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Enterprises in the Gisborne story Matawhero Wines

A local bookseller, Bill Irwin, with his son Denis, bought land and imported clones of Chardonnay and other varieties to begin growing grapes before establishing Matawhero Wines with its first vintage in 1975. The free-spirited Denis Irwin became an influential figure in New Zealand winemaking – first by quickly revealing his own talent to make stylish Chardonnays and Gewurztraminers that towered over the one-dimensional Muller Thurgau wines of the time, and second by becoming something of a guru to aspirant winemakers of similar disposition. Some of the most influential winemakers of the late twentieth century and into the twenty-first, such as Alan Limmer of Stonecroft, Alwyn Corban of Ngatarawa and Hatsch Kalberer of Fromm, were strongly influenced by Denis, as was Kim Salonius of Eskdale.

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According to Denis, his father ‘always had a hankering to get onto the land and so after many hours of driving round the flats, studying the water tables and getting the first book of Pullar’s maps’, he finally found the land he wanted in Riverpoint Road. ‘The property was probably well beyond his [physical] means in the sense that he was 55 when he took it on and it had about 80-odd acres. However, intellectually, the task was not beyond Bill Irwin. An avid reader, he settled down to finding out all he could about grape varieties suitable for the Gisborne environment. ‘He got to be a sort of textbook specialist of grapes in the country, recounts Denis. ‘Any book on grapes and wines at that stage that was going, he was into. So he was writing to all sorts of people. He was writing to Geisenheim [Grape Breeding Institute], to [its grape breeder] Helmut Becker. He was writing to Australia, and to the DSIR. Regular, deep and animated discussions about suitable vine varieties and viticultural practices also took place with the then Department of Agriculture’s horticultural advisory officer in Gisborne, Paul Cullen. The first vines were planted in Riverpoint Road in 1968 – 20 acres of Muller Thurgau with the contract to supply the grapes to Montana. Soon after, Chasselas and Riesling were added to the mix. By the early 1970s the cash flow from selling grapes was beginning to improve.

Meanwhile, in 1969 and 1970, before leaving on his OE, Denis worked for Mate Yukich at Montana’s Mangatangi vineyard. By 1971, he had managed to save enough to buy a one-way ticket to Cape Town. As the vintage approached, he hitch-hiked his way to Stellenbosch where he met Spatz Sperling who owned ‘a lovely little winery called Delheim and invited him for lunch. As they walked up towards the house Denis saw some young vines and

Denis Irwin’s Matawhero Gewurztraminers of the 1970s helped establish an international reputation for New Zealand wine. Strike Photography just automatically bent down to take off the laterals and wind the vine up the string. And he said, ‘What the hell are you doing? And I said, ‘I’m just teaching the vine how to grow! So of course he was quite impressed with that and he eventually got me a job.

It was here that Denis learned all about how to run a cellar, but probably more importantly, ‘this was the first time in my life that I’d actually tasted wine of any consequence’. He tasted many more styles during his next stop in the Rhine Valley, Germany, where he first worked in a small vineyard before being employed in the huge ZBW, a German co-operative that produces and sells Kaiserstuhl-Tuniberg wines.

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