My copy of the second edition of Michael Cooper’s Wine Atlas of New Zealand arrived this week and I am having trouble putting it down. Cooper’s coverage of the wines, the wineries, the people, the industry and the market is exceptional. And it is stunningly beautiful, too, with excellent maps and spectacular photos. A coffee table book in terms of size and weight, but with real substance. One of the two best regional wine atlases I own (the other is Burton Anderson’s Wine Atlas of Italy, which is still a valuable reference 20 years after its publication).
(Note: Cooper’s NZ Wine Atlas hasn’t been released yet in the US, but it is easy buy from UK online sellers like Amazon.co.uk.)
The Amazing NZ Wine Story
I’ve always been fascinated by the New Zealand wine story — how a tiny (0.5 percent of global output) wine producer at the far corner of the earth could become a leading global brand (a NZ wine is the #1 Sauvignon Blanc in the US) and earn the highest average export price of any country in the world.
I couldn’t wait to get Cooper’s second edition because a lot has changed for New Zealand wine since the first edition was published in 2002 and my last research trip there in 2004. A lot has changed, but a lot has stayed the same, too.
The biggest threat to New Zealand’s success has stayed the same: the problem of balancing supply and demand. New Zealand was plagued by boom and bust cycles for many years. Overproduction of low quality wines created a crisis in the 1980s. Many winemaking businesses collapsed and were snapped up by NZ or foreign buyers, leading to the internationalization and consolidation of the industry. The NZ government initiated a grubbing up scheme in 1986 to reduce vineyard plantings, especially of low quality wines, setting the stage for the current boom.
New Zealand has been extremely successful in this era of global wine, which has been characterized by high quality, a strong global brand (Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc and now Pinot Noir as well), and a liberal trade regime that accepts high import levels of inexpensive wine as the price to be paid for high levels of higher-priced exports.
The Spectre of Surplus
Despite this success — or more precisely because of it, fear of wine and grape surpluses, price wars and market collapse continue to haunt New Zealand producers — at least those who are old enough to remember the crisis of the 1980s. In agriculture we know that nothing generates a surplus tomorrow faster than high prices today.
Cooper’s data make this boom-bust concern easy to understand. New Zealand’s industry has grown rapidly — can it be sustained? Producing vineyard area in New Zealand tripled from 10,000 hectares in 2000 to more than 31,000 hecrates (projected) in 2010. Wine production rose from 60 million liters in 2000 to 200 million in 2008. The number of wineries risen, too, if not quite so quickly: about 600 today, up from 334 ten years ago.
NZ domestic wine sales and wine imports have been relatively flat over the last ten years, so essentially all of the increased production has been targeted for export: 87.8 million liters in 2008 compared with just 15.2 million liters in 1998.
So far the world market has been wiling to absorb this rising production (and without diluting the NZ brand and the price premium it commands). Can this continue into the future or does Stein’s Law (see note below) apply?
A recent Rabobank report on “New Zealand Wine Supply — Testing Limits” provides mixed indicators. Rabobank acknowledges the importance of balancing supply and demand, especially given the world economic crisis, and notes that nature may limit runaway growth. Marlborough is running out of land suitable for vineyards, according to the report.
The day will come when the quantities of Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc available … will reach its physical limit and the long term supply and demand outlook looks very favorable for growers and producers in the region. It is vital that in the next 10 years the reputation and bargaining power of producers in this region be maintained in order for the region to enjoy higher returns in the future.
In other words, things look good in the long run, it’s the short run that NZ needs to worry about. Persistent short term surpluses could devalue NZ wines from premium products to commodities. That would be enormously damaging to the industry.
There are some indicators that the damage is happening now. I have heard of deep discounts on some New Zealand wines in Britain, for example, and I even saw iconic Cloudy Bay on sale at Costco this week for just $20, about $10 less than its price last year. More to the point, however, today’s Gisborne Herald reports that Pernod Ricard, which owns a number of important NZ brands, is terminating many or most grower contracts in the Gisborne region (North of Hawkes Bay on the North Island). The president of the Gisborne Winegrowers group is quoted
I have fielded a lot of calls from very concerned and distressed growers — my advice to them is to certainly not spend any more money on any of those blocks … Meantime, they should talk to their accountants and bankers.
Gisborne is a major producing area, but it doesn’t have the name recognition abroad of Marlborough, Martinborough, Hawkes Bay and Central Otago. It is Chardonnay country with 52.8% of producing vineyard area in that varietal compared to 8.2% planted to Pinot Gris and less than 4% each to Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir. Chardonnay has become unfashionable — it is not where the market growth is these days. It makes sense therefore that Gisborne might be the first area to feel the combined effects of an overall surplus and shifting demand.
The Next Big Thing?
What is to be done? The Rabobank study looks to Pinot Gris, arguing that it could join Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir as a leading NZ export wine thereby expanding and diversifying the NZ export market. The expected growth of wine consumption in Asia is one factor in this optimistic scenario, since Pinot Gris is said to pair well with Asian foods. Food friendly and premium price — these are attractive qualities it is said in the growing Chinese wine market, according to Rabobank.
Pinot Gris is also thought to be a style that younger wine drinkers will find fun, friendly and easy to like (but also flavorful, unlike certain Pinot Grigio you may have been served …). Michael Cooper is optimistic, too, in his Wine Atlas discussion of the varietal., citing “high potential” and “impressive weights and flavour richness” on both North Island and South wines.
Pinot Gris is profitable, too. Made in stainless steel tanks with no oak aging, Pinot Gris is a good cash flow wine. I can’t remember seeing NZ PG on store shelves here in the U.S., however. Perhaps I’ve just missed them or maybe NZ producers are focusing on different markets — Britain, Australia or Asia? — to avoid undercutting Sauvignon Blanc sales here.
“Demand for Pinot Gris,” the Rabobank report asserts, “should underpin even greater returns for growers in the medium to long-term.” A good thing, I think, if things hold together until the medium- and long-term arrive (there’s a famous Keynes quote about this, although I don’t think he was talking about wine). There is still the old problem of the short-term supply-demand balance to be worked out.
Note: Stein’s Law (named for Presidential economic advisor Herbert Stein, is that if something cannot go on forever it will stop. Stein’s point was not that all bubbles burst but rather that market forces tend eventually to rein in unsustainable trends (although not always in a gentle way) and you don’t necessarily need government to do the job for you.