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The serendipity of dispersedplantings
The efforts of these first five enterprises to plant a significant area in grapes illustrated key features that were important to learning about the suitability of natural environments of the Central Otago region for different varieties of Vitis vinifera: they made production rather than location decisions; they were dispersed but interacted closely; they were liberal in passing on their knowledge; and they possessed a mixture of talents.
All the first five growers owned their land and decided to plant grapes on it rather than searching more widely for suitable sites. From the point of view of adding to the store of knowledge of Central Otago’s viticultural environments, their dispersal proved enlightening. The five were sufficiently spread (Wanaka; Alexandra and the Earnscleugh Road; Gibbston in the Kawarau Gorge; and Speargrass Flat) that the north-south extent of the localities suitable for vines, and a large part of the east-west extent, were clarified by their success or failure with different grape varieties. This dispersal, together with the interaction among the owners, built the initial spatial knowledge of Central Otago’s natural environments. Rolfe Mills, Ann Pinckney and Alan Brady met regularly. They made wine in the Taramea winery on Pinckney’s property on Speargrass Road and were the forerunners of the Central Otago Winegrowers Association.
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Three of the currently important clusters of vineyards and wineries – the Gibbston locality in the Kawarau Gorge (often now loosely referred to as Gibbston Valley after its first winery), Alexandra (William Hill Vineyards), and the schists along Earnscleugh Road (Black Ridge) – have all become successful localities for vines. By the mid-1990s some of the local grape growers, now with considerable experience of different parts of the region, such as Michael and James Moffitt (the sons of Bill and Sybilla Moffitt of Dry Gully Vineyard) and actor Sam Neill, had bought land and planted on the northeast-facing ridge of schists.
Despite the Wanaka area having its well-known Rippon Vineyard and winery, this locality has so far seen only small areas planted in grapes. Much of the land surrounding Rippon is steep and difficult to cultivate. Moreover, Rolfe and Lois Mills had first choice of land in the vicinity. Subsequently, owners of high-country runs were reluctant to sell small parcels of land, especially when the price of land was rapidly increasing. The area of Speargrass Flat (Taramea Wines) has also seen few vines planted. Growing grapes over several seasons helped Ann Pinckney to establish empirically the patterns of one of the main hazards to viticulture in this part of the region. Her experience in fighting frost on her own property and in establishing vines on her mother’s nearby land helped establish the low probabilities of success there (Ann was initially reluctant to use smudge pots for frost control anyway because in her other life as a Karitane nurse she did not want to have soot fall on the nappies drying on the clotheslines of the Speargrass Flat).
Four aspects of the Central Otago experience inform the general story of the importance of learning in the regional specialisation of New Zealand winegrowing. First, empirical experimentation by growers on specific sites was the initial means of establishing the suitability of parts of the region for particular varieties of vines and the quality of wine that could be made from them. Second, winemakers working for the first few wineries extended this spatial knowledge by processing grapes from other sites. Taramea was the first of these wineries. Once Gibbston Valley Wines had established their own fermentation facilities in the Kawarau Gorge they began processing grapes on contract or buying them from vineyards in other localities. Their knowledge of the other localities in Central Otago soon widened, placing them in a much stronger position to choose where they would source their grapes from, to obtain qualities of flavour and aroma to enhance the wines made from their existing sites. By 2010, Gibbston Valley Wines owned about 10 hectares in the Gibbston locality but sourced grapes from over 60 hectares elsewhere in Central Otago, some on land they had purchased and some bought from grape growers.
Third, this filiere structure – grape growers (often aspiring winegrowers) with small areas in vines selling to the few wineries or having wine made by them under contract -was secured through local capital establishing the Central Otago Wine Company. This is a contract winemaking company in Cromwell partly funded by actor Sam Neill that makes wine for different labels from vineyards scattered throughout the region. From harvest to bottling and beyond, its principal winemakers (Mike Wolter followed by Dean Shaw) became repositories of knowledge of the qualities of the region’s wines, especially of the dominant variety Pinot Noir and its variations from many vintages and across a wide range of sites. This knowledge filtered through to other participants in the industry.
Fourth, the distinctive filiere of this region was reinforced by the organisation of particular enterprises. Until the early twenty-first century, Peregrine Wines sourced almost all of its grapes from its own contract growers. These are not contract growers in the sense in which the term is used in other regions – that is, farmers who already own land and plant grapes on part of their property. Many of the Central Otago growers are New Zealand or international professionals who either purchased their land and house site from Wentworth Estates, the associated company that subdivided and marketed the Gibbston lowland portion of Wentworth Station, or took advice on purchasing other land from Greg Hay of Peregrine or other informed locals. Purchase of the 4-hectare sites from Wentworth initially included the contracting of the planted grape crop back to Peregrine who also tended such vineyards. The distinctive blue Peregrine vineyard sign designating their contract growers has dotted the landscape of Central Otago from Gibbston to the side roads of Lowburn, and from Bendigo to Northburn Station. Peregrine was marking out its territory just as Cloudy Bay signposted its Marlborough vineyards when it was first established.
The Gibbston Valley looking west towards Lake Hayes and Queenstown.