Written by Bridget Williams
"New Zealand promises to be favorable to the vine," prophesised English missionary Samuel Marsden in a diary entry. His 1819 plantings in the Bay of Islands are the first recorded in New Zealand. While goats quickly destroyed everything in Marsden's unfenced vineyard, the wine industry in the country has since flourished, with more than 700 wineries annually exporting goods valued in excess of $1.8 billion.
Although grapes have been cultivated in New Zealand for 200 years, it wasn't until 1998 when Tohu Wines, the first indigenous branded wine label, was founded. Wakatū Corporation, Tohu's parent company, has approximately 4,000 shareholders who are all descendants of the original 254 Māori landowners of the Nelson, Marlborough, Tasman Bay, and Golden Bay regions. "Our vision in founding a wine company was to have a platform to share our culture, story, and values with the world," said Wakatū chairman Paul Morgan.
The Māori, who made their way to New Zealand from eastern Polynesia via waka (canoes) more than 680 years ago, comprise approximately 15% of New Zealand's present population. After losing much of their land through European colonization, a Māori renaissance in the 1970s, saw Māori people coming together to regain their tribal lands, language, art, and culture. Contributing to these efforts, every bottle of Tohu wine bears a logo based on the koru pattern, a distinctive representation of the unfurling frond of a silver fern. According to legend, Māori hunters and warriors used the silver underside of fern leaves to catch the moonlight and illuminate a path home through the forests.
Producing 220,000 cases annually from entry-level to premium offerings, Tohu is now an internationally recognized and award-winning wine label under chief winemaker Bruce Taylor. The label has been growing its own grapes since 2002. Both of its vineyards— Whenua Awa in Marlborough's Awatere Valley and Whenua Matua in Upper Moutere, Nelson—are certified by Sustainable Winegrowing New Zealand, a management system that promotes environmentally responsible practices. "In making our wine, we are committed to upholding our deeply held values, which include rangatiratanga, manaakitanga and hihiritanga–excellence, kindness, and innovation," said Rachel Taulelei, CEO of Kono, the beverage arm of Wakatū Corporation. Taulelei, the first direct Māori descendant to hold the title, added, "We have a strong spiritual connection with the land and a responsibility to pass it on in good health to future generations." Sixty percent of the nearly 300-acres that comprise Tohu vineyards are planted with native vegetation to promote biodiversity and enhance the overall ecosystem.
Tohu's Whenua Single Vineyard wines represent distinct expressions of the terroir. Whenua Awa is a high-altitude site that enjoys a cooler and drier climate than other parts of Marlborough, which is New Zealand's most famous wine region. As a result, this vineyard has a longer growing season, which allows the grapes to ripen more slowly. The loess soil and mineral-rich papas clay of Whenua Awa creates intense, fruit-forward, and complex pinot noir, sauvignon blanc, chardonnay, and riesling. Situated on sundrenched slopes with clay soils, the unique vineyard blocks that comprise Whenua Matua produce pinot noir, chardonnay, and albariño with outstanding structure and varietal characteristics. "Over the last 20 years, we have created internationally acclaimed wines that encapsulate a place and time, and reflect the unique characteristics of our vineyards," explained Taulelei.
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