New Zealand Wines

Last year, for the first time, the United States became New Zealand's biggest export wine market. This breakthrough was led by the wines created in the Marlborough region, especially savignon blanc. But there's a lot more to New Zealand wines than Marlborough, as visitors from the US are discovering, especially the world class pinot noir being produced in Central Otago in the South Island.

These are some excerpts taken from a recent story by Matthew Theunissen writing in New Zealand's largest daily newspaper, The New Zealand Herald.

Explaining this success, New Zealand Winegrowers chief executive Philip Gregan says his organization has been working for a long time in the United States and has built up a lot of momentum in the market.

"The other core component is obviously the product we're dealing with, and New Zealand produces world-class, distinctive wines and clearly they're resonating with consumers in the US, particularly the sauvignon blanc."

He says New Zealand wine is generally classified as a premium product that represents value for money.

"Most New Zealand wine is selling for more than US$10 a bottle, where the biggest portion of the market in the US is under US$10."

The average American wouldn't know about New Zealand wine, but regular wine consumers would regularly see it in supermarkets, wine shops and restaurants. America is the biggest wine market in the world and it's the market everyone wants to succeed in. They're now our number one market by volume and value."

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Villa Maria wines spokesman Ian Clark says that when you look at the numbers, New Zealand's success is quite extraordinary.

"France has 2 million acres of grapes planted, Italy has 1.9 million acres, while New Zealand has around about 91,000 acres. We make less than 1 per cent of the world's wine but we've managed to get towards the real top premium end of the market.

What's also proving a big help is all the American tourists coming down to New Zealand - they're coming down here, tasting the wine, saying, 'Wow, these are good', then spreading the word around the USA. This is how tourism helps our exports overseas," Clark says.

Statistics NZ figures show the number of US visitors has been steadily increasing since 2013, when there were 183,344 of them in the year to February. In the latest period, the 12 months to this February, there were 307,136 US visitors.

Cloudy Bay senior winemaker Tim Heath has been with the organisation for the past 13 years and says that over that time there has been a steady increase in demand from the US. "For us it's quality over quantity at all times and I'm sure we could service the demand that we've experience if we wanted to, but that's not how we work - the amount of wine that we make is the amount of wine we sell."

He says the popularity of New Zealand wines in America has increased substantially since the end of the Global Financial Crisis.

"The understanding of the quality of wine that people get from New Zealand has definitely increased and these days you see a far greater cross section of New Zealand wine being represented on the shelves in the States." He says Cloudy Bay sent about a quarter of its wine to the United States, mostly sauvignon blanc but also a good deal of pinot noir.

The main reason New Zealand wine is becoming popular, says Heath, is the distinctive taste produced by Marlborough grapes.

"Making nice, fruity wines is one thing but when you scratch in behind that with New Zealand wines, there's actually quite a serious side to them too - they've got great structure, complexity and genuine interest factor. And I think that's something we should be very proud of."

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With a strong US economy, current consumer trends, and some successful New Zealand marketing campaigns, he says it is difficult not to see the trend continuing for some time.

But it appears that not every US wine drinker has succumbed to the charms of NZ sauvignon blanc.

Orley Ashenfelter, president of the American Association of Wine Economists, was not available for an interview, but in an email he said he was a fan of Central Otago pinot noir.

When it was suggested he might also enjoy a Marlborough sauvignon blanc, he replied: "I despise those unripe, vegetative, disgusting sauvignon blancs. It was brilliant for somebody to take a flawed wine and make it so popular."

- Additional reporting: Bloomberg

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For some great shots of the vineyards found in the Central Otago region, take a look at our 'Vineyards of Central Otago' blog from last year. And to have a peek at the vineyards owned by New Zealand's most famous winemaker...try and identify this face from 1977. 

Itineraries that feature visits to the best wine growing regions of New Zealand can be created for you by the team here at New Zealand Vacations. 

Lindsay Barron

Lindsay Barron • Aug 05, 2017