Cheers to the first 200 years of New Zealand wine

September 25, 2019 marks 200 years since the first planting of a grapevine in New Zealand, a history that may surprise many wine connoisseurs.

From the humble beginnings of a single vine planted 200 years ago in the Bay of Islands, the New Zealand wine industry has grown to become a NZ$1.83 billion export earner, with an international reputation for premium, diverse and sustainable wines. 

It may surprise many connoisseurs around the world to learn that New Zealand’s wine story is older than they think.

Early arrival, Reverend Samuel Marsden, who was Chaplain to New South Wales (1765-1838), records September 25, 1819 as the day he planted a grape vine in the fertile grounds beside the Stone Store, at Kerikeri in New Zealand's Bay of Islands. That pioneering vine also gave New Zealand’s wine heritage a unique story as one of very few countries in the world where the exact date of the planting of the first vines is recorded.

Throughout the 19th and early 20th century, a significant number of European arrivals established vineyards in different regions, contributing to the early establishment of the diverse wine regions of New Zealand. But it wasn’t until the second half of the last century that a new wave of Kiwi viticulturalists and winemakers began to earn their place in the international wine world, firstly with award-winning New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc and then latterly Pinot Noir wines.

Today, the New Zealand wine industry consists of over 700 wineries and more than 600 grape growers, with its growing success depending strongly on the commitment and passion of the people behind it.

Since the 1990s, there has been an evolution in the grape varieties planted throughout New Zealand. Sauvignon Blanc is now the most widely planted variety, accounting for 76% of total production, followed by Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. 

As New Zealand’s wine industry prepares to raise a toast to the past, it is also looking ahead to the future with a commitment to sustainability and innovation that will protect these wine regions for at least another 200 years. This commitment has already seen 98% of New Zealand’s vineyard-production land certified under Sustainable Winegrowing New Zealand (SWNZ), a voluntary scheme that is unmatched anywhere in the world. 

New Zealand Winegrowers will be marking the 200-year anniversary of the first vine planting with an event that includes a ceremonial re-planting at the historic Stone Store, followed by a regional wine tasting and dinner on the nearby Waitangi Treaty Grounds. 

In his diary, Marsden prophesied, "New Zealand promises to be very favourable to the vine, as far as I can judge at present of the nature of the soil and climate. Should the vine succeed, it will prove of vast importance in this part of the globe." His prediction has been brilliantly fulfilled. 

Background: Early New Zealand wine-making history

  • The first recorded New Zealand wine was made in the Bay of Islands in the 1830s. 
  • The first wine-maker was James Busby – representative of the British Crown in New Zealand. 
  • Busby lived in what is now known as the Treaty House in the Treaty Grounds at Waitangi. 
  • Busby was the architect of the Treaty of Waitangi – the founding document of the nation of Aotearoa New Zealand. 
  • When French naval explorer Jules Dumont d’Urville (commanding officer on the Astrolabe) visited the Bay of Islands in 1840, he was disappointed to find Busby was not at home. 
  • However, d’Urville sampled Busby’s wine and subsequently penned New Zealand’s first wine review: "With great pleasure I agreed to taste the product of the vineyard that I had just seen. I was given a light white wine, very sparkling, and delicious to taste, which I enjoyed very much."