “wet” and “dry” areas. Wine could be produced in dry areas, but not sold there Corban and Sons’ first vintage of 1908 was made in a vineyard which, by chance, fell on the demarcation line of Henderson’s “wet” and “dry” parts. As quick as a wink, a wine-sales depot was built across the boundary, and for 10 years wine was hauled from dry-side cellars to sell on the “wet” 30 metres away.
Another Henderson winemaker, Josip Babich, survived the drought by hawking his wares door to door in other suburbs. Travelling on horseback, he often covered 80 miles in a day.
During the Depression, winemakers had to cope with poor sales as well as fight stifling temperance laws, but after the Second World War, returning servicemen who had developed a taste for wine in Europe lifted demand—though it was not a very discriminating demand. High-yielding hybrid varieties such as Albany Surprise remained in favour with growers, and sugar and water were liberally employed to try and ameliorate the inferior acidic wines produced. Sweetness was still what the predominantly Anglo-Saxon public wanted: the strong sherries and ports which had been popular for generations.
What finally steered the country away from hybrid grapes and fortified wines and into the table wine revolution of the last few decades was European influence, and it took several forms. One was a West Auckland enclave of Mediterranean grape growers, many of them Dalmatians who had started their lives here as gumdiggers in the north. The Corbans, Babiches, Beliches, Delegats, Mazurins and others preferred table wine—drier wines to be sipped along with the main course—and formed the Young Wine Makers Club to taste and compare each other’s vintages. The superiority of Vitis vinifera wines quickly became apparent to them.
As more and more Europeans, accustomed to having wine with their meals, emigrated here, the interest in table wines blossomed, but perhaps even more important in refining the nation’s taste buds were the “OEs” of an increasing number of young Kiwis—travels which exposed them to the cultures and tastes of Europe.
During a visit here in the 1970s, Helmut Becker, an eminent German authority on wine, enthused about the similarities between the climate of the Rhineland and New Zealand, and recommended winegrowers plant Muller-Thurgau grapes, a vinifera variety. Many did, and found that the vines were easily grown, yielded voluminously and produced white wines far superior to those obtainable from hybrid grapes. “A good clean wine and not demanding,” is how Montana managing director Peter Hubscher describes it. By 1975, the heavy-cropping white grape made up 50 per cent of all new vineyard stock.
However, this improvident production contributed to a wine glut in the early 1980s, which quickly turned into a nightmare for winemakers when the government imposed an 83 per cent increase in the wine excise in 1984. Prices rose by 15 per cent, and even large wineries like Villa Maria and Delegats were nearly bankrupted as profit margins collapsed.
In 1986, to help stabilise the industry, the government funded a $10-million vine-purging scheme in which growers were paid $6000 per hectare to uproot vines. MidlerThurgau, the big-yielding grape that started it all, constituted the biggest percentage of the 1500 hectares of vines removed. Profitability returned, and with it a new cycle of replanting.
Meanwhile, something was happening in hitherto neglected Marlborough. In 1973, Montana had taken the bold step of buying land in the Wairau Valley and planting another classic variety of wine grape: sauvignon blanc, the chief white grape of Bordeaux. After a dry first summer without irrigation, 300 of the 400 hectares had to be replanted, and sceptics shook their heads. But when the first vintage of worthwhile size appeared in 1980, Montana was vindicated, and a new era in New Zealand winemaking had begun.
Vintners flocked, not just to Marlborough, but to Martinborough, Gisborne, Hawke’s Bay and even Central Otago, knocking in treated poles by the tens of thousands, stringing kiloinetres of wire, planting, harvesting and bottling with all the furious passion of the pioneer, determined to take the wine world by storm.
When Australian winemakers Kevin Judd and David Hohnen combined with Corbans to produce a Marlborough sauvignon blanc which topped London tastings of the world’s best in 1986, New Zealand’s name was firmly engraved on the wine map.
The grape is an enigmatic fruit. Left alone, it is a wild thing, too callow and sinewy to taste good. Cultivated, it is a glowing, mysterious, opaque vessel that gently fills with the nectars of life. Those juices, released from their time capsules and mingled with an artist’s skill, a chemist’s knowledge and a sorcerer’s magic, occasionally yield a masterpiece.
But even the most inspired winemaker cannot achieve greatness without fine fruit. What, then, of the suitability of our young, green land for the growing of superior grapes and the crafting of latter-day Lafites?
Conventional wine wisdom has it that wine-grapes like to graze deeply in old soils, that they abjure wetness and worship heat. Aotearoa, however, sits in the midst of a great shimmering sea mass—wonderful for freshness of light, for human lungs, for puffy clouds . . . and mud. A place more suited to cabbage trees and ferns than to viticulture, you would think.
Yet this cast-off of ancient Gondwana is awash not just in salt spray but in climatic, geographical and geological variation, and within the 36° to 45° latitudes which are regarded as extremes for grape growing, there are pockets which are said to mimic conditions of some of the world’s best wine lands: the Rhine Valley, Champagne, Bordeaux and Burgundy—terrain in which the grape may prosper.
We are certainly cooler than any other New World site, and therefore more marginal for the production of fine grapes. But marginality is not a disadvantage in itself. As Marlborough-based winemaker Hatsch Kalberer says, “The best wines are made in areas where you have to work at it. Burgundy, Bordeaux—they don’t have every year a good year like the Californians do.”
It isn’t just a lack of heat for ripening that makes us marginal. In southern areas, vines run a gauntlet between late frosts, which can damage newly emerged shoots, and early frosts, which can freeze the grapes before they are fully ripe. Some growers use helicopters—at $1000 per hour—to stop frost forming; others rely on burners scattered among the rows.
Elsewhere in the country, rain is the problem. Autumn storms cause physical damage, while rain before harvest can encourage mildews, rots and botrytis, or cause the grapes to swell and burst.
Nor are New Zealand’s young, relatively fertile soils necessarily an advantage, since they tend to encourage vigorous vine growth at the expense of fruit production.
Traditionally, a healthy grape vine has had a deeply penetrating root system (perhaps down to two or three metres) that extends much more widely than the tightly pruned vine above ground. The best soil is calcareous (derived from lime) and free-draining; a deep, only moderately rich soil which will allow roots to elaborate in search of nutrients. As one viticulturist puts it, “Where the soil is a mixture of decomposed stone and leaf mould and feels like velvet to the feet there is paradise to the grape.”
The typical New Zealand combination of young, vigorous vines, overly fertile soil and plentiful moisture with relatively low heat can lead to ripening difficulties, particularly if lush foliage and shoot growth shades the grapes. A solution was advanced by influential Australian viticulturist Richard Smart, who worked here in the 1980s. His work with vine canopy management training, trellising, pruning and leaf plucking systems to control vine vigour and give grape bunches better sun exposure—has helped establish New Zealand’s position as a leader in cool climate viticulture.
Head of Gisborne’s Tairawhiti Polytechnic viticulture and oenology course, Jeff Sinnott, says our reputation for innovative viticulture is the reason Asian, British, Australian and South African students are lining up to study for our polytechnic diplomas and Lincoln University’s degree in viticulture.
In those years when everything falls into place, New Zealand’s cool climate is a real blessing. A long, gentle ripening season prolongs the grape’s ability to pack its fruit with subtle nuances of flavour and aroma, resulting in wines of exceptional quality.
As with people, so with the grape and the wine it gives rise to: character is moulded by adversity, not by ease.
Grape varieties have led vignerons a merry dance over the century. Although the ancestral grape vine Vitis vinifera has looked the same for thousands of years, it has a bewildering capacity for change, both through genetic se-lc( t ion and in response to growing conditions. Over 5000 varieties are recognised.
The classic vinifera varieties, abandoned in the 1920s for easy-to-grow hybrids, are now considered the only vines worth planting. Yet as recently as 1965, when interest in quality table wines was beginning to rise, the two principal grape varieties in New Zealand vineyards were still the hybrids Bacco 22A and Albany Surprise. Cooks commented in a report, “The first is prohibited in most European winemaking districts and the second would be if anyone proposed to plant it.”
Muller-Thurgau, the stalwart of the 1970s, is now regarded almost as a liability by some winemakers, in that chardonnay, cabernet sauvignon, pinot noir, riesling and gewurztraminer yield wines of greater complexity, providing more pleasure to the educated palate.
Even sauvignon blanc, one of the three most popular varieties of grape grown in the world, is dismissed as a “beginner’s wine” by wine writer Michael Cooper. He considers it unlikely to persist in popularity as consumer tastes mature.
Chardonnay, the grape of white Burgundy and champagne, is more assured of a continued high placing because it ages well and can be readily manipulated by winemakers. In the 1980s, when the political left was in the ascendancy, “chardonnay liberal” was the sobriquet attached to a new breed of young urban politician, but it also reflected the taste of a country which chooses white wine eight times more than red. Chardonnay is still the most popular varietal: in 1996, 13,870 tonnes of chardonnay grapes were crushed from an industry total of 75,300 tonnes.
Pinot noir is a rising star in the local grape firmament. “It is going to be New Zealand’s grape,” says Clive Paton of Martinborough. “Australia’s too hot. The grape is extremely fickle. It needs a long, slow maturation—not too much heat or the flavours are reduced—and we have a good diurnal range. There are surprisingly few places round the world that provide that.”
For the same reasons, after playing stooge to cabernet sauvignon, Bordeaux red grape merlot has recently emerged here in its own colours. It tolerates clay soils, ripens earlier than cabernet sauvignon, and requires only two years’ maturation to cabernet’s three to five. It shares highest place in new red plantings with pinot noir.
Under the great Marlborough sky, Hatsch Kalberer quickly, brusquely even, plucks a grape from a dusky bunch and presents it to me with unstated feeling. He studies me as I put the fruit to my lips. The instant I bite through its leathery casing, my senses still and concentrate: the palate is laden with liquid sensations of earth and light. The grape has distilled the strength of the sun’s late heat with the insinuating aroma of the earth to make a mouthful of soft fire.
Like all impassioned winemakers, Kalberer seems spellbound by a mission to capture and hold in a bottle the elemental essence of the grape. In his cellar he drew up pipette after pipette of different vintages, blends for me to sample. Carried away, yet with utmost dignity.
Kalberer and vineyard owners Georg and Ruth Fromm, all three of them Swiss (and Georg a fourth-generation winemaker still with a Swiss vineyard) are among the boutique smallholders to whom much of the present growth in the New Zealand wine industry can be credited.
While a handful of large wine companies define the international profile of the country’s wines, 257 of our 275 licensed winemakers are small producers with annual wine sales below 200,000 litres. They range from owner-operators producing 500 or so cases a year to vineyards with a dozen or more employees, a well-stocked wineshop and probably a café to boot.
The overwhelming majority of winemakers are staunch Kiwi do-it-yourselfers. As Tim Finn of Neudorf Vineyards says, “We have to be Jacks-of-all-trades. Growing, making, selling, labels, distribution everything. It’s hard.” And perilous. VVine requires long-term financing and heavy capital outlay, but, unlike other such monocultural products meat and timber, for instance it is a luxury item which is often at the mercy of fashion.
“No one would start winemaking if they spoke to an accountant,” says Steve Tarring, proprietor of Martin-borough’s Winslow Wines.
Ex-crayfisherman and self-proclaimed opportunist Graham Vanstone is one of the latest recruits. “I’ve done my duty to the breweries,” he says, sipping wine from a glass that catches the light of French Bay on Banks Peninsula. “The concept of wine as a sign of growing up has reached me.”
Because he wants the grape character to “assert itself” in the wine, the idea is that he and the vines will “tough it out.” Tougher than he thought have been the costs for his two and a half acres on a 15-degree slope, 500 ft above sea level. “So far $20k for the bulldozer, $10k labour and $20k for poles. But the locals helped. With offers to tread in the future.”
Many smallholders have farming backgrounds, but there are plenty of other enthusiasts and dreamers: academics, restaurateurs, cricketers, pilots, chemists, lawyers, an ex-swimming pool builder, a retired judge—people who have never been near an oenology course.
Most likely to fall by the wayside are the lifestylers who slog at it in the weekend or come home after a day at the office to the wine manager’s report. But winemaking can be marginal even for those giving it both barrels. With her Italian doctor-of-molecular-genetics husband, Dutch-born Zeke Todd, ex-rag trade, set up Silverstream Vineyard eight years ago.
Christchurch resembled north-eastern Italy, they thought, if a little colder. They planted four hectares of alluvial silt in chardonnay and pinot noir. Their first 150-case vintage gave them a big glow—two silver medals—but nothing else.
“After borrowing and spending savings for five years to set it up, the returns weren’t there,” says Zeke. The second vintage of the same size missed out on the accolades, “and folk weren’t so interested—the curse of the competition system which tells susceptible people what they should like, rather than letting them judge for themselves,” she says.
The final straw was a frost in November 1996 that cost 75 per cent of the crop. “We had to go through a ‘letting go’ process,” she explains. “It was too expensive to bottle, when each case costs over $40 in packaging and excise alone. So we sold our grapes. Around $1400 per tonne, nothing fantastic.”
Some growers always sell their crop, having nothing to do with winemaking. Others, unable to afford the equipment, have their grapes made into wine by another winery, then label and market it themselves. A few winemakers buy in all their grapes, use a winery’s equipment to make the wine, and market it under their own name, without so much as setting foot in a vineyard.
“It’s a funny old business,” Zeke comments. “We’re too big to be small but not big enough to play with the big fellas. And it’s getting incredibly competitive in the context of such a small population base and limited markets.”
Some say that 10 per cent of New Zealand winemakers make 90 per cent of the profits.
Zeke finds New Zealanders generous about sharing equipment and know-how, but laments their individualistic streak. She likes the idea of several winemakers cooperatively exporting a single provincial brand: “It would suit the small players to halve costs and find strength in unifying. Imagine all those passions in one bottle of chardonnay! But when you talk about it at the local wine group such a diverse group—it falls to bits.”
In Martinborough, laconic ex-architect Bill Benfield makes a virtue of individualism. He and partner Sue Delamare are committed to supplying a select niche market. “The only way for a small vineyard to prosper is to be focused on one thing,” he says. “You can’t take on Villa Maria, Corbans or Montana in the $15 bracket, so we specialise in premium quality red, where they lose on the economies of scale. Because the market’s small, they can’t make much more or sell much more of that type than we can.”
Another area in which boutique wineries can excel is in catering to the wine-sampling public. Nationally, around five per cent of sales are from the cellar-door, but for the smaller vineyards callers-by often make up more than 80 per cent of sales.
For a winemaker, there is no more basic transaction than a stranger in your door downing a glass of your wine, Steve Tarring has found out. But that transaction is not without its hiccups.
“Wine is very moody. It’s not a beverage but a fashion industry. Someone’ll turn up here, saying, ‘Where’s your 96? I heard 95’s no good.’ Most are so influenced by what’s written. . . One guy took me on about the dollar tasting charge. I said, ‘Why don’t you go to the dairy and ask to sample the ice-creams?’ At the minimum, a bottle with no wine in it represents $2.”
But the one-to-one exchange with a punter is crucial for the smallholder who is not making 1500 cases for the masses.
I have the pleasure of such an exchange when I visit Dave Glover’s small vineyard up a Nelson back road. I find a vine-covered cellar-door, shop, house, and a tangle of implement sheds from which a black-singleted man with tufty white chest hair, sideburns and glowing weathered skin looms: the renowned Glover, the king of tannin.
A PhD in mathematics behind him, Glover is now unofficial top contender for a tannin doctorate for his “grunty” red wines. One year his pinot noir had such high levels of fruit tannin it required no preservative.
He is in receptive mood as he pours me a glass of Hoary Head at 9.30 in the morning. “People have been good this year,” he muses. “Sometimes you have some terrible sorts and the day just turns to sludge.”
He’s tending to a caller-in he’s sure of, an electrician from Hokitika.
“I’ve been coining here eight years now,” admits Keith Gilbertson, “and I always buy a couple of bottles to take home. I buy Glovers and Neudorf and keep them, and then I buy drinking wines from the supermarket. I have a glass every night with my tea.”
He takes a sip from a glass Dave hands him.
“That’s very different. It’s quite young, is it?”
“Not that young. Ninety-five. It’s got another five years. The tannins tend to hydrolyse. They definitely fall out, but they also give that lovely earthy flavour.”
“It tastes more spirity than the others. It’s nice, that.”
“Yeah, but I pay the penalty. Because it’s true that wines that last a helluva long time take a little while to come to their peak.”
“Same as people.”
“Yeah, I guess.”
They both laugh.
“Well, I’ll take that,” says Gilbertson who is also in a receptive mood. “Don’t worry about bubble wrap. I’m just going down the bach. I suppose I’ve ruined me taste buds for the whites, have I?”
Such a morning and its drowsy, intimate landscape of vines and fruit trees reminded me of parts of a childhood spent near what, in the 1950s, was the rustic heartland of New Zealand winemaking: West Auckland. Going down dusty roads with my father to a shack where, in what seemed to a child a nefarious business, a stubbled man with huge serrated hands stained purple passed a “half-g” or two of sinister dark red liquid across an unlit counter.
Many of those vineyards, dominated by Dalmatian families, are still in operation, and have expanded by buying in grapes from the less humid grape-growing regions to the south. Now seven of the country’s 14 medium-sized wineries (annual wine sales between 200,000 and 2,000,000 litres) are in the West Auckland area.
Actual viticulture in Auckland has declined. There is now 210 ha in grapes, compared with 310 ha in 1990. Unlike Corbans and Delegats, who these days bring all their fruit in, Lincoln Vineyards, founded by Peter Fredatovich, retains some growing land. He watches the third generation tending it.
“I do a bit of a smile,” Fredatovich says. “We never had all that equipment. In my father’s day you had to be a bit of a judge. ‘We’ll hang on for another week,’ we’d say, and then if we got rain it created a problem. Now they test grapes long before they’re ripe and pick on acid rather than sugar. And there were no mechanised sprayers in our time. Just copper and dry sulphur in a knapsack, which burned your daylights out. Now they spray to within a fortnight of picking, the diseases are that resistant. It’s very expensive.”
“I’ve got different ideas from the boys,” he continues,somewhat sadly. “Organic’s the right way to go. We did it with fowl manure. I argue about them not putting on fertiliser. ‘No, no, you’ve got to stress the plants,’ they say. We had a much better knowledge of the vineyard. They’re benefiting from our building the soil up over those years, without a doubt.”
Until World War II, few vignerons depended on chemical support. But from the mid-1940s, governments in developed countries encouraged it. A familiar cycle resulted: the more chemicals used, the more had to be used to combat increasingly resistant pests and maintain high production.
Now almost 50 per cent of viticulturists are trialling a scheme called Integrated Winegrape Production (IWP), which has the goal of producing quality grapes and wines emphasising ecological methods and with a general reduction in the use of synthetic chemicals.
“By 1998,” says Roger McLernon, winery manager for Montana in Gisborne, “all Montana vineyards will be in IVVP, because it benefits marketing and the environment.
We have 30 to 40 years’ toxicity to live down. We’re all morally expected to do something.”
These are long-awaited sentiments for the country’s eight organic/biodynamic wine practitioners who, driven by conviction rather than economics, have trodden a lonely path. The glaring hypocrisy of wine positioned in the UK and other export markets as “the riches of a clean green land,” to quote Wine Institute of New Zealand publicity, has been difficult for them to swallow.
The nebuchadnezzars of the New Zealand wine industry are Montana, Corbans, Villa Maria and Nobilo each with sales of more than 2,000,000 litres per annum, but with Montana having by far the largest output. Together, the four are responsible for 75 per cent of domestic sales and 80 per cent of exports.
Exports have seen rapid growth in the last decade, rising to 13 million litres in the year to March 1997 (worth $75 million) from 1 million litres ($4.5 million) ten years ago. The industry is aiming for $125 million worth of exports by the beginning of the new millennium.
Sales of sparkling, or, more accurately, bottle-fermented, wine have gone into orbit over the same period, undergoing a 73 per cent expansive pop. Montana is the largest producer of sparkling wines, which constitute 12 per cent of exports and 15 per cent of domestic sales.
All wine producers belong to the Wine Institute of New Zealand (WINZ), set up in 1975 to represent the industry on such issues as licensing laws, tariffs and taxation. It is funded by a levy of 1.4 cents per litre of wine sold (amounting to around $600,000 a year), and from user-pays export promotions.
Although there has always been an uneasy alliance in the industry between corporate giants and small family concerns, all winemakers unite over a common mistrust: politicians. “We have a saying at this winery,” says Alan Laurenson of Limeburners Bay Vineyards, Hobsonville, “Insects, weather and fungus cause only 20 per cent of the problems that birds cause, and birds cause only 20 percent of the problem of politicians.”
Some of this distaste arises from the fact that products containing alcohol are levied by governments—the amount depending on the whims of politicians. Table wine, for example, is taxed at $1.91 per litre (about $1.43 a bottle). VVinemakers argue that the excise tax takes money from the industry that could be used for research and development. And it raises the price to consumers. Australians base their excise on a percentage value. Because our take is fixed, it makes cheap wine more expensive and expensive wine cheaper than it is for Australians.
“Excise exists as recognition of the social costs of alcohol consumption.” Full stop. That’s Minister of Finance Bill Birch. He says any lower rate would represent a subsidy to the alcohol industry. However, he sees a beneficial correlation between excise and the development of wine exports. “Since excise does not apply to exports, it is likely to create an incentive to developing them,” he says.
Another traditional foe of the grape grower is as hard to pin down as the politician, and can’t be voted out: birds.
Here, though, there is less unanimity on how to deal with the problem. “Netting is useless,” says Bill Benfield of Martinborough, “although it costs about $40,000 per hectare. What it does is give you time. Your bird-type attrition around the edges is less the bigger you are. With a small block, the birds get right in to the middle. It’s no problem in France, of course. Locals go out after Mass with funny little shotguns. Thrush on toast. You’re not from Forest & Bird?” he suddenly enquires.
In Central Otago, a feather in his battered straw hat, handyman Dennis Thomas zooms up and down Rob Dicey’s Bannockburn rows with a 12-gauge shotgun: “You find out what you’ve shot later,” he says dryly. He says gas bangers are not effective. “I find eaten grapes right beside them.” In the Awatere Valley, Ted Reynolds guns the motorbike. “Shooting is completely useless,” he insists. Hair on end and eyes gleaming from a charge down the rows, he delivers a bulletin: “Starlings take an entire bay. Blackbirds leave great nips. Wax-eyes take one bite and suck, but if I keep this up nothing gets anything.”
Politicians and pests notwithstanding, more wine is being drunk by New Zealanders, but wine lovers with a cellar are still a rarity. Roy Swenson took many years to work up to his. Wine was an alien potion in Te Kuiti’s backblocks where he grew up. “In 1965, my father said `Now you’re 21 we’d better go to a public bar’,” Swenson tells. “He took me to a pub typical of those days, with a long bar in the middle of the room like a pig’s trough. Men were guzzling at it. I had a pint. I didn’t like it.”
What he does like is dipping into his Ponsonby cellar for the seven-course dinner parties he holds—presenting different wines with each course.
“Sometimes I’ll even have two wines with a course,” he says. “With the cheese, I like to have a young red, and then, when you’re almost sated on cheese, to bring out a much older red.
“I’ve got more than 600 bottles in the cellar, but there’s virtually nothing I can drink on my own. Well, I could, but I’d feel guilty drinking it by myself.
“What you cellar depends on style, rather than price. In the case of red, you’re looking for good fruit and character and sufficient acid and tannin. Sometimes reds can be very austere, and you need to cellar them to get them to soften. Cellaring develops the bouquet and flavours.”
John and Paulette Hansen—a firefighter and teacher respectively—are on the mailing lists of about a dozen vineyards. For them, cellaring is a hobby: a chance to experiment, but with good prospects of success.
John: “The oldest wine in the cellar would be mid-’80s. No disasters so far—no ‘Quick, drink this stuff up, it’s going off!’ Wine is a living thing. It changes in the bottle. Our tastes change, too. We used to buy chardonnay mainly, but at the moment it’s gewurztraminer. We would love to buy more reds, but they seem to be in the upper price bracket. We’re prepared to pay up to $30 a bottle. Some wines really increase in value.”
Paulette: “John usually buys half a dozen. We drink one now, then put the rest away with a note on it. We try it again a year or 18 months down the track. Invariably, when we get to the last one we wish we had a dozen.”
“We drink wine with every meal, but sometimes have to revert to the cask to try and cut down on the bottled. Is there any good cask stuff? Depends on your mood. If you’re having pizzas or something, then you’re better off drinking a good wine before you start eating.”
“When we first started to drink wine, we liked sweet wines, and I think most people start like that. We go for drier now. I have no tolerance for red tannins. I think even with whites sometimes my sinuses start to block up. Must be some sort of allergy, but it doesn’t put me off!”
Neither have any of my varied wine experiences. Wine seems to heighten and fill out memories—like my OE days in the 1970s: downing thimblefuls of yellow wine in a Hungarian peasant’s yard and in the lamplight of a Grand Cru cellar; listening to the guttural confidences of an ancient vigneron as he squirted from his pipette rivulets of maroon satin down our crystal glasses. There was the vin ordinaire, camembert and baguette, invariably bought in a dark and pungent village shop and swallowed on the side of the road three times a day for many weeks as I roamed the French countryside.
In New Zealand in those days, there was romance of a kind in the Heath Robinson nature of wine production and consumption: the shared metabolic reaction to concocted plonk; the legendary Cold Duck hangovers. Like Soviet bloc partisans, we reeled from, but manfully endured, the rawest of homebrews.
Twenty years later, on this wine trail, the more I searched—the more tastings, festivals and functions I visited—the more manicured hype was revealed. And the more “MERLOT,” “CABSAV” and “VINO 1”-type number plates which flashed past me on the highway, the less romance and poetry disclosed itself. I began to feel nostalgia for retchingly viscid potions, musty concrete cellars and spider webs.
Interminable fruity descriptions of wine “character”—”hints of apples and pears,” “strawberry overtones,” “guava and a nuance of herbaceousness”—brought on a craving for a bit of darkness and mystery. Some suffering, sternness and earthiness that might fulfil a variation of Shelley’s line about music: “Our sweetest wines are those that tell of saddest thought.”
That romantic landscape of wine is dying, despite all the faux-Mediterranean trappings of our nouveaux chateaux. Suffering and passion are increasingly tied to the bank balance, and, because of that, fewer winemakers are seeking an uncompromising escape in the ideals of liberty, purity, humanity and wine as a work of art.
The wine world is becoming a global village. “Mall” would be a better word, for what room is left for the eccentric, quaint or homespun in a civilisation flung open to frantic commerce?
The best wine I sampled on the road was Millton Vmeyard’s Clos de Ste Anne, Pinot Noir 1994. What made it stand out? Was it the wine’s organic origins, James Millton’s expertise, the hillside soil with a repugnant suppurating shark stew thrown on it, or was it just a certain mood on a sunny Gisborne day? Who knows. No one can really tell you what you should like. It’s a matter of the palate and the heart.
For New Zealand wine, the road has been long, patchy, and perilous. In an isolated country with no criss-cross of influence, no centuries of peasant lore, no dynasties of grape growers and vignerons, and with the stifling breath of government legislators and temperance zealots down their necks, it is an everlasting mystery that our winemakers have achieved the success they have.
Yet New Zealand wine is still a beginner, and a small one at that. There is much more learning—and living—to do before its vines, growers, makers and consumers reach their prime. New wines to taste, new fads, new follies, new marketing concepts, new growing regions . . . and no “experts,” just explorers.