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Moreover, as in Marlborough, the owners of Hawke’s Bay hill-country sheep stations, flush from the boom years of the peak wool prices of the 1950s and into the
1960s, were not going to accede lightly to this new crop invading their lowland pastures, especially when they were likely to be restricted in spraying chemicals within 5 miles (8 km) of any vines. They fattened their lambs on these pastures, although the lambs had to be ‘off to the works’ by the end of November before they lost condition as the early summer droughts set in. Deeper-rooted perennial crops such as Vitis vinifera, genetically programmed to handle the summer droughts of the Mediterranean climate, were better able to handle such conditions, although it took some time for winegrowers to realise this. Indeed, with irrigation, grapes also thrived on gravelly soils except, they thought, the driest, such as those of Flaxmere. State housing occupied it but left the Gimblett Gravels (between Flaxmere and the Ngaruroro River) to shingle mining, the drag strip, and deerstalkers’ huts.
Until the 1990s, none of the suites of terraces on the Ngaruroro had vines on them. Morton Estate, influenced by microclimatologist Richard Smart, was the first enterprise to plant a vineyard – Riverlands – on the lower terraces of the Ngaruroro in 1988; Kemblefield followed; both on the accessible right bank, upstream from Maraekakaho. Few people foresaw the much more extensive plantings that were to occur after 2000 across the river on the left or northern bank of the Ngaruroro along the Matapiro Road in the vicinity of Crownthorpe by the large companies such as Montana (Pernod Ricard) and Delegat’s.
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In contrast, Nobilo (Constellation Brands) chose sites for their expansion closer to the Ngatarawa Triangle on older soils. On the terraces of the Tutaekuri River, Sacred Hill was the first to plant vines in the late 1980s. Te Mata followed in 1993 when it purchased the Woodthorpe Station of the horse-racing Lowry family. This was their third viticultural site. They had earlier planted their Bullnose vineyard in 1988.
The move to the gravelly soils of these terraces and on the plains must be seen in the light of the Marlborough experience of many of these companies. Over a 25-year period from 1973, viticulturists had learned to grow varieties of Vitis vinifera on similar soils in Marlborough’s Wairau Plain and later in the Awatere Valley. Here, in Hawke’s Bay, these terraces have the advantage of a greater variation in elevation further upstream. This presented the possibility of matching vine varieties to subtly different atmospheric environments, although winegrowers in Hawke’s Bay have become very wary of frost damage as a result of several severe late-spring frosts in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. The larger producers calculate such risk in relation to expenditure on frost protection in models of their internal rate of return. Some, such as Delegat’s, have installed comprehensive water storage and distribution methods through overhead spray lines to ameliorate frosty conditions. In their case these are in addition to their drip systems for irrigation and nutrients at ground level.
When it is suggested that there are other suites of terraces about 200 metres above sea level higher up the Ngaruroro and with good air drainage, informed viticulturists of the region are quick to respond negatively. Yet, on these higher terraces, frost should be no more of a problem than on the lower terraces already occupied. In Central Otago, by comparison, vines are already planted above 400 metres in several localities.