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Pioneers of the modern industry
By the early 1980s, five growers had established vineyards in Central Otago. They were Alan Brady, founder of Gibbston Valley Wines; Verdun Burgess and Sue Edwards of Black Ridge; the Grant family of William Hill Vineyards; Rolfe and Lois Mills of Rippon Vineyard west of Wanaka; and Ann Pinckney of Taramea Wines. Pinckney was the first to establish a winery, on the Speargrass Flat east of Queenstown, and several of the other enterprises made their first wines there. This group’s motto was to ‘plant and to hell with it’.
Rippon Vineyard became something of a viticultural trial in its own right and Rolfe Mills a willing source of knowledge to potential growers. ‘If MAF or anybody else said it wouldn’t grow here, I’d plant a few vines, he declared. Rolfe and Lois Mills first planted the hybrid Seibels in 1974, to which they added Albany Surprise in 1975, with the bulk of the vineyard being planted in 30 varieties in 1981. New clones of Pinot Noir were added in 1985.
The Grants of Alexandra experimented with a few vines a decade before Rippon. Bill Grant, a schoolteacher at the time, planted about a hundred cuttings of the table grapes Gros Colman and Black Hamburg shortly after buying property near Alexandra in 1962. They were killed by a heavy copper spray. His 1974 cuttings and nursery of Chasselas and Palomino came from the Department of Agriculture trial on the Kinnaird property. Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Gewurztraminer and Muller Thurgau vines from Blenheim were added in 1979. The William Hill vineyard remained smaller than Rippon until the Grants, with son David now in the business, purchased a mobile bottling plant.
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The bereted bon vivant Rolfe Mills of Rippon Vineyard was one of a small group of Central Otago enthusiasts who built a wine industry out of nothing. Rippon the economic conditions of the early twenty-first century and the family firm filed for bankruptcy in 2009.
Both the Grant and the Mills enterprises were initially relatively indiscriminate about the varieties they planted, taking a decade or more to establish their preferred varieties. In one sense, this hesitation was surprising, because by the early 1970s the classical varieties of Vitis vinifera were beginning to show their superiority in the North Island regions. Moreover, Central’s DSIR trial of 1972-78 included all of the vinifera varieties that were to prove successful in the region, including both Pinot Noir and Riesling. On the other hand, both William Hill and Rippon were initially hobby vineyards, remote from other commercial vineyards and wineries and the year-to-year accumulation of knowledge that was more characteristic of West Auckland, Gisborne, Hawke’s Bay and even Marlborough at the time.
Ann Pinckney, who had met Professor Helmut Becker of the Geisenheim Grape Breeding Institute when he visited New Zealand in 1978, also favoured the Germanic varieties in her first plantings, and with Dr Rainer Eschenbruch of the Te Kauwhata Viticultural Research Station undoubtedly influenced her Speargrass Flat neighbour Alan Brady. Brady initially tried a small number of varieties without knowing how they might perform on his Gibbston property. In 1981 he planted 100 cuttings each of Pinot Gris, Gewurztraminer, Muller Thurgau and Chasselas. When he had mixed success, partly because of inexperience, he took the advice of Eschenbruch and planted the Germanic variety of the moment, Muller Thurgau. Within a year, after increasing contact with Rolfe Mills and Ann Pinckney, he had replaced the Muller Thurgau with 3000 Riesling plants and 4000 Pinot Noir. In these 1984 plantings he also experimented with Pinotage and Cabernet Sauvignon. Empirical experience soon showed him that neither was suited to Central Otago: ‘The Pinotage never ripened. But it looked wonderful -big, healthy-looking bunches. It was as green as anything with very high acid. It wasn’t any good.’
Three observations stand out from the Brady chronology: he was willing to experiment; he was temporarily attracted to the popular varieties of the moment; and he rapidly adjusted to plant varieties that were proving successful in Central Otago. Within four years of his first planting he had settled on Pinot Noir and Riesling as the two main varieties at Gibbston Valley Wines, supplemented by Pinot Gris and Gewurztraminer from his original plantings. It is unlikely that the transition would have been as quick if similar learning had not already occurred among several of the other pioneering growers. These four varieties are among the principal varieties of the elite wine regions of northern France and southern Germany – Burgundy, Champagne and Alsace.