NEW ZEALAND • One winery is seeking inspiration from the man who landscaped Hobbiton, while at least three are opening new or refurbished tasting rooms.
This is all part of a plan to lure tourists to New Zealand's premier wine region and turn winery visitors into life-long advocates of Kiwi vino.
Almost 612,000 foreigners visited New Zealand vineyards in the year through June, 11 per cent more than a year earlier, and government figures show that wine buffs typically stay in the country longer and spend more.
"What's being offered by the vineyards has got slicker - the whole experience has got better," said Mr Philip Green, owner of Appellation Central Wine Tours in Queenstown, a resort town famous for adventure sports that is also a gateway to the nation's southernmost wineries.
"There has been an increasing awareness of New Zealand as a wine and food destination."
While the focus will help wine exports reach a NZ$2-billion (S$2-billion) target by 2020, from NZ$1.57 billion in the year ended June, it may also be another fillip for tourism, which overtook dairy last year as New Zealand's biggest export industry.
New Zealand wine is among the most expensive in many overseas markets in terms of average price a bottle, which suggests that those who drink it can also afford to be potential visitors, said Mr Chris Yorke, global marketing director of New Zealand Winegrowers. The industry body announced last week that it is compiling a database of wineries catering to tourists.
Marlborough has 141 wineries, of which at least 35 have wine-tasting rooms, known locally as "cellar doors".
"We are seeing a new generation of visitors who are looking for a unique winery experience," said Mr Mario Dussurget, hospitality manager at Cloudy Bay, the winery that was bought in 2003 by LVMH, the world's biggest maker of luxury goods.
"They have been to Bordeaux, maybe Napa, the Barossa Valley, and they want something unique from Cloudy Bay and New Zealand."
The 31-year-old winery, whose Sauvignon Blanc is one of New Zealand's most iconic wines, offers tastings alongside plates of local cheeses and oysters, plus lodge- style accommodation.
Less than 1.6km away, Jackson Estate has hired Mr Brian Massey, who was greensmaster for The Lord Of The Rings movie trilogy (2001-2003) and helped to design the Hobbiton set. He is advising on landscaping around the winery.
Near Cromwell, in the South Island's Central Otago region, visitors to Wild Earth Wines can sample local game and fish under trees on the banks of the Kawarau River. The popularity of the venue with Chinese tourists has prompted the owners to offer sweeter-styled red wines and noodle salads, said sales manager Wesley Quider, whose father started the vineyard in 1998.
"We're definitely noticing a big increase in tourism, especially with the Chinese tour groups," he said, adding that the restaurant catered to as many as 250 guests a day last summer, compared with a peak of 150 two years earlier.
China is New Zealand's fastestgrowing tourism market, with arrivals increasing 27 per cent to 397,000 in the year ended June 30. Still, the world's most populous nation made up only 1.8 per cent of New Zealand's wine exports by value, compared with the United States' 30 per cent share.
Not all wineries see the value in targeting tourists.
At Two Paddocks, the Central Otago winery owned by actor Sam Neill, star of Jurassic Park (1993), the cellar door is open for tastings by appointment only. The business wants to grow membership of its wine club and reward those supporters with the opportunity to visit the winery and attached farm where they can stroll among Neill's collection of outdoor sculptures, said manager Jacqui Murphy.
"We'd love to be open to the public seven days a week, but from a business viability perspective, we've had to keep it quite reined in," she said.
"We won't survive if we have streams of people coming in, but they buy only a bottle of entry-level Pinot Noir and say thanks very much."