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An Introduction to The Viticulture and Wine Industry

Article up dated 28th February, 2006.

The following very brief description and comment on the Hawke’s Bay wine industry is made with the admission that the information given and opinions offered are of necessity, very generalised. There are bound to be exceptions to most facts or opinion offered and perhaps even inaccuracies. Comment and constructive criticism on this article will always be appreciated.

Grapes for winemaking were first planted in Hawke’s Bay by Roman Catholic missionary priests who established their first vineyard in 1851. Their presence remains today through the premium wines produced at the Green Meadows Mission Estate Winery. Another early settler to establish commercial plantings was Bernard Chambers, who established a vineyard on his Te Mata sheep station near Havelock North in 1892 (The internationally recognised Te Mata Estate was developed from this old vineyard in the 1970′s by John Buck and fellow investors. This outstanding winery continues to demonstrate the ability of the site to produce great wines). In 1895 an Italian viticulturist, Romeo Bragato, traveled through the country visiting Te Mata on the way, looking at viticulture prospects. He is recorded as stating that the District “would make wine of the finest quality”. Bragato identified the presence of Phylloxera in New Zealand. He was subsequently appointed Government Viticulturist in 1902 where he started a vine grafting program based from the Te Kauwhata Research Station using Phylloxera resistant root stocks.

By the mid 1980′s a significant wine industry had developed in Hawke’s Bay, but not in its present form. In 1986 nearly 48,000 tones of white variety grapes were grown, nearly all of which were sweet, bulk wine varieties, especially Muller Thurgau – 20,740 tones. The combined total of classic red varieties was only 5349 tones. Most of this production came from vineyards on fertile silt loam soils and today many of these sites are replanted to apple or stone fruit orchards. In 2005 the transition of the Hawke’s Bay wine industry from predominantly fertile growing sites to vineyards having the free draining soils and low natural fertility considered necessary for consistently high quality wine production, is largely, although not entirely complete. Significant plantings of what can be best described as “bulk”, medium to low quality Chardonnay and Bordeaux style wine grapes, continue in production on relatively fertile soils. On these sites the natural effect of fertility, organic matter and relatively high moisture retention, will, depending on seasonal growing conditions, result in excessive vine vigour, high fruit set and grape yield. Without compensating management, high crop loading together with excessive canopy growth and shading, inevitably reduces the potential of the grapes to achieve a satisfactory degree of ripeness (or sugar content measured as BRIX). With careful canopy management, controlled irrigation input and other compensating management techniques, good wine makers can and often do produce medium quality and in favourable growing years -even award winning wines from these grapes. Many such vineyards have continued in production and even expanded, principally as a result of the surprising fact that in past years wine makers have not paid growers an adequate premium for very high quality grapes from low yielding sites, or grapes manually thinned in the vineyard and otherwise restricted in yield to achieve the same effect. The most profitable vineyards have in fact usually been those producing the highest yields rather than the highest quality grapes. This situation is changing and there is now concern for the future of medium or average quality wine in an increasingly over supplied domestic and a highly competitive export market. This fact was very much evident in the bumper 2004 vintage which for the first time tested the vat storage capacity of the Hawkes Bay wine Industry. Not all Hawkes Bay grape growers found buyers of their crop in 2004, which has been a much awaited wake up call for some sections of the Industry.

By the 1980′s a few pioneers of the present day wine industry had recognised that the future lay in the production of classic – mainly Bordeaux grape varieties, grown on low vigor, shallow and drought prone soils previously considered of little value for any purpose other than sheep and cattle. The earliest recognition for outstanding Bordeaux style wines grown on low a vigor site was probably for the first Coleraine and Awatea wines produced in the early 1980′s at Te Mata Estate on the outskirts of Havelock North. Other growers and wine makers such as Chris Pask at Pask Estate, Alwyn Corban at Ngatarawa Wines and Dr Allan Limmer of Stonecroft were not far behind in gaining success and recognition. From these new beginnings developed what was in effect an entirely new phase in the Hawke’s Bay wine industry. Many outstanding vineyards and wineries have since been established, gaining national and international reputation.

By 2003 approximately 3700 hectares of vineyard plantings were established within Hawke’s Bay, up from 1600 hectares in 1995. By 2006 it has been estimated thatplantings will rise to approximately 4600 hectares.

Over the 2004 vintage Hawke’s Bay growers produced a record 30,429 tones, 19,597 tones more than in 2003 which was critically affected by severe un seasonal early spring frosts. Nationwide the harvest was estimated at 166,000 tones. Hawke’s Bay was New Zealand’s second largest producer behind Marlborough which produced 92,581 tones.

In 2005 Hawkes Bay harvested 28098 tones of generally excellent quality but with a continued decline of bulk wine varieties as well as Cabernet Sauvignon; a variety not well suited to late ripening sites in Hawkes Bay. There was no change in Merlot productiona varietyconsidered by some in the wine industry to be in over supply, but significant increases in Pinot Gris, Sarah and Gewurztraminer, the latter experiencing something of a revival as a premium classic variety.

In 2006 a significant overall Hawkes Bay production increase was experienced, part of the record overall New Zealand vintage. Of even more importance to growers and wine makers has been the success of exporters in selling our wine overseas. Wine exports exceeded $600 million for the year ending December, 2006, up 30% on 2005 and double those achieved three years previously. Significantly, the average value earned per liter of wine was up by 15%.

Latest AC Neilson statistics demonstrate that NZ is now the fastest growing producer supplying country into the hugely important USA market. In 2006 exports to USA were up 25%, UK by 22% and significantly (for a country with a reported billion liter wine surplus in storage) up 47% to Australia. Other secondary export markets were up 30% exceeding $100 million in value.

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