NZ wine: Anyone for Monopoly?
Leading wineries say they are receiving three or four offers a month from investment and real estate brokers but many warn that the new, fair-weather wine growers could find their investments hard to swallow. The Kiwi dollar's Titanic plunge against other currencies means that buying into New Zealand's young wine market is very cheap for overseas investors.
The country is also enjoying critical and commercial success with its strong ranges of Sauvignon Blancs and Chardonnays. For a small market it is making big waves with many believing that its white wines will mirror the success South East Australia has had with reds.
These factors have combined to produce the current interest in the Kiwi market. 'For Sale' signs are going up around the wine growing regions and even those wineries that aren't looking to take advantage of the high prices being offered for planted land, the offers come flooding in.
"I'm getting a number of offers and they vary in value but would all be attractive if I was looking to get out," says Alan Limmer of Stonecraft in the Hawke's Bay.
Top viticultural land in New Zealand sells for about $15,000 an acre compared to $50,000 in the Napa Valley in the US. "Chile is perhaps cheaper than here but its reputation is not where New Zealand has got to at the moment," said Limmer.
As the interest grows the prices are rising and rumours abound in the industry that a small Otago winery recently sold up for NZ$7m, a previously unheard of amount.
But these new owners may not be buying into the golden opportunity that they had hoped for. Kiwi exports are strong at the moment, partly thanks to the woeful dollar, but that may not last.
And the domestic market is effectively saturated with the only growth coming from imported wines from Australia and Chile and the small size of the average New Zealand winery means that few economies of scale are possible. There are 334 wineries in New Zealand with an average vine area of just 34 hectares, which makes many of them more like hobbies than businesses.
"There are a plethora of wineries here at the moment so there is little growth from domestic sales and the only way to sell more is to export and that costs a lot to set up," says Limmer.
The larger wineries have started buying up smaller ones to increase their export potential and last month's acquisition of Corban's by Montana indicates how the market leaders are striving for size.
"There is just too much competition on the shelves for all these wineries to survive so I would imagine many will disappear over the next few years," adds Limmer.
Other wineries admit to receiving offers from investors including Paul Holley of Mission Estate who says that the buyers are only looking for established sites.
But the new winery owners have angered some traditionalists. "These people are just playing at it and would be growing potatoes if that made more money," said one disgruntled owner.
Although there are long-term questions over the future of many of the small brands that New Zealand produces the wineries being bought now are still likely to be attractive investments as the larger companies hoover up the small competition over the next five years.
This is probably why the market continues to look like a Monopoly board with everyone bidding for any square they land on.
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