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

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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.

“For me, the fact that people are willing to consult and ask for advice before going ahead using terms or names is respectful,” says Richelle Tyney, a member of the Te Tauihu Māori tribe at the top of the South Island in Nelson and a winemaker who works alongside Judd at Greywacke. “It’s building that bridge and breaking down the barriers.”

Tyney is not the only person to mention respect. “Māori want to be relevant, respected and valued,” says Steve Bird, winemaker for Steve Bird Wines and founding member of the TUKU Collective. “It’s a great source of pride to see our language and designs being used in a respectful way around the globe. However, the other side of that coin is tokenism, which is disrespectful. I think it’s best to look at this issue as a journey rather than a destination. There is a great deal of work to be done and it will take a very long time.”

Harvesting Sauvignon Blanc for Greywacke in Yarrum Vineyard / Photo by Kevin Judd

Closing the Gap and Speaking the Language

Recently, thanks in part to better representation in New Zealand parliament by the Māori Party, there’s been increased emphasis on creating a more equitable dual cultural-lingual country. This summer, Matariki, or Māori New Year, will be observed as a national public holiday for the first time. There’s a $100 million government push to teach te reo Māori and Tikanga (custom) Māori to 40,000 teachers over the next four years. Māori Language Week, which took place last September, drew 1.1 million participants—around 22% of the entire population—to submit videos of themselves speaking te reo on social media.

“You only have to turn on the radio or TV in Aotearoa these days [and] hear te reo being spoken by people of all ethnicities and backgrounds to give an understanding of how unique and special it is to this country and its people,” says Sinnott.

In wine, some non-Indigenous producers have taken it upon themselves to better familiarize themselves with their nation’s native tongue. Helen Morrison, Villa Maria’s Marlborough winemaker, helped organize two fully booked te reo Māori courses through her local council for Marlborough Women in Wine in 2019.

“I am part of the Generation X and grew up in the South Island of Aotearoa-New Zealand, so my upbringing had little or no exposure to Māori culture or te reo apart from learning the te reo verse of our national anthem at school,” says Morrison.

After completing the course, she took a trip to Europe. “I had the opportunity to use some of my new te reo skills, explaining our tūrangawaewae to describe how our environment influences our wine styles, instead of the more common French term terroir.”

Tohu Winery / Photo by Kate MacPherson

New Zealand Winegrowers encourages producers to learn the nation’s Indigenous language, devoting an entire webpage to te reo resources.

One of the country’s more prominent Māori wine businesses is Kono, a food and beverage company that’s owned by Wakatū Incorporation. That business is, in turn, collectively owned by more than 4,000 Māori families that are descended from the traditional landowners of Te Tauihu in Nelson. Formed in 1977, just two years after the Waitangi Tribunal, Kono’s name refers to the Māori tradition of offering a basket of food to guests. The brand makes wines under the Kono and Tohu labels. The company’s 500-year business plan centers the Te Ao Māori worldview.

Like Kono, members of the TUKU Collective, which, along with Sinnott and Bird, includes Tiki Wine and Vineyards and te Pā Wines, also share a set of values that are “the pillars of the Māori culture,” says Hayden Johnston, owner or Kuru Kuru Wines and Tarris Vineyards.

“These principles color our thinking and actions at every level of our business,” says Johnston.

They include the aforementioned kaitiakitanga, manākitanga (hospitality and generosity), whanaungatanga (family connection), whakapapa (heritage) and pono (integrity).

“In one sense, TUKU is just another piece of the puzzle in the process of decolonization,” says Sinnott. “It is a way for a group of friends to state their case to be acknowledged as tangata whenua, but also that they have a role to play in te hapori waina [the wine community].”

TUKU Collective from left to right: Steve Bird of Steve Bird, Royce McKean of Tiki, Haysley MacDonald of te Pā, Jeff Sinnott, Hayden Johnston of Tarras / Photo courtesy of TUKU Collective

A Road Map for Others?

The country still has work to do, but its wine industry is more equitable than that of many colonized nations.

“The truth is that there has been intentional genocide of Indigenous peoples all over the world,” says Elaine Chukan Brown, a wine writer, speaker, illustrator, and Inupiaq and Unangan-Sugpiaq person from Alaska. “To move forward and make positive change, people and governments must first face the truth of their own specific histories of this, and from that honesty begin a process of reconciliation… In the United States, we have not even begun to be honest about our own history. In Canada, they are getting started with the process of facing their history, but it is hard, and they are still very early in the process. There is still a long way to go there if we are honest but witnessing what is happening in New Zealand offers an example for the rest of us on how we can begin to respect and honor Indigenous peoples.”

The interconnectedness between people and land that is so integral to Māori beliefs is one that can resonate with wine lovers.

“In a sense, we are the land, and the land is us,” says Sinnott. “Ko ahau tēnā hei hoa mō te whenua i ngā rā katoa. I shall be with the land always. There is no distinction.”

This article originally appeared in the February/March 2022 issue of Wine Enthusiast magazine. Click here to subscribe today!