Where the first vines see the sun

Over the next month I am lucky enough to be visiting wine regions in New Zealand and Australia.  As previously advised, I won a bursary to visit a wine region of my choice and will be learning about Semillon in the Hunter Valley at the end of January.  On the way (I realise it isn’t actually on the way), I am visiting friends in New Zealand and doing a bit of scouting out for Tim, who is planning to run tours here in a couple of years, long overdue after the success of his 2014 tours.

My Kiwi adventures started in Gisborne, an area we don’t hear much about in the UK, but a hugely important one in New Zealand.

Kiwi fruit masquerading as Albariño

Gisborne is on the east coast of the North Island, about 200km north of Hawkes Bay.  Its soils are fertile, and retain enough moisture for irrigation not to be used for vines – the region promotes itself on the basis of its dry farmed, sustainable vineyards.  A statistic I saw at one vineyard put the average amount of irrigation water required to make a bottle of New Zealand wine at 55 litres, Gisborne uses none!  Its vineyards are the first in the world to see the rising sun each day, and sunshine and water make it a gloriously verdant place.  It is also a significant area for fruit growing.  I realised the pergola trained vines under nets that I at first thought were a takeover by Albariño, were actually Kiwi fruit. Chardonnay is the most widely planted variety, followed by a number of aromatic varietals such as Pinot Gris, Gewurztraminer and Chenin Blanc, and a small amount of reds.

While the region is dominated by growing grapes for blending by big brands such as Villa Maria, there are plenty of interesting wineries, and quite a history to tell.  At the Matawhero winery I met Kirsten Searle.  She and her husband Richard bought the estate from Denis Irwin, whose father Bill introduced the Mendoza clone to the area, and whose Gewurtztraminer earned him an appreciative letter from the late Queen Elizabeth!  Matawhero make single vineyard wines from their Briant Vineyard near the winery in Patutahi, and from the Tietjen’s Vineyard in Ormond which is at higher altitude with more calcified soils.  A lovely tasting of their wines confirmed the quality of the region – culminating in three Chardonnays from Tietjen’s vineyard, that showed a wonderful variety of expressions.

Greeter at Matawhero
Vines in Central Valley
Vines in Ormond Valley
Shona at Bushmere

Almost next door was Bushmere, where Shona and David Egan have their vineyards.  Shona was a fantastic guide to the region, particularly the trials and tribulations of the last few years’ vintages.  While in 2020 the grapes were in by the time restrictions came down on workers, in 2021 it was very difficult to find pickers and most grapes had to be harvested mechanically.  In 2022 a wet vintage made that muddily challenging, and just when fortunes should be changing Cyclone Gabrielle hit on 14th February, in the middle of harvest.  Bushmere send their grapes to Hawkes Bay where their winemaker is based, a fair journey along a windy coastal road at the best of times.  The cyclone wiped the road out in several places, so the grapes had to be crushed and juice shipped to Hawkes Bay via Palmerston North – adding more than 10 hours to the journey time!

The 2023 wines that I tasted were great – the aromatic whites very ‘Gis’ – ripe fruit, rich texture but great acidity, while the rosé and red Montepulcianos were a very pleasant surprise.   Shona told me they grow Montepulciano by accident – they were sent the wrong stock from the nursery!  But they like it, and so did I – the rosé with some residual sugar was a perfect summer food wine – a bit like Lambrusco (except it was still), a perfect accompaniment for cold meats or cheese, while the red had the earthy cherry fruit and tannic structure you would expect from this most Italian of varieties.

Driving around the region I could see first hand the impact of the cyclone and extremely wet weather than followed throughout 2023, with roads washed out and huge efforts to rebuild them.  I also looked at hotels and had some great meals, and am really excited about the prospect of Tim bringing groups here in a couple of years.

Road slip
Dinner at Crawford Road Kitchen