New Zealand’s Wine History
The far North and west Auckland are where some of the first wines were made in New Zealand.
In 1819 Anglican missionary the Reverend Samuel Marsden planted the very first vines in the rich soils of Kerikeri and in the late 1830s Official British Resident James Busby produced the first recorded example of wine made here. It was a sparkling white wine and judged ‘very drinkable’ by a passing French official.
Then, from the turn of the 19th Century, a trickle of immigrants from what was part of the Austro-Hungarian empire (now Croatia) began to arrive here, in search of a better life – an escape from poverty and political instability in Europe. Into the 1920s and 1930s more and more arrived from the Adriatic coastal region of Dalmatia. They worked very hard – literally scratching a living, digging up buried kauri tree ‘gum’ resin from ancient forests north of Auckland. And it was very hard work. Iron spears blindly located the buried treasure, and then it was manually dug out of the heavy yellow clay. At the time, there was a thriving trade in kauri gum for making varnishes and glues.
These Croatian labourers saved up enough money to buy land. Some of them settled in the far north around Dargaville, Whangarei and Kaitaia, and a few intermarried with local Ngapuhi tribal Māori. The majority settled in northwest Auckland’s Oratia, Henderson Valley and Kumeu regions, where they grew fruit and vegetables alongside their family vineyards, growing grapes to make their own wine for daily consumption, as they had done in the old country.
These were the humble beginnings of some of our prominent wine labels: Kumeu River, Babich, Nobilo and Oyster Bay. Around the same time, some renowned smaller Auckland labels were making a start, for example West Brook, Soljans, Mazurans, Collards, Corbans and Selaks. 1961 was a particularly good year for our wine industry – George Fistonich started Villa Maria wines in Mangere, the same year that Frank and Maté Yukich began Montana (now Brancott) in Titirangi.
Today, the Big Four – Montana, Nobilo, Matua and Villa Maria – are all Auckland-based and export large volumes of our wine overseas, through the port of Auckland to the thirsty markets of Australia, the Pacific, North America and the United Kingdom.
Aside from small attempts at grape growing by French settlers in Akaroa and German settlers in Motueka, Hawke’s Bay represents the other major component in our wine history. Thanks to the Catholic Church’s Marist order of priests, the Mission vineyard was primarily established to produce sacramental wines for use in the Catholic Mass. And Mission Estate was one of our earliest commercial vineyards, with its first sales in 1895. Hawke’s Bay has declined somewhat in terms of production, but is still one of the premium red-wine regions – particularly the branded Gimblett Gravels region.
Into the 1950s and into the 1960s there was still very little demand for table wines. The majority of wines sold in those days were Ports and Sherries – sweet wines fortified with grape spirit. Beer had been the national beverage for decades. But slowly, over the years, and into the 1970s, the NZ palate became a bit more sophisticated.
Wine producers rose to the challenge and produced easy-drinking sweet unsophisticated wines like ‘Sauternes’ and ‘Rhine Rieslings’ from bulk-produced, high-cropping white grapes. In the mid-1970s, the notorious sparkling sweet red wine from Montana Cold Duck was seen as a very classy wine. Over the next 10 years, easy-drinking sweet-to-medium white wines like Riesling, Gewürztraminer and Muller-Thürgau dominated the market. God-awful bag-in-box wines were very popular, some not even technically wine. I recall a brand named Brother Dominic ‘White’ which was allegedly largely made from ethyl alcohol, flavourings and chemicals. Some of my worst hangovers and more regrettable incidents in the late 1970s are related to this beverage.
By the mid 1980s, because of over-planting, the government actually paid growers to pull out these vines, in the hope that they would return vineyards to pasture land. In the event they did rip out the old ones, but canny growers replaced inferior vines with improved varietal clones of the classical European grape varieties we see now.
By happy coincidence, having been established for around 10 years, and begun by Montana Wines, Marlborough’s Sauvignon Blanc output was gaining international acclaim. Planting Chardonnay, Riesling, Merlot and many other classic grape varieties was encouraged.
The industry has since then grown exponentially, with what seems every part of the country from north to south exploring grape growing. Wine is now second only to agriculture as our largest export product, with Sauvignon Blanc still leading, but our Pinot Noir gaining more recognition to the extent that it is our second-largest grape variety.