How the wine industry went from 'preparing for the worst' to recording record-high export earnings

When the nationwide lockdown was announced at very the same time as the wine harvest earlier this year, panic rippled across the viticulture sector.

And though it was later deemed an essential service and allowed to continue operating during alert level 4, the industry faced a number of challenges in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Strict conditions meant wineries and vineyards had to change their way of working, adapting to tough new health and safety regulations all the while maintaining productivity.

But not only did the industry survive those trying times, it's also now been revealed that it actually flourished, with the latest figures showing exports for the 12 months to October hit a record high of $2 billion.

Clive Jones, chair of New Zealand Winegrowers, says reaching the milestone this year came as a surprise for the industry. 

"We made a bold prediction 10 years ago that we thought we could double sales from $1 billion to $2 billion by the year 2020," Jones told Newshub.

"I guess we always thought we'd get there but at the beginning of the year we really didn't think it would be this year."

He said although sales had been gradually improving over the past year, there was a "big surge" in the last four or five months.

Rabobank's latest Wine Quarterly report, published last month, noted an increase in export sales was related to more people drinking at home during lockdowns around the world, leading to an uptick in retail trade.

Jones said that was good news for New Zealand wine producers, although he acknowledged wine businesses that sell predominantly through on-premise and tourism have been harder hit. 

According to the Rabobank report, sauvignon blanc makes up the lion's share of Kiwi wine exports, with year-on-year sales to August up 131 percent. But Jones says there is an increasing appetite for pinot noir, the second most popular export, as well as rosé and pinot gris.

The US, the UK and Australia continue to be our largest markets, and  Jones says he believes New Zealand's reputation as being largely virus-free has helped push our brand.

"I think it is a COVID response in that people are looking for something that's reliable that they can bank on. They're not taking risks - and they see New Zealand wine as something that delivers that," he said

"I'm also sure that New Zealand has internationally been seen in a pretty good light in recent times, so there's a positive feeling about New Zealand.

"Perhaps when people pick a bottle of New Zealand wine off the shelf and they take it home to drink they're thinking 'I wish I was there'."

 How the wine industry went from 'preparing for the worst' to recording record-high export earnings
Photo credit: Getty

Jones said the industry was "preparing for the worse" when the level 4 lockdown was announced but said the sector had really rallied together to face the challenges thrown at it.

"Everyone responded positively and took the issue seriously and the safety of our people and communities was paramount," he said.

"We were determined as an industry not to be the source of a community outbreak so thankfully we got through that ok."

The sector is not out of the woods yet, however, with the country's closed borders meaning there remains a labour shortage for the upcoming harvest.

Border exemptions announced on Friday allowing 2000 recognised seasonal employers (RSE) workers from Pacific countries to come to New Zealand early next year will go some way to relieving that pressure, says Jones, but it won't be a magic fix.

He said although workers were needed for the harvest - which, depending on where in the country a vineyard is, usually takes place around March and April and lasts for six weeks - a more critical time was winter when vines need to be pruned. 

The other concern is the weather. 

"There's a bit of risk of ex-tropical cyclones, which is something we want to avoid, so hopefully that doesn't happen - we don't want rain during harvest."

For now, Jones and winemakers across the country will be hoping their good luck continues, and that conditions this year are similar to those of the season just passed, which many have said produced the best vintage in decades.

"It was a very kind harvest in terms of weather," Jones said.

"It was one of the best seasons we've had so that was the one thing we didn't have to worry about."