A Tale of Two Industries

on 05 February, 2016

We all have our overused words. ‘Sorry’ inevitably takes this passive-aggressive Englishman’s top spot.

The late David Bowie, willfully different (and provocatively obscure) to the end, suggested ‘chthonic’ (me neither) and ‘miasma’ when asked about his in Vanity Fair’s famous Proust Questionnaire.

If the New Zealand wine industry were a person, the word that would drive her friends to distraction with its repetition would undoubtedly be ‘pure’. So frequent is its use – whether in tasting notes or in marketing material – it has the feel of an infectious verbal tick. Rather like the ‘look, mate’ that routinely introduces the post-game comments of every Australian sportsman, rare is the chat with the Kiwi winemaker that doesn’t feature a reference to the purity of the wine or terroir.

All of which is innocent, and indeed accurate, enough. Purity of varietal expression has always been a hallmark of New Zealand wine, the defining trait that unites such modern classics as Marlborough Sauvignon, Central Otago Pinot Noir and Hawke’s Bay Syrah. And as any visitor to the country will tell you, NZ’s winemakers have a justified reputation for sustainability – for the most part, the vineyards and wineries really do live up to the bygone marketing slogan that Kiwi wines are ‘the riches of a clean, green land’.

But there is more to the industry’s focus on purity than a desire to place its wines in the context of the unspoiled environment that has made the country’s tourist industry such a success. Part of the motivation, I think, is inspired by another sector of New Zealand’s farming economy.

In terms of production, the Kiwi dairy industry has enjoyed a similar rise to Kiwi wine since the mid-1980s, quadrupling production and becoming one of the world’s largest dairy exporters. Unlike NZ wine, which today is second only to France in terms of price per litre, NZ dairy has always operated at the commodity end of the market.

For much of the past three decades, the strategy worked just fine, since the production quotas imposed by the EU on its member states allowed NZ farmers to grab market share in emerging markets such as China.

In recent years, however, the global commodity price of milk has plummeted and NZ dairy farmers have found themselves in the midst of a dilemma. Forced to invest to increase production simply to receive the same returns, many now find themselves burdened by crippling debt. Worse, the increased production has been implicated in a series of environmental and food-health scandals linked to the leaking of effluent into the water system.

It’s in the context of the financial and public relations disaster of ‘dirty dairy’ that New Zealand Winegrowers’ tagline – ‘a world of pure discovery’ – begins to make a more profound kind of sense. As their industry continues to grow, most Kiwi winemakers know they have to avoid the siren calls of fast-buck but lower-quality over- production, and to maintain their green, sustainable image.

And if part of that means repeating the same word over again, well, with apologies to David Bowie, that’s better that waking up to find their industry has sunk into a chthonic miasma of unpaid bills and dirty streams.

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