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Grape growers, vine varieties, and wine enterprises

Does the New Zealand organisation of the filiere (which is the same as in many ‘New World’ wine countries) make a difference to the varieties planted, especially in a country where they are not specified in law? The answer from Gisborne grape growers is a definite ‘yes’. Because there are very few local wineries in Gisborne, the demands of the wine companies have always influenced the varieties of grapes chosen by growers. Reid Fletcher, one of the large Gisborne growers and esteemed contributor to New Zealand grape growing, planted his first vines in 1974 and succinctly expresses the corporate influences on his enterprise:

I’m a contract grower and I’ve made a profession of being a contract grower and I aim to be a very good contract grower. I don’t aim to be a petite winery owner producing a small amount of one very good wine. That’s the varietal mix I’ve got that’s what the companies have influenced.

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By the beginning of the twenty-first century the Fletcher family’s decisions on their varietal mix reflects what the companies would pay for different varieties as well as the history of the region and the impact of phylloxera on vine health. Muller Thurgau had been reduced to about 10 per cent of their vineyard and the hybrids had been pulled out. Reid describes the transformation:

Prior to 1980 everything was on its own roots. We changed everything onto grafted plants just pulled out and put in new plants. We’ve now got 4.3 hectares of Breidecker, 5.9 of Semillon, 4.2 of Clone 15 Chardonnay. And then in the home block we’ve got 4.8 hectares of Muller Thurgau, 5 of Merlot, 5.2 of Mendoza Chardonnay, 4 of Early White Muscat, 4.1 of Clone 15 and some Clone 7 Chardonnay, 5 of Chenin Blanc and 2.5 of Semillon.

Of these varieties, only the Breidecker, Early White Muscat and Muller Thurgau, and perhaps Chenin Blanc, would be unlikely to be planted today.

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