Gisborne or Poverty Bay?
I saw this wee ad in the paper. It said ‘Wanted to buy – grapes’. So I got on the phone very nervously… it was Montana up in Auckland in the Waitakeres. Frank Yukich answered very gruffly, ‘Yup, whaddya want?’ ‘I’ve got some grapes for sale, sir.’ ‘Where are you?’ ‘Gisborne.’He said, ‘Well, it’s a long way, you know. We don’t wantjust afew boxes – we want 300 to 400pounds at least. How much have you got?’ ‘I’ve got 40 ton.’
When James Cook named Poverty Bay because he had been unable to procure provisions from local Maori, he ensured that in the twentieth century most grape growers and winemakers would call their region Gisborne. In fact, Cook was misleading future settlers, because some of the soils on the flood plain of the Waipaoa River are among the most fertile and versatile in New Zealand. Perversely, it may even have been effective to have used Poverty Bay, playing on the common association of fine wines with meagre environments, despite the region being anything but meagre. Moreover, many successful winemaking firms in New Zealand have mined the word ‘bay’ in their names or brands – Cloudy Bay, Destiny Bay, Koura Bay, Lazy Bay, Oyster Bay, Pegasus Bay, Tasman Bay, and even the ersatz Monkey Bay coined when Brian Vicieli was CEO of Nobilo.
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Gewurztraminer grapes ready for picking at Nick Nobilo’s Vinoptima Estate in Gisborne. Vinoptima Estate
In fact, Nick Nobilo was one of the few bold enough to christen their Chardonnay Poverty Bay and to convince British Airways to serve it on their European routes. Montana has also had much success with its strong Gisborne Chardonnay brand, winning international accolades and awards with it. So too have smaller enterprises such as Coopers Creek for their austere, unoaked Gisborne Chardonnay that won Elite Gold in the 2009 Air New Zealand Wine Awards. Gisborne winegrowers were even bolder by branding their region ‘Chardonnay Capital’ when the United States-led ‘ABC’ (Anything But Chardonnay) set was undermining this elegant variety.
Gisborne holds a special place in New Zealand winegrowing. In the two decades between 1970 and 1990, grapes from Gisborne helped transform the New Zealand wine industry from one based on fortified (alcohol added) sweet wines made from hybrid grapes to one based on the production of table wines made from varieties of Vitis vinifera. For these two decades, Muller Thurgau, one cross of Riesling and Sylvaner, was queen of Gisborne. But Gisborne remained an essential source of grapes in the transformation of New Zealand winegrowing for much longer. Indeed, it took until the 1995 vintage for Marlborough regularly to produce more grapes than Gisborne and until 2004 for Hawke’s Bay to do the same. Gisborne’s contribution to the evolution of New Zealand winegrowing is incontrovertible.
Enterprises from Auckland rather than the nearby Hawke’s Bay initiated the growth of Gisborne as a winegrowing region. In the early 1960s, Corbans, Montana and Penfolds all increased their area in vines by establishing vineyards mainly within the Auckland region. Smaller, mainly Dalmatian, family enterprises did the same, but usually close to their existing cellars and dwellings. The new vineyards met an immediate need for grapes but most had relatively short lives. Some sites, such as Montana’s at Mangatangi (west of the Hunua Ranges), proved unsuitable because the soils were heavy, the climate humid and the vines too vigorous, especially when the vinifera varieties began to replace the hybrids, and new, more suitable environments for the vine had been discovered.