Each of the small enterprises analysed in this chapter provides insights into the distinctive features of Gisborne winegrowing. Longbush attests that winegrowing offers no easy path to prosperity in Gisborne, or elsewhere. Despite Bill Thorpe’s commercial success in all aspects of other horticultures in Poverty Bay, it took considerable time, effort and acumen for Thorpe Brothers Wines and the Longbush label to make progress. But it could not be sustained. James and Annie Millton’s commitment to growing varieties such as Chenin Blanc and Pinot Noir biodynamically in Gisborne must at times have been daunting. Having some of the varieties in the ground gave them a slight head start, as did the possibility of extending their vineyard on to the well-exposed hills of the Clark family property. This extension enabled them to capitalise on Gisborne’s hot summers and extended autumns in the best years. Their experience of growing organically, then biodynamically, made them a natural choice for the Family of Twelve.
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Nick Nobilo had some unfinished business after BRL Hardy of Australia bought the family business in 2000. He had begun his career in the 1960s extending his parents Huapai vineyard and contracting grape growers in Gisborne. When he ‘retired he was again prepared to commit to the garnet-coloured Gewurztraminer of Gisborne. Few others could match his depth of experience, viticultural knowledge and winemaking skills, coupled with entrepreneurial drive, commercial nous and access to capital. The international reviews of his wine and his marketing initiatives suggest that he just might be successful in helping to reposition Gisborne in the market.
Denis Irwin had demonstrated in the 1970s that Gewurztraminer had a special affinity with Gisborne’s environment, even when vinified more conventionally. Any enterprise that was able to sell 80 per cent of its production by mail order, as Matawhero did between 1975 and 1982, must have been doing something right, even if the competition then was less intense. Denis Irwin, like Nick Nobilo, ranks among the winemaking stars of his time.
The best Gisborne wine news of 2009 was the relaunch of the Matawhero brand by the Searle family with Kim Crawford as vinifier. Having conquered the mass market with his personalised brand, Crawford is now in a position to explore making more artisanal wines – an aspiration that he expressed shortly after news of the sale of that brand to Vincor was announced. Again, Gisborne’s wine reputation should benefit. Skills and capital accumulated from the first generation of successful wine firms are being recycled back into Gisborne winegrowing.
Wine awards are always a dicey business. Gisborne grape growers and wine enterprises, both large and small, have won their share. Probably the most surprising for the region’s grape growers, and those of New Zealand as a whole, was Gisborne’s Amor-Bendall winning the trophy for the top Sauvignon Blanc in the prestigious Air New Zealand Wine Awards of 2004. The fruit for this wine did not come from Marlborough but from 3.4-metre trellises growing Sauvignon Blanc for grafting in the Riversun Nursery of Geoff Thorpe on the Poverty Bay flats. This result raises two questions. First, it demands some exploration of the physiological processes and canopy management that have provided such excellent fruit from such an unusual source. Second, this terroir-shattering result needs to be assessed against the environment of the particular season, the site, and the clone of these vines. Doug and Delwyn Bell’s preference for using Richard Smart’s ‘big vine theory may have a special place on the Poverty Bay flats.