In the fifteen years since New Zealand winegrowing had begun to stir, some inklings of its future are apparent. Gisborne (Poverty Bay) stands out as having the highest proportion of grapes being produced by growers rather than wineries. In 1975 the 98 grape growers of Poverty Bay produced 84 per cent of the grapes made into wine. The next highest proportion was in Hawke’s Bay where 22 per cent of the grapes made into wine came from grape growers. By 1980 the number of grape growers in Gisborne had nearly doubled to 190 and Hawke’s Bay numbers had also increased rapidly to 120 and even Marlborough recorded 44 growers. Gisborne grape growers produced 34 per cent of all grapes made into wine in New Zealand.
Andrew Ewart, Horticultural Advisory Officer for the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries, Gisborne, published a short article titled ‘Grape Varieties in Poverty Bay’ in the New Zealand Journal of Agriculture in late 1974. Two years after Montana’s first Gisborne vintage, and one year after Corbans’, he takes the theme of Gisborne’s role in the ‘tremendous expansion of the New Zealand industry’ by analysing the ten most commonly planted varieties in the light of ‘the increased call for grapes of high quality’. His discussion shows how the most common Gisborne varieties were viewed in the mid-1970s. It also reveals almost inadvertently, in his advice to growers, how they had adapted their management practices to the environmental conditions where they were growing these grapes.
Riesling-Sylvaner (not yet called Muller Thurgau) was the most planted variety in the region because it is an early grape, ‘harvested before the unsettled autumn weather’, and ‘yields well, approximately 10 tons to the acre’. Ewart also noted that its main problem is ‘its inability to cope with wet weather’ and added that ‘to avoid this deterioration viticulturalists have picked this grape at an early stage of maturity’. The paradox is that Riesling-Sylvaner ‘does not have much characteristic flavour and needs to be fully mature if this is to be obtained’. Golden Chasselas yields were at a similar level and it ‘has a definite place in the district despite it being aptly described as “a bag full of sweet water”’. It was not ideally suited for varietal wines. He saw Chasselas as ‘quite suitable for standard white wine and sherry production’, although after leaving the grapes on the vine for two months after the commercial harvest had finished the Manutuke Research Station’s Chasselas was ‘in good condition at 21.4 brix and 6.4 grams/litre tartaric acid’.
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The white hybrid Baco 22A, at the time one of the stalwart varieties of the Auckland region, was seen as having ‘two saving graces, it yields well – 11 tons to the acre – and it hangs well the berries and bunches being robust enough to leave on the vine until well into the autumn’. But he also pointed out that when harvest was delayed until 7 May 1974 at the Manutuke Research Station the sugar level reached 25.2 brix and 7.7 grams per litre of tartaric acid. He noted the distinct trend away from what he called ‘hybrid-type wines to vinifera or European-styled wine, a trend similarly reflected in the varieties planted in Poverty Bay’.
While very enthusiastic about Cabernet Sauvignon, as growers in most regions were at that time – ‘a first-class grape capable of making excellent red wines’ – Ewart also recognised the associated problem of late maturity when ‘in poor weather it is difficult to ripen this variety’. Between 1975 and 1995, Cabernet Sauvignon consistently represented over 15 per cent of the New Zealand vineyard before dropping to about 7 per cent in the next decade as many wineries and growers experienced difficulty in ripening it. The area in two other red varieties, Pinot Noir and Merlot, increased more rapidly until by 2000 each represented a higher proportion of the national vineyard than Cabernet.
Ewart’s constant reference to the need for high yields, of both hybrid and vinifera species, is at odds with the main message to grape growers that comes through strongly in his conclusion: ‘Although there will still be a demand for hybrid grapes if New Zealand is to increase the export of wines these will need to be of top-quality vinifera varieties.’ He was right, of course, but one acknowledgement was missing. Chasselas, Palomino and Riesling-Sylvaner (Muller Thurgau) are all vinifera varieties. In Gisborne at the time they were producing about 25 tonne of grapes to the hectare. To make table wine with body, texture, flavour and mouth weight – in other words, Ewart’s ‘top-quality’ -yields needed to be reduced to 10 tonnes per hectare or lower. Yet high yields are almost lauded in the text. This is not surprising because many Gisborne growers in the 1970s and early 1980s were aiming for high yields and achieving them. Demand for grapes was outstripping supply. Grape growers’ incomes depended on the tonnes per hectare that they could harvest, and the buyers – the enterprises making the wine – were much less demanding of quality than they were to become in the 1990s. So were the consumers at that time, many of whom had only recently been introduced to table wines.
Publications, field days with growers, and advice of horticultural advisory officers like Andrew Ewart meant that existing or aspiring grape growers were not short of valuable information and debate. Locals such as Bill Irwin joined the cacophony of knowledgeable growers while the larger wine companies recruited field officers who were resident in the region and available to their grape growers. Andrew Ewart is remarkably sanguine about Gisborne’s high yields in the early 1970s. Yet, as a member of a government agency responsible for advising growers, he had to be wary. In his writing he seems to be weaving a delicate path between encouraging grape growers to reconsider the varieties they were growing while not alienating them by overemphasising the need to lower their yields, and their income. If such high yields had continued, New Zealand would have been destined to make much wine of moderate quality.
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