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John Shearlock: Gisborne ? what's the story?

Published:  04 June, 2013

I like to think that I am a fairly good barometer for the popularity of New Zealand wine regions. I lived here for two years, have studied wine extensively and am equally open to both the marketing ploys of regional bodies and the seductive charms of the lesser-known boutique vineyards. However, and I feel a touch ashamed to say this, Gisborne had never really appeared on my radar. So what's the story?

I like to think that I am a fairly good barometer for the popularity of New Zealand wine regions. I lived here for two years, have studied wine extensively and am equally open to both the marketing ploys of regional bodies and the seductive charms of the lesser-known boutique vineyards. However, and I feel a touch ashamed to say this, Gisborne had never really appeared on my radar. So what's the story?

I knew that Gizzy (as it's affectionately known) was promoted as the Chardonnay Capital of NZ for some years, but that this had been ditched due to its surge in Pinot Gris production and an unfavourable approach to competitive regional comparisons by NZ Wine. I also knew that the region was New Zealand's third-largest grape producer by annual tonnage and was home to some of New Zealand's highest yearly sun hours and a generally clement climate, so how did it manage to keep such a low profile? The region's minuscule body of localised winemakers provides an answer; it doesn't take a genius to realise that there are an enormous amount of grapes being grown and being made into wine elsewhere.

So this leaves us with a slightly contradictory regional profile, small-scale regional boutique producers mixed with large-scale national bulk producers, pulling the region in conflicting directions and sending a somewhat mixed message.

The region was also hit hard by the grape glut of 2008 and the sea of Sav that washed up on the shores of many a kiwi region. The price of Sav dropped liked a stone, and the likes of Gisborne Chardonnay were left looking uncompetitive. As we know, the consumer is a fickle, price led species, and thus Chardonnay's popularity took a nose dive.

And yet this is the black and white story as told by cold hard stats, what colourful story would the region recount if given half a chance?

My first port of call was the Millton Vineyard and Winery, run by James and Annie Millton, on one of the oldest continuously farmed sites in NZ, farmed through generations since 1871, and the first winery to claim biodynamic status in the southern hemisphere. Farming and winemaking are not always words that go hand in hand, ironically, but I would soon realise that in Gisborne they do, a factor that sets the region apart.

At Millton, the flagship wine is their Chenin Blanc; steely and clean, its citrus and honeyed green apples and lime had me thinking Riesling in many ways but with concentration and acidity that would give a dry Vouvray a run for its money. The Riverpoint Viognier was full bodied through flavour intensity and alcohol, showing hints of spice on a white stone fruit base and with notes of bitter orange at the death, a reflection of the fine silts and clay of its vineyard provenance.

The Chardonnay was robust, as befitting its 100% oak barrique and 100% malolactic fermentation, whilst the semi-dry Opou Riesling with its high acid provided a massive mouthful of sweet and sour, that made me crave an accompaniment of something Oriental. The wines were concentrated and full, but were tailored to fit the varietal, and not crafted to fit a specific style, and provided great contrast when tasted together. A good solid start it had to be said.

Next up was a visit to the Gisborne Wine Centre where I was to meet with Klaus Sorensen the owner of Poverty Bay Wines based at the historic Bridge Estate vineyard, who was having his first day off in a while and looking pretty happy with himself having just finished picking before a downpour of rain the night before.

A self-certified Bordeaux freak, Klaus makes what he calls Gisbordeaux, growing Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot and Malbec, and with a plan to fill some recent vine drop-out with Petit Verdot. As if his affinity to Bordeaux needed any further proof, he also grows Semillon too, a hard varietal to track down elsewhere in Gisborne, or NZ for that matter. We started with an amuse-bouche of the history of his vines, mostly planted by Denis Irwin of Matawhero Wines at the Bridge Estate Vineyard after the vine pull of 1985. Then Klaus opened the wines and primed our palates with a cheeky little Merlot and Malbec rosé, reminiscent of Bandol in every sense; salmon-orange-pink in appearance and a dry savoury palate, a pleasant surprise which showed some pedigree to approach.

We segued onto the reds via the bone dry Riverpoint Semillon which was all about clearly delineated citrus flavours, minerality and decent acidity, balanced by some body from time on the lees. The two red Bordeaux blends were a 2008 Merlot predominant Poverty Bay and a 2009 Cabernet Sauvignon led Bridge Estate, odes to Bordeaux's Right and Left bank respectively, but with riper fruit and more aged character than any Bordeaux would show at these ages. The Bridge Estate is only made in the best years, and had my preference, showing slightly weightier tannins and more sophisticated bramble fruits, aided further by the greater proportion of Cab Sav. That said, for what Klaus describes as a "daily drinking wine", the Poverty Bay was not to be sniffed at by any means. If these were anything to go by, then this region was more than just a one trick pony, and Hawkes Bay would have to watch its back.

My final taste of the region would be with the mercurial and entrepreneurial Geordie Witters, part of the double act of Tietjen Witters (TW) Wines. Similarly to Poverty Bay Wines, TW make their wines at the Kirkpatrick Winery, and so investment has been firmly and squarely in the vineyard, with the emphasis on quality fruit; after all, a good wine can not be made from bad grapes. This was another point that seemed at odds with many another region; Gisborne is not the home to large scale commercial wineries. This is refreshing, but also superficially detrimental in terms of wine tourism; the all singing all dancing wineries of Cloudy Bay, Amisfield and Craggy Range are, without a doubt, draw cards to the wine tourism of their regions.

Is there a need for legislation to enforce larger wineries to makes wines in regions from which they source? Villa Maria, for example, makes it's award winning Barrel Fermented Chardonnay with Gisborne grapes, but has zero presence in the region?

Geordie showed us the barn his Grandad built, before grabbing some wines and inviting us on an impromptu tour of the vineyards on his quad bike, en route to his house. We passed some Viognier vines that had been recently picked, some gnarly old Chardonnay vines that looked every bit the real deal, and grabbed some table grapes to snack on before embarking on a serious tasting that took us from Chardonnay to Viognier to Merlot to Malbec and ended with a botrytised sticky.

As I'd found elsewhere, they were effortlessly concentrated and elegant, and the picks for me were the Black Label Chardonnay, justifying every bit the naming of the site as the Golden Slope after Burgundy's Cote D'Or, and the 2006 Makauri made from Merlot and Malbec. The Botryitsed Viognier with its burnt orange and honey notes and a refreshing savoury kick was a sweet elixir of life - and Geordie joked that he still had enough left for his wife to bathe in from time to time.

As a region of real farmers, complete with red band boots, green fingers and a dry farming approach, Gisborne feels much less like the wine monocultures of Martinborough and Marlborough, which is a real positive from an ecological and environmental point of view, and has a refreshing sense of not taking itself too seriously. The wines represent great value, and are probably undervalued, but with a barn stormer of a vintage in 2013, a return to the fore by Chardonnay across the world (as seen in Australia for example) one wonders how much longer they will remain this way. One should always play to one's strongest suit, and in Gisborne's case this is still Chardonnay, however people may be surprised to see how strong and varied Gisborne's hand actually is.

So it was pleasantly surprised that I departed from Gisborne, heading north towards the Waioeka Gorge en route to Auckland, a route taken by so many of the region's grapes in past, but hopefully by fewer in future.