Unfortunately, the early period of high yields per hectare has branded Gisborne as a bulk producer of grapes for wine of moderate quality, a reputation that it has not deserved for at least the last decade. This reputation for high yields derives partly from
Montana using Gisborne to source their Pinot Noir and especially Chardonnay grapes as the base for their sparkling brand Lindauer. These varieties are picked early in the autumn at very high yield and low sugar (brix) compared with still wines, thus avoiding the autumn rains and high humidity that in some seasons are a problem.
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Partly because they must respond to an environment that naturally favours high yields for many varieties, Gisborne’s grape growers are among the most sophisticated in the country. Many have embraced techniques to limit this abundance while also meeting the increasingly strict requirements of their corporate clients. Gisborne’s climate sometimes makes downy and powdery mildew difficult to control, while botrytis can also be a problem. Autumn rains, before the grapes are physiologically ripe, sometimes demand early picking.
The experienced winegrowers of the region have adapted well to these environmental necessities. Just as the remaining winegrowers of the Auckland region have modified their methods to limit the impact of higher humidity, so too have those of Gisborne where such problems are less severe. These generally strong relationships were severely tested when in mid-2009 Pernod Ricard NZ stunned the Gisborne winegrowing community by announcing that it was negotiating to terminate contracts with many Gisborne growers. The international company Constellation Brands and the New Zealand enterprise Mud House had also begun to buy their growers out of contracts.
The early success of Gisborne extended beyond grape growing under contract. Local entrepreneurs bought land, or used what they owned, to establish vineyards with the idea of making their own wine. Three Gisborne families – the Irwins (1975), James and Annie Millton (1984) and the Thorpes (late 1980s) – established winemaking enterprises that were to have an extended influence on the region and on New Zealand winegrowing more generally. Gradually, more independent wineries have been added, but the number has remained small compared with Hawke’s Bay and Marlborough.
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