A tale of two appellations

The stunning beauty of the Waitaki Valley.

Canterbury is a reasonably new commercial wine area, with Waipara being the province’s appellation best known to those in the rest of New Zealand, and overseas, mainly for its pinot noir.

However, wineries dot the South Island’s most populous province — including a couple inside Christchurch’s city limits.

Apart from Waipara, the appellation that has been identified and pumped up, is Waitaki, which is on the border of Canterbury and Otago, with slightly more of the land in Canterbury, but more of the people in Otago — Oamaru being the main centre of population.

Then there is Banks Peninsula, a large bunion of land on the east coast close to Christchurch that has been a holiday spot for city dwellers for generations. It has
had a small number of wineries for decades, but is only now beginning to think of itself as a special growing area, with unique wines.

In our Spring 2016 issue, Martin Gillion visits Waitaki to see if it is fulfilling its early promise, while Paul Taggart takes a look at Banks Peninsula, which hasn’t had the same hype as Waitaki, but has a group of winemakers who think the area is one to watch.

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Waitaki: From Hype to Hope

Over-pitched hype has become an acknowledged part of our everyday life. The advantages of the ‘new model’ car, the ‘new’ dishwash formula or the ‘new’ shampoo are thrust down our throats at every switch of the TV channel or at every turn of the newspaper page. Superlatives abound and dodgy statistics thrive. It’s called marketing. And, largely, we ignore it.

But for these strategies to be applied to a ‘new’ viticultural region is a little strange.  The suitability of land for the successful growing of grapes and the making of fine wine is not generally an overnight phenomenon.

For example, Otago was pioneered for a number of years by a few determined enthusiasts that included Rolf Mills of Rippon and Alan Brady of Gibbston Valley, before its potential was recognised. Likewise, Martinborough’s possibilities were explored by the ‘gang of five’ for a number of vintages before the accolades began to flow.

Pasquale Vineyards with Station Peak in the background.
Pasquale Vineyards with Station Peak in the background.

Even Marlborough had a few dedicated stalwarts, such as Ernie Hunter and Daniel le Brun, before the praise began.

Not so Waitaki Valley.

From the time in the very late 1990s, when wealthy Dunedin businessman Howard Paterson identified sites in the valley as suitable for viticulture and the establishment of vineyard lifestyle blocks, it was just a matter of a couple of years for the first vines to be planted on the property his company had purchased near Kurow.

For while Howard and his colleague and winemaker friend John Forrest had surveyed the area and identified north-facing slopes with limestone underlay as having considerable promise for the production of fine, cool climate wines, the valley had few, if any, plantings. No one had any real experience with the land or the climate viticulturally speaking.

It was not only new; it was completely untried.

John Forrest planted an experimental block in 2000, and by August of the same year, Howard and a number of other business partners who were experienced in property development formed Waitaki Valley Estates. More than 20 lifestyle blocks and vineyards were established.

The Otago Daily Times of December 2000 ran a front page feature that lauded the imminent purchase of “up to 2000ha of farmland” for ultimate planting in pinot noir. It would become “the third or fourth largest grape growing district in the country”, they claimed.

Sales of lifestyle blocks and vineyard sites proceeded apace.

In December 2002, a press release from Waitaki Valley Estates trumpeted the planting of more than 40,000 grape vines on one of the 15ha blocks and boasted of the “significant evolution of the land around Otiake”, as the north-facing slopes on
Grants Road were developed and “the area’s previously untapped potential” was realised. The release pronounced that “The subsequent development would provide the infrastructure that would make the area increasingly viable to smaller investors.”

Anthony Worch, winemaker for Q wines.
Anthony Worch, winemaker for Q wines.

With the hype in full swing, the propositions indeed attracted several ‘smaller investors’ as well as the likes of renowned chef Peter Gordon and four-time NZ Winemaker of the Year Michelle Richardson, who both invested in Waitaki Braids Vineyards. Craggy Range, the biggest industry investor to date, joined the region through lease arrangements.

Sadly, 2003 saw the sudden death of Howard Paterson, but development continued under the auspices of Howard’s business partners, Colin Reynolds and Stephen Cozens, but plans for the purchase of further land ran into difficulties and court action resulted – perhaps an early sign of the fragility of the region’s potential?

But not all the impetus of the region’s development came as a result of the Waitaki Valley Estates’ hyperbole. Some of the development was independently determined.

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This is a taste of the content in the Spring 2016 issue of WineNZ  – copies are available through bookstores and New Zealand-owned supermarkets. Or why not subscribe – only $39* for a year delivered to your letterbox. Details on how to subscribe on this page.

*$39 for subscribers within New Zealand

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