AUCKLAND, New Zealand — The crisp white wines of New Zealand have made such an impression on world palates in the last decade that vintners now wonder whether they can satisfy the demand.
New Zealand sold only 60,000 cases of wine abroad in 1983, but exports this year are expected to total nearly 1 million cases, much of it premium Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc.
Dismal weather prior to the 1993 vintage reduced grape yields by 26%, however, so there may be barely enough wine to go around.
That leaves New Zealand winemakers with a dilemma: Continue to promote exports, possibly alienating domestic consumers, or satisfy those at home, risking damage to future sales abroad.
"Basically, we are going to run out of wine this year," said Philip Gregan of the Wine Institute of New Zealand.
But for the future, the picture looks bright if the weather cooperates.
"The past decade has seen a complete revolution in our industry," said Michael Brajkovich of Kumeu River wines, whose vineyards begin at the western edge of Auckland.
Wineries are part of the Auckland region's tourism industry, offering tours and roadside tastings. Some vineyards, once in the country, are now surrounded by the urban sprawl.
Exports to more than 30 countries account for at least 20% of production in one of the world's fastest-growing wine industries. Sales to Britain, the main market, increased in 1992 by 52% in value and 66% in volume.
Wine exports earned $17.5 million in 1992 and the Wine Institute predicts the figure will reach $50 million by 2000.
In just 10 years, New Zealand has gained recognition as the foremost cool-climate viticultural region among the new wine-producing countries of the Southern Hemisphere. Its wines have won international awards and acclaim from such publications as Decanter and The Wine Spectator.
Unfashionable Muller-Thurgau, which produces light, sweetish wines, remains the primary grape, but world demand for Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling and Cabernet Sauvignon has led to widespread planting of premium varieties. In the last five years, New Zealand also has begun making high-quality red wines in significant amounts.
Michael Brajkovich's firm, Kumeu Rivers, exports mainly to the United States.
"When I started studying winemaking at Roseworthy College in Australia back in 1979, New Zealand wines were treated as a bit of a joke," he recalled in an interview. "After I'd learned a bit, I realized that what the Australians said was true.
"Now, that has all changed. We used to be unknown internationally, but we now have a significant presence."
In addition to Auckland, grapes are grown in the Hawke's Bay, Gisborne, Waiakto/Bay of Plenty and Martinborough regions of the North Island, and the Marlborough, Canterbury, Nelson and Central Otago districts on the South Island.
For a relatively small country, New Zealand produces a wide range of wines because of its elongated form. If moved to the Northern Hemisphere, the two islands would stretch from the Rhine Valley in the north to Spain in the south.
New Zealand has the most easterly vineyards in the world and vines in picturesque Otago are the southernmost. Although Otago is bitterly cold in winter, a dry autumn allows the grapes to ripen.
The first grapes were planted in 1819, but the wine industry did not begin to expand until the 1960s, when New Zealanders visited Europe and developed a taste for wine. After tariffs were lifted in the 1970s and wines from France, Germany and Italy arrived, New Zealanders' palates became more sophisticated.
"New Zealand winemakers had to lift their game to maintain domestic market share," Brajkovich said. "We had to compete, make wines well and sell them at a right price."