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A new era ofwinegrowing
Hawke’s Bay had nine significant wine-producing enterprises when the New Zealand wine industry began to evolve rapidly in the 1960s. The four largest firms – Glenvale, McDonald’s, McWilliam’s and Vidal – produced about 90 per cent of Hawke’s Bay wines. The five small ones – Brookfields Vineyards, Lombardi Wines, Mission Vineyards,
St George Estate and Te Mata Vineyards (not yet owned by the Buck family) – produced the remaining 10 per cent.
Among the large companies, McWilliam’s initially had a strong influence on convincing New Zealand consumers that distinctive table wines of quality could be made from Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay grapes grown in Hawke’s Bay. It was able to do this because more than 60 per cent of Hawke’s Bay varieties at the time were old vinifera vines on their own roots. Phylloxera had not yet infested the region’s vines. McWilliam’s Cabernet Sauvignon, made first in 1965, and often attributed to Tom McDonald, assumed mythical status among New Zealand wine enthusiasts. Chardonnays produced by McWilliam’s in the early 1970s under the guidance of Bob Knappstein were similarly acclaimed.
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Paradoxically, as well as awakening the New Zealand public to the qualities of wine from classical varieties, McWilliam’s also convinced some talented winemakers that they wanted nothing to do with the general practices that were common in many New Zealand cellars at the time. Kim Salonius was one. He describes his distaste of such winemaking when, after travelling to Germany to enrol in a postgraduate degree, he was seduced into winegrowing by doing a vintage in Baden Wurtenburg. A native of Peterborough, Ontario, he followed his Germanic sojourn with vintages in Canada’s Niagara Peninsula, and Australia’s McLaren Vale and Barossa Valley.
Salonius was ‘absolutely convinced that New Zealand could produce good wine. I mean the climate – from top to bottom, you’ve got to find some place that is ideal. And so I was putting together skills, I thought, to run a very small winery.’ After settling in Hawke’s Bay, he worked the 1973 vintage as a cellar hand for McWilliam’s Wines:
I was just an ordinary summer hand, watching and picking up as much as I could. And I learnt a lot about New Zealand conditions, especially tons and tons of sugar and making wine out of sugar, and water, and dry skins. What a shocking scandal that was! Never mind. I just started looking for land.
Kim’s memory of the quality of the early 1970s Cabernet Sauvignons made at McWilliam’s is equally clear:
I thought they were very, very interesting, good – very different from Australian Cabernets.