New Zealand - Land of the long white cloud
IN A NUTSHELL
Aotearoa, The Land of the Long White Cloud, is bigger than most people expect: if you place the northern tip on Manhattan, the south coast is level with Orlando. So it is not surprising that the climate varies from sub tropical in the north down to sea lions and penguins in the far south. In between lie a series of microclimates ideal for genuine temperate and cool climate winegrowing, ranging from Bordeaux varieties on the coastal slopes of Waiheke Island, down to the Pinot valleys of Central Otago, where glaciers can be seen even in mid-summer.
It is very unpopulated. With a population similar to South Carolina, but a much larger area, we have 34 people per square mile, mostly living on the North Island. In the US, only Wyoming and Alaska are emptier than New Zealand’s achingly beautiful South Island. All this in an island nation nestled in the middle latitudes
of the great Pacific Ocean where almost every vine feels the tempering influence
of the sea.
This is a country both very old and very young. New Zealand was one of the first, perhaps the first, country to break away from Pangaea, the ancient mega continent from which today’s continents birthed. It was low and swampy, so when sea levels rose several hundred million years ago, it became submerged and all land life was destroyed. Subsequent volcanoes and mountain building caused the new New Zealand to emerge from the seas: a land of mountains, fire and ice; geologically the youngest country in the world.
Because of these events, until the arrival of the first settlers some 6-700 years ago, it was a land of birds. Many lost the power of flight, since there were no predators and some grew to gigantic size: flightless Moa were up to 12 feet high, yet Moa were hunted by the vast Haast eagle: perhaps the largest flying predator since the dinosaurs.
When the first huge Maori ocean canoes landed they brought with them the first mammals, probably pigs, on purpose and rats, by accident. Today the Maori population is still defined by tribes (Iwi) determined by the canoe (waka) their ancestors arrived on. The first Europeans to set foot on New Zealand soil were from Abel Tasman’s expedition to the Southern Oceans in 1642. They had some unpleasant skirmishes with Maori and quickly sailed on without exploring or navigating the continent. It fell to Captain Cook’s Endeavour party some 120 years later to properly investigate and map this new land; the last country in the New World to be settled by Europeans.
By 1840, settlement was taking place and frictions between these early visitors and the well established Maori led to a remarkable agreement: the Treaty of Waitangi; between the British Government and the Maori Iwi. This granted Maori sovereignty over their lands and possessions as well as full right of British citizenship in return for their recognising Victoria as their queen: a breathtaking departure from the colonial norms of the time.
THEN CAME WINE
It was Croatian immigrants from the Dalmatian peninsula who started much of New Zealand’s wine story, though Frenchman: Jean Feraud won New Zealand’s first wine medal in the 1870’s for a Central Otago red wine. Initially making wine for their own consumption, the Dalmatians quickly started commercial plantings and winemaking. A short period of prohibition caused the wine industry to collapse, not properly re-establishing until the 1970’s.
Modern New Zealand wine began with the making of the first Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc, by Montana (Brancott) in 1979. They started vintage and varietal labelling, moving away for the first time from the generic wines of the past.
While for many it was the explosion of Cloudy Bay onto the world wine scene in the mid 1980’s that defined New Zealand wine, by this time Pinot Noir was already being produced by such notable producers as Ata Rangi, Martinborough Vineyards, also Gibbston Valley Wines in Central Otago. Kumeu’s brilliant Chardonnays were turning heads and Te Mata had released its first outstanding Cabernets.