A small winegrowing industry already existed in Poverty Bay in the late 1950s, with the Chitty, Wohnsiedler and Zame holdings being the largest, although the total area in wine grapes was under 20 hectares. These winemaking enterprises had demonstrated that they could produce grapes of quality from both vinifera and hybrid vines on the Gisborne Plain, even though the vinifera grapes were being used to make sweet ports, sherries and flavoured liqueurs. At the time, horticultural holdings on the plain also produced grapes for sale as fresh fruit. When short of fruit, in the early years, the wine producers were quite prepared to purchase these Albany Surprise table grapes for their ferments.
By the 1950s, stopbanking by the Poverty Bay Catchment Board had reduced the frequency and extent of flooding on the Gisborne Plain, making even more potential horticultural land available. In 1952, Wattie’s of Hawke’s Bay established a canning and freezing factory in Gisborne primarily for sweet corn. Farmers widened their experience by extending the range of vegetables and fruit they grew. But in the mid-twentieth century, Gisborne’s southern neighbour Hawke’s Bay remained clearly New Zealand’s largest and most important centre for pip- and stone-fruit orchards, as well as for growing vegetables for processing. Competition for land there was much more intense than in Gisborne and as a result land values were noticeably higher in Hawke’s Bay – an advantage for Gisborne grape growing when aspiring vignerons began buying land.
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Grapes were a natural choice for larger-scale production on the 20,000 hectares of the Gisborne Plain. The climate of the region, although not dissimilar to parts of Auckland in its high humidity during summer and autumn months, has the advantages of higher sunshine hours and lower rainfall. The coastal, southeasterly part of the Poverty Bay flats receives under 800 millimetres of annual rainfall, although this increases to over 1000 millimetres closer to the surrounding hills. The gentle relief of most of the Waipaoa flood plain encouraged mechanised viticulture and harvesting. Few similar opportunities existed closer to Auckland. Parts of the Bay of Plenty have a suitable climate, although rainfall is higher there, but the area of land with subdued relief is more restricted. By the 1970s, landowners in the Bay of Plenty were more interested in growing kiwifruit and their land prices were climbing rapidly while the Muldoon National government allowed tax relief for professionals investing in rural industries.
One characteristic of the Poverty Bay climate was to prove more troublesome to grape growing than initially recognised. Former tropical cyclones, revitalised as intense middle-latitude cyclones, sometimes drift down the east coast of the North Island and bring heavy rain, strong winds and flooding, especially to the protruding East Cape and Gisborne region. They occur irregularly but most commonly in March to April at the time when grapes are ripening and are vulnerable to mildews in warm, moist conditions. Occasionally, these intense low-pressure systems strike the region directly. Such catastrophic events tend to have a disproportionate influence on subsequent behaviour. This was the case with former tropical cyclone Bola when it devastated the vineyards of Gisborne in 1988. The Poverty Bay harvest was severely affected. Grapes were spoiling on the vine because the de-stemming and crushing equipment could not keep up with the harvested fruit.
After the event, Montana’s production manager, Peter Hubscher, insisted on having duplicate crushing facilities installed on the site of their winery and bottling plant in Glen Innes, Auckland as insurance against such events, although they have since been used infrequently. The probabilities of another remnant tropical cyclone striking the Gisborne Plain have been incorporated into the broader strategies of the major companies even to the extent of Montana reducing its commitment to Gisborne grape growers in the winter of 2009.
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