Wine Importing and Marketing Services

‘We Are the Land, and the Land Is Us’: Indigenous Māori Winemakers are Guardians of New Zealand Terroir

From left: te Pā
vineyards in the
Awatere Valley;
Winemaker Richelle Tyney,
Greywacke Wines / Photo by Kevin Judd

Māori people have lived in New Zealand—or Aotearoa, as it’s known in the te reo language—for nearly 1,000 years, long before the nation was colonized by the British in the early 19th century. The history of the Māori people’s relationship with their colonizers is one that echoes other nations around the globe: that of devastating disease, broken contracts, loss of land and systematic cultural oppression.

Thanks to land returns and resources, the Māori way of life is gradually returning to the country, in part stemming from the mid-20th century activism that led to the 1975 Waitangi Tribunal, which legally addressed historic injustices in the form of reparations. Today, approximately 16% of the population identifies as Māori, and Te Ao Māori, or the Māori worldview, permeates New Zealand culture. Its significance in the wine scene is particularly relevant, where concepts like tūrangawaewae (a place to stand) mirrors the French concept of terroir.

“This relationship between the kaimahi waiana [grape grower], the whenua [land] and its kīanga [expression] is what is, in essence, the same as what the French call terroir,” explains Jeff Sinnott, former chief winemaker at Ostler Wine in the Waitaki Valley of North Otago, and member of the TUKU Collective, a group of Māori-owned wine businesses. “There’s really no difference, except that for 21st century Māori, we don’t claim to have invented the process; we are simply its guardians and messengers.”

Today there are around half a dozen Māori-owned wineries. New Zealand Winegrowers, the national wine body, has developed a sustainable winegrowing framework for the entire industry that centers around the Māori concept of kaitiakitanga (custodianship of land and people).

Picking at te Pā in Awatere Valley / Photo by Jessica Jones

A Long Road

Progress has not happened quickly. Three decades ago, the New Zealand wine industry looked very different than it does today. Māori-owned wineries were virtually nonexistent, and many major New Zealand wine brands were actively discouraged from using Māori words on their labels, citing that difficulty in pronouncing them would create a barrier to wine sales.

“There are direct examples within our domestic distribution industry where key decision makers, through their personal prejudice and bias, made broad, sweeping statements that ‘Māori brands will never work,’” says Royce McKean, a tangata whenua (Indigenous) winemaker at Tiki Wine and Vineyards.

Some pākehā (non-Indigenous) producers, however, did use Māori words and symbols on their labels, sometimes with permission from the local iwi (tribe), sometimes not.

“At Cloudy Bay [in 1992], we were looking for a name for our alternative style of Sauvignon Blanc for a few years,” says Kevin Judd, former Cloudy Bay founding winemaker and current owner-winemaker of Greywacke Wines. “I was looking through a book called Old Marlborough Place Names for inspiration, and I spotted, ‘Cloudy Bay: formerly known as Te Koko-o-kupe’. As soon as I read that I knew we had found the name we were looking for.”

Tiki Wine & Vineyards, Waiata Vineyard / Photo courtesy of Tiki Wine & Vineyard

Judd arranged a meeting with the leaders of the local Rangitāne tribe at their headquarters in Blenheim, Marlborough.

“I explained the project, showed them the wine and the proposed labeling, etc, and asked for [their] blessings, which they gave us.” Today, the use of Māori words and symbols on both Indigenous and non-Indigenous wine labels is much more commonplace than it was in 1992.

“The renaissance of our language and culture has created huge opportunity for genuine Māori wine companies to tell their stories and share our culture to the world,” says Haysley MacDonald, an Indigenous man and owner of te Pā Wines. “While this concept may not have resonated with hard-headed gatekeepers 20 or 30 years ago, it certainly did with the consumer and, consequently, we have seen any resistance now morph into positive enthusiasm. In fact, so much so that the number of Māori-branded wines without any Māori heritage greatly outweighs the number of Māori-owned wine brands in the market.”

For Māori winemakers, this is a source of both pride and frustration.