The indigenous reimagining of wine in Aotearoa New Zealand

Aotearoa New Zealand’s broader recognition of its indigenous people, Māori, and their language and culture is changing the country's wine industry and leading its producers to explore new approaches to wine

Words by Chris Howard

Winemakers like Haysley MacDonald and Sam Bennet of Te Pā are navigating shifting cultural currents

Winegrowers across Aotearoa New Zealand are exploring new approaches to wine, reflecting the country’s evolving wine industry and its broader recognition of the land’s indigenous people, Māori.

The newest of substantial ‘New World’ wine regions, Aotearoa New Zealand (Aotearoa is the contemporary Māori name for New Zealand, meaning ‘the land of the white cloud’) was the last significant land mass outside the Antarctic to be settled, between 800 and 1,000 years ago. Archaeologists have identified Northland’s Pēwhairangi (Bay of Islands), along with Marlborough’s Wairau Bar, as sites of the first landings by Pacific peoples known as Māori. Vineyards cross these important heritage sites today, delivering wines that express Aotearoa’s living history.

In line with the country’s wider push to recognise Maori culture, a sea change is underway that is pushing the boundaries of the wine world. The five producers below illustrate how some New Zealand winegrowers are navigating the experiments across worlds that began as soon as Europeans arrived on the land already inhabited by Māori. Despite the current momentum, many are saying this is only the beginning.

Winemakers like Janine Rickards are returning to traditional biodynamic methods (known as 'maramataka')

An important development was the formation of TUKU in 2018, a Māori winegrowing collective with members spanning Hawke’s Bay to Central Otago. Despite different iwi (tribal) affiliations, these Māori-owned wineries are united by a common set of cultural values that revolve around the preservation and protection of nature, ancestry, familial relationships, and a sense of generosity and hospitality.

An important development was the formation of a Māori winegrowing collective with members spanning Hawke’s Bay to Central Otago

It’s easy to see the link between these values and a sustainable approach to wine production. Like other indigenous peoples (a quarter billion of the Earth’s inhabitants), Māori philosophy has been ‘regenerative’ long before its arrival as a buzzword. Guided by lunar and astronomical cycles, Māori also developed a form of biodynamic farming (known as maramataka) centuries before Steiner coined the term. As kaitiaki (guardians, stewards), taking care of the land and generations for the long run is a way of life. Marlborough’s Kono Beverages, for instance, under which sits Tohu, the world’s first Māori-owned winery (established in 1998), operates according to a 500-year business plan that’s as green as the grassy hills of Aotearoa.

Pēwhairangi/Bay of Islands' geography creates a unique terroir in Northland

The 2017 Pinot Conference in Wellington was another watershed moment in the cultural evolution of New Zealand wine. ‘The theme of the entire conference was Tūrangawaewae [‘a place to stand’]. The fact that this event, which included a pōwhiri [formal welcoming ceremony] and kapa haka [ritual dance], was organised by New Zealand Winegrowers was a huge step,’ notes Richelle Tyney, a Marlborough winemaker of Māori descent profiled below.

Māori philosophy has been ‘regenerative’ long before its arrival as a buzzword

Tūrangawaewae has become a guiding concept for many New Zealand vignerons. Emphasising the specificity of place, the concept resonates with the French notion of terroir, but with greater emphasis on ancestral genealogies and a deep kinship between humans and the natural world. According to an ancestral Māori worldview, taking care of the land is synonymous with taking care of one’s community and self, since fundamentally, it is the land that supports life. Like other indigenous cultures, Māori place humans within a web of life where every action has up and downstream consequences. This philosophy inspires Aotearoa’s winegrowers to consider everything from soil and vineyard health to the broader vitality of ecosystems and communities that come together in wine.

Wineries are shifting towards using Māori names for regions and wine descriptions that incorporate Te Reo

New Zealand’s winegrowers are far from alone in exploring matauranga Māori (knowledge, wisdom) as a means for strengthening connections with land and community. Across the island, a wider cultural revitalisation has been taking place, most evident in the growing use of Māori language (Te Reo). ‘There’s a national kaupapa (project) to have one million Kiwis speaking Māori by 2040. Wine is only part of this larger movement. Māori is being used increasingly on the news, the weather report, in government and business contexts,’ observes Tyney.

Diversifying winespeak is important for making wine more inclusive while also reckoning with its colonial legacies

Astute observers will notice many bottles are now labelled as wine of Aotearoa New Zealand, and some wineries are shifting towards using Māori names for regions and wine descriptions that incorporate Te Reo. Similar shifts are afoot in South Africa, Canada, Australia and Chile, signalling a decolonisation of the wine lexicon.

Diversifying winespeak is important for making wine more inclusive while also reckoning with its colonial legacies. As historian Jennifer Regan-Lefebvre, winner of the André Simon Drinks Book Award for Imperial Wine, writes: ‘The establishment of colonial vineyards was … inextricably part of the painful histories of the devastation of indigenous populations. This narrative, almost entirely absent from most wine history, is fundamental to understanding the establishment of viticulture in the New World.’ While the past cannot be changed, how we understand it and move forward can. The following profiles illustrate how some Aotearoan winegrowers are navigating the shifting cultural currents.

Five Aotearoa NZ winegrowers to know

Helen Masters and Ben Trinick are Ata Rangi's kaiahuwhenua tō waina (winemakers)



Along with making some of Aotearoa’s finest Pinot Noir, this pioneering Martinborough vintner has been taking steps to incorporate Māori language and culture in its daily operations. Ata Ranga, which translates to ‘Dawn Sky’, has been instrumental in the publication of a Te Reo Māori booklet for winegrowers in the Wairarapa. As head winemaker, Helen Masters explains, ‘It came out of wanting to be better New Zealanders. Every year, all these overseas interns come to the Wairarapa to work the harvest – we want to share our story and culture with them.’

Ata Rangi has also been deeply involved in native rewilding projects for several decades. The team has also been experimenting with indigenous cover crops and trees in and around the vineyard. Compared with the European imports such as Poplars, lower-growing native trees have smaller root systems, leaving water and sunlight for the vines while still blocking Wairarapa’s relentless wind. These native wind blocks also foster indigenous biodiversity, improving the overall ecology in and around the vineyard. As a result, the old pastoral scenes that appear straight out of England are transforming into distinctly Aotearoan winescapes.

One to try: Ata Rangi Kotinga Pinot Noir 2020, £55.85

Janine Rickards works in the vineyard



Janine Rickards is a talented Wairarapa-based winemaker of Māori descent. After honing her craft at Millton, Ata Rangi and working vintages overseas, Rickards currently makes wine at Urlar in Gladstone and under her own label, Huntress. Like many contemporary Māori, she is on a journey of cultural rediscovery. ‘I didn’t grow up with this whakapapa (genealogy, family history). I grew up in a poor community, with a lot of hardship and industries fading away. I feel I have this loss or disconnection, as I didn’t grow up with this.’ But now she is learning the language and tikanga (customs) that nearly went extinct under British settler colonialism.

A deep ecological instinct guides Rickards’ winegrowing approach. ‘Working biodynamically heightens your awareness and presence of the land and being part of the environment. You’re much more connected. Working this way is very close to Māori understanding of nature and means you’re going to have more mana (power), aroha (love) and vitality in the vineyard, grapes and wines. That’s where winegrowing needs to go, in my opinion. It needs to move away from monocrop farming and be about connecting deeply with land.’

What Rickards has observed and hopes to see more of in the New Zealand wine sector is genuine collaboration and connection to Aotearoa’s living heritage. ‘What I think NZ wine needs to do is connect with Māori culture in a genuine way, remain open minded and be ok for the journey to take some time, be led by Māori and do it for the purpose of enriching people and communities, not for a marketing purpose.’

One to try: Huntress 2021 Pinot Noir

Wilco Lam recently moved to On Giant’s Shoulders from Dry River



After more than ten years at the helm of Martinborough’s renowned Dry River, Wilco Lam recently moved across the road to On Giant’s Shoulders. One of New Zealand’s most talented winemakers, Lam is also one of its most reflective. When asked about how Māori tikanga influences his approach to winegrowing, Lam says: ‘As one living and working in Aotearoa, I think that Māori tikanga is important to be aware of and knowledgeable about. It can be cross-referenced or interpreted from a European perspective, as long as we understand the similarities and differences.’

Philosophy aside, how does the engagement with Māori culture and communities play out in practice and in the wine itself? ‘To be honest, slowly,’ says Lam. ‘The daily demands of farming haven’t really taken this engagement into consideration, so we have to work at that and make time for cultural dialogues. However, since wine is a lens through the eyes of its maker, it can reflect in essence the ideas, influences and interactions of that winemaker. It might not be perceptible in the taste, which is a black-and-white view of wine, but it will be there in the feel and as part of the story and an acknowledgement from the company that to an extent we operate in the Māori landscape and cultural fabric.’

One to try: On Giants’ Shoulders Pinot Noir 2020

Julie Taylor and Haysley MacDonald



Owner and founder of te Pā, Haysley MacDonald (Iwi affiliations: Rangitane o Wairau, Ngai Tahu, Ngati Rarua) traces his lineage over 800 years ago to one of Aotearoa’s earliest oceanic migrations, which landed on Marlborough’s Wairau Bar. Haysley’s Māori ancestors have lived on the land around the Wairau Bar ever since.

‘Living on and working these lands that have been in my family for centuries is the only thing I’ve ever known,’ says MacDonald. ‘Just like my own father, and generations before him, I’ve grown up in these parts, and know the area and the surrounding waters of the Marlborough Sounds and Tory Channel like the back of my hand. It’s everyday life – it’s home. My connection to the area also goes beyond winegrowing – through my role with my iwi, I am active in my advocacy for and input to more sustainable and responsible fishing and forestry practices in the region. Nothing happens in isolation and all of these ecosystems are connected, so I see my role as a Māori winery owner to also look after these other important areas of our natural world as well.’

Alongside their consistent, award-winning wines, te Pā is also a passionate and vocal advocate for Māori business, Māori culture and the signs, symbols and logos that are unique to Aotearoa New Zealand. They are a founding and leading member of the TUKU Māori Winemakers Collective and active supporters of Māori events.

‘Our approach to kaitiakitanga (guardianship) is specifically Māori, as we think of sustainability holistically. It’s about the land but it’s also about the sea, about the people, and about the future. As kaitiaki of the land, we have moved away from the monoculture, bowling green look of the perfectly mown vineyard. Instead, we’re embracing inter-row cover-crop planting to support healthy, diverse soils and insects. My dad would always be rotating crops between paddocks and planting different crops like barley or wheat, so we’d never have the same plants grown in the same place back-to-back.

‘Of course, we can’t replant our vineyards every year, so we do the next best thing, which is inter-row planting. We focus on nitrogen fixers and organic matter that becomes mulch. And we’re stoked to report that it’s all working – our Seaside vineyard in the Lower Wairau is a perfect example. There’s heaps of worm life and other natural good insects. Today, you can pull the soil back and what used to be stone is now teaming with all sorts of life and that’s really satisfying to see that our efforts and role as kaitiaki of these lands are paying off.’

One to try: te Pā Organic Pinot Noir 2021

Working at Greywacke has increased Richelle Tyney's connection with her heritage



After spearheading Spy Valley’s Pinot and Chardonnay production, Richelle Tyney took the winemaking reins at Greywacke from New Zealand icon Kevin Judd in 2021. Tracing her ancestral roots to the top of the South Island, or Te Tau Ihu o Te Waka a Maui (the tip of the nose of Maui’s canoe), like many contemporary Māori, Tyney is reconnecting with her culture and its deep connection to whenua (land). ‘I haven’t always been so forthcoming about my heritage,’ Tyney eflects. ‘But since coming to Greywacke, it’s stronger. We’re organic, we treat the land with care and respect. And it helps to be a smaller company that’s more like a family’.

Respecting and reflecting place is what Tyney aims to capture in the wine she makes at Greywacke. ‘For me, it’s a hands-off approach; it’s letting the fruit, the terroir or turangawaewae speak for itself. The wine should show its place, where and how the grapes and vine grew in the soil and express the vintage. At Greywacke, we steer the grapes more than make the wine.’ Tyney has a particular love for the hillside terroir of Marlborough’s Southern Valleys, where Pinot Noir shines and Greywacke ‘steers’ some of the best.

‘As for tikanga, I’m making that journey; it’s a work in progress.’ Kevin and Kimberly Judd, Greywacke’s owners, have been highly supportive of Twiney’s journey, encouraging her study of Te Reo and incorporating Māori karakia (blessings) and mihis (formal greetings or welcome speeches) into her presentations of Greywacke’s wine. ‘I haven’t done it yet,’ she says. ‘I’m still working on it. I’m doing it for me, for my mana [power], then I’ll do it.’

Tyney hopes New Zealand’s recent push for Māori language and culture is not just a passing trend but a lasting and authentic commitment to the future. She has mixed feelings about the use of hakas at New Zealand wine tastings around the world, which run the risk of cultural misappropriation and disingenuous marketing. ‘I’m not against it being done but it has to be done right,’ she says. ‘Getting it right’ points to a broader challenge for the wine sector and public in Aotearoa and in other postcolonial contexts.

One to try: Greywacke Pinot Noir 2021, £34.45