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Winemaker initiatives and scientific developments

Two developments in winemaking and viticulture helped change the attitudes within the industry and among the wine-buying public. From the mid-1970s a series of young Auckland winemakers began meeting every fortnight to taste their wines against imported wines of quality. They recognised the need for lower yields and ripe grapes if similar standards of quality were to be achieved. Results from competitions, such as the Easter Show and Air New Zealand wine awards, were beginning to reinforce the association between lower yields and the quality of wines from vinifera varieties.

The arrival of microclimatologist and viticulturist Richard Smart in New Zealand in 1984 was the second development. Having already published a series of seminal papers on the microclimates and photosynthesis of Vitis vinifera, he instigated a systematic programme of research on trellising systems for the vine and the management of its canopy. For fruit of a particular variety to reach physiological ripeness, crop levels and leaf canopies needed to be in balance. To be disease free and function effectively, canopies must be thin with air flowing freely through them.

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Trimming excessive foliage and leaf plucking to expose the bunches were essential components of managing the vines to achieve ripe fruit and develop its aromas and flavours. Smart also developed a set of innovative trellising systems, none of which, despite the quality of the science underlying their design, were widely adopted. The simpler vertical shoot positioning became the preferred pruning system.

In the last 30 years, many grape growers in Gisborne have changed their varieties several times, sometimes in a rather measured way as demand for different varieties and wines becomes apparent. Growers must protect their income during the three years it takes vines to come into full production. When the demand for grapes is increasing, and wine enterprises are encouraging landowners to increase their area in vines, planting new varieties or top-grafting existing vines are both possible. In times of overproduction or falling demand for some varieties, decisions become more complicated. These individual commercial decisions of grape-growing families underlie the set of changes evident in Table 5.2.

By 1980, Gisborne was well established as a producer of a polyglot of grape varieties – mainly high-yielding. The top three varieties – Muller Thurgau, Chasselas and Palomino – made up 60 per cent of the region’s vineyard. Immediately following them were three classical vinifera varieties – Gewurztraminer, Chenin Blanc and Chardonnay – each with over 100 hectares planted and together making up over 20 per cent of the Gisborne vineyard. Their presence proclaimed an interesting future for Poverty Bay. Which variety would dominate was not clear, although Chardonnay’s versatility in different environments made it a likely contender.

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