Kiwi ingenuity in the NZ wine industry

For a small country persistently punching above its weight, the classic combination of Kiwi ingenuity and innovation has been the key to New Zealand’s success… especially in the wine industry.

How long before a new generation rummaging through the kitchen drawer finds a corkscrew and says, “What’s this?”

The likelihood is that the scenario will play out in New Zealand and Australia first, because their wine industries lead the charge to seal the bottles with a screwcap, kicking off a world revolution in the process.

Currently 90 per cent of New Zealand wine is sealed with screwcaps with the global uptake now moving past the 30 per cent mark.

“No other country has embraced this development  as comprehensively as New Zealand,” said multi-award winning  Australian wine writer Tyson Stelzer. “ With Australia, these two countries have been the world leaders in what can only be described as the most important advancement in wine quality and consistency in the modern era.” 

As in so many fields, innovation has been the key to Kiwi success as a new young player in an established global market.

2021 marks the 20th anniversary of the New Zealand Screwcap Wine Seal initiative which built on the scientific research that confirmed screwcaps were superior to traditional corks.

The Initiative was set up by four Kiwi winemakers who were disillusioned with corks which were believed to account for cork taint in 5 to 10 per cent of all bottles they sold.

As in most revolutions, it’s not been without its conflicts. Bob Campbell MW, New Zealand’s leading wine writer, had some personal encounters with reluctant traditionalists.

”I recall the unpleasant experience of being shouted at and poked in the chest by a winemaker who thought that my support of screwcaps would imperil the industry,” said the Master of Wine who reckoned the closure revolution promised to make a greater contribution to wine quality than any other innovation since bottles and corks were first used.

And like a good wine the revolution has matured well with age and ten years on the results have confounded the sceptics, with wines in screwcap bottles ageing as well as, or better than, those sealed with corks. In a decade of blind tastings around the world, it’s claimed  there was not one instance when the wine with a cork was better than the wine with a screw top – thus further busting the old myth that screw caps denote wine that’s cheap and of poor quality.

The argument against screwcaps has always been that only cork allows the wine to “breathe” and thereby mature – the cork allowing  oxygen into the bottle.   But time and science has largely dispelled that rationale and indeed some screwcaps can now mimic cork by allowing a small amount of oxygen into the wine.

So what’s not to like? The screwcap is far easier and quicker to use and there can be no bits of broken cork in the bottle, no cork disappearing into the wine and no wine that is undrinkable because it’s corked. That also means no need for the waiter to have to go back to the cellar to replace the corked bottle and no dollars in the debit column for the lost wine. 

The only thing standing in the way is the supposed romance of the corkscrew ceremony: the waiter presenting and opening the wine, with the final flourish producing that unmistakable “pop” as the cork comes out of the bottle.

Maybe the next piece of Kiwi ingenuity will be to find a way for the “click” of the screwcap to have the same resonance as the “pop” of a cork, although the figures show more and more consumers are becoming happy converts.

There are, of course, other Kiwi innovations currently making their mark in the wine industry:


The Lighter Wines Initiative

2021 is also a pivotal year marking  the culmination of the seven year, $17 million research and development programme aimed at making New Zealand number one in the world for lower alcohol wine. The holy grail of the programme is to produce high quality wines with a naturally lower alcohol level - 30 per  cent less with NZ wines – without effecting the flavour. Results so far have been impressive with 47 medals awarded in a 12 month period to the lighter wines produced by wineries within the initiative.


The Wine Grenade

A hand-held device, created by students at Auckland University, designed to accelerate the ageing process of wine so reaches the market faster and more cheaply. The device mimics the oxygen exposure wine usually receives in oak barrels and can be dropped into wine being matured in steel tanks where it slowly releases tiny amounts of oxygen through a moving permeable membrane. A mobile app enables winemakers to track progress and control the maturation process remotely.


Concrete eggs

Hawke’s Bay wine maker Tony Bish has taken an innovative approach to crafting great chardonnay in egg- shaped concrete fermenters. Inspired by what he saw overseas and looking for a way to get around exorbitant freight costs, Bish used kiwi ingenuity and local know-how from Hastings-based NZ Tanks, to build the New Zealand’s first ovoid tanks which he’s now shared with the NZ Wine Industry and to Australia.

Tony Bish introduced concrete eggs to the NZ winemaking scene in 2015, and later fell in love with Taransaud French Oak 'Ovum' eggs. He imported one of only ten in the world and now houses the ‘Ovum’ at his Tony Bish Wines Napier base - The Urban Winery, in Ahuriri. The egg processes wine in the same way an oak barrel does, except it stirs itself – eliminating the need for human intervention.


Remote control wine

A Kiwi company that makes temperature and fermentation equipment for wine vats has also earned an international reputation in the wine industry.

Wine Technology Marlborough’s VinWizard - a central remote control system that allows temperature in wine tanks to be controlled automatically - is being used by time-strapped wineries all over the world. Temperature control is a key part of the fermentation process, as it determines the quality of the wine. The system is currently used by more than 100 vineyards in six countries worldwide, and has established a foothold in North and South America, Australia and Spain.

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