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Ultimate Guide to the Gisborne Wine Region

The Gisborne wine region is also known as the “Chardonnay capital of New Zealand.” See our collection of win­e pictures.
iStockphoto/Xavier MARCHANT

­For those in the Northern Hemisphere, New Zealand is about as far away as far away gets. The eastern part of the country is literally the first place where the sun shines at daybreak­, thanks to its proximity to the International Date Line.

This South Pacific Ocean country consists of two large islands, North Island and South Island, plus some small outlying islands. For scenery, it's hard to beat. New Zealand has mountains, geysers, glaciers, hot springs, grassland, lakes, active volcanoes, beaches, waterfalls and even a rain forest.

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Being home to the southernmost winemaking region on Earth, one ponders whether New Zealand really is an ideal place for growing grapes. However, when the country first started exporting wine in the 1970s, New Zealand's Gewurztraminer was the first wine to gain connoisseurs' recognition. Since then, New Zealand has become synonymous with the world's best Sauvignon Blanc [source: Stevenson].

­The 10 wine regions in New Zealand produced 147 million liters of wine in 2007, of which more than half was exported. Sauvignon Blanc accounts for about 70 percent of the nation's total e­xported wine. But New Zealand wineries have more to offer than just Sauvignon Blanc. Its Chardonnay and Pinot Noir are also lauded. In fact, the third largest winemaking region, Gisborne, has dubbed itself the Chardonnay capital of New Zealand [source: On the Vine].

Located on the northeast coast of New Zealand's North Island, with a population of about 44,000, the Gisborne wine region stretches north and west from Gisborne City, encompassing three river valleys. Gisborne is also known as Poverty Bay. The name does a serious injustice to the area since its location is in one of New Zealand's most fertile and temperate horticultural plains [source: Statistics New Zealand].

Gisborne lies on the Pacific Coast in the Eastland area, which enjoys a unique history and culture unlike anywhere else in New Zealand. Read on to learn about it.

The first inhabitants, the Maoris, came from Polynesia in the 1300s. They landed in the Gisborne area, and called the region Tairawhiti, which means "the coast upon which the sun shines across the water." [source: Gisborne Winegrowers].

Gisborne also was the place where the first Europeans came. First spotted by a Dutch sea captain in 1642, the area was named for the Dutch Province of Zeeland. The first European to land on New Zealand was British navigator Captain James Cook. Some people say that his 1769 encounter with the Maoris resulted in the moniker Poverty Bay [source: New Book of Knowledge].

By the late 18th century, whaling and sealing stations operated along the coast, while inland, settlers raised sheep and cattle. Colonists settled in Wellington, the country's present-day capital, between 1796 and 1862. Trading began in timber and fibers. Missionaries arrived on the scene in 1814.

In 1840, New Zealand was claimed as a British colony, and a treaty was concluded that guaranteed Maori ownership of their lands. The British Parliament made New Zealand a self-governing colony in 1853.

The discovery of gold brought new immigrants to New Zealand in the mid-1800s, and the advent of refrigerated cargo shipping enabled the export of meat and dairy products. In 1907, New Zealand became a dominion in the British Empire. It is now a self-governing democracy and a member state in the Commonwealth of Nations [source: New Book of Knowledge].

About 45 percent of the Gisborne district's population is of Maori descent, the largest anywhere in New Zealand. While most of the Maori population now live in towns or cities, traditional Maori villages still dot the coast in Eastland. It's not uncommon to hear the Maori language spoken in Gisborne. Historic Maori meetinghouses and distinctive wooden figurines are scattered throughout Eastland [source: Statistics New Zealand].

Read on to find out more about agriculture and viticulture in the Gisborne wine region.

The first vines were planted in New Zealand in 1819. In the Gisborne region, the first commercial wine was released in 1921 by German winemaker Friedrich Wohnsiedler. Yet it wasn't until the 1970s that viticulture began to play a significant role in Gisborne [source: Gisborne Winegrowers].

By the end of the 1970s, Gisborne was the largest wine-producing region in New Zealand. It became known as "carafe country," thanks to huge yields of Muller-Thurgau grapes, which were used for cheaper bag-in-the-box blends. Since then, Gisborne's wine industry has shifted focus toward lower-yielding, classic varieties that are higher quality and more profitable, helping to shake off its reputation as a bulk-wine producing region [source: Stevenson].

Today, Gisborne is the third largest grape growing region in New Zealand, with 4,800 acres (1,942 hectares) of vines planted. Most of the vines in Gisborne are planted on flat or gently sloping land. The fertile soil is clay- and loam-based. Summers are mild, while winters are cooler and stormier. Though some of the highest mountain peaks in New Zealand are permanently snow-covered, in the lowlands, temperatures don't go below freezing [source: Gisborne Winegrowers].

The Gisborne region consists of nine different wine-producing areas. The following areas are considered part of the Gisborne CO (Certified Origin): Patutahi, Patutahi Plateau, Waipoa, Golden Slope, Central Valley, Riverpoint, Manutuke, Ormond and Ormond Valley. Gisborne is primarily a white wine region. Half of the grapes harvested here are Chardonnay grapes. Pinot Gris, Gewurztraminer and Merlot make up about 20 percent of the region's mix [source: On the Vine].

The biggest producer in the Gisborne area is Pernod Ricard (formerly Montana Wines, which bought Penfolds and Corbans), and produces about 65 to 70 percent of the region's product each year, or vintage, from its 3,120 acres (1,263 hectares) in the area. While Gisborne is not known for its sparkling wine, or "Kiwi Fizz," most of those grapes are grown for Pernod Ricard's Lindauer Brut [source: On the Vine].

To find out what the famous wines of the Gisborne wine region are and where to find them, read on.

Gisborne accounted for 11 percent of New Zealand's 2008 wine production. The traditional wines that Gisborne is known for are Gewurztraminer and Chardonnay. As more boutique wineries open, Semillon, Chenin Blanc, Merlot, Muscat, Pinot Noir and Viognier are becoming better known.

Although New Zealand's Cabernets and Merlots are lauded for being rich and ripe, offering more quality and character than those from Bordeaux, Gisborne's red wines (Merlot, Malbec and Pinotage) have not been as successful as the region's whites [source: Stevenson].

Here are some particular New Zealand wines of note from the Gisborne region, some of which are recommended by industry experts. Others have won recent awards at the 2008 New Zealand International Wine Show and 2008 Liquorland 100 [source: Stevenson, Gisborne Winegrowers]:

  • Millton Vineyard's barrel-fermented Chardonnay and Opou Riesling from Opov Vineyard
  • Villa Maria's Reserve Barrique Fermented Gisborne Chardonnay
  • Robard & Butler's Chardonnay
  • Villa Maria's Sauvignon Blanc
  • Aoteo's Sauvignon Blanc (Aoteo is a brand, not a winery)
  • Coopers Sauvignon Blanc
  • Saints Gisborne Chardonnay
  • Montana Terroir Series' Waihirere and Stuart Black Chardonnays
  • Kim Crawford Tietjen Vineyard Gisborne Viognier
  • Longbush Viognier
  • Villa Maria's 2008 Private bin East Coast Pinot Gris
  • Villa Maria's Thornbury Label Gisborne Chardonnay
  • Pernod Ricard's Lindauer Special Reserve Brut Cuvee

Whether you prefer to taste a Chardonnay or Sauvignon Blanc from Gisborne in its local setting or treasure it at home, remember that you're experiencing a unique wine produced from the southernmost winemaking region on Earth. Drink up!

To learn more, visit some of the links on the following page.

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

Sources

  • Book of Knowledge. "New Zealand." The New Book of Knowledge. Published 1994, Grolier.
  • Gisborne Winegrowers. "Wine Region." Gisborne Winegrowers Society. (Accessed 02/13/2009)http://www.gisbornewine.co.nz/region/default.asp
  • Learning Media. "Ngata Dictionary." Learning Media.com. (Accessed 02/15/2009)http://www.learningmedia.co.nz/nz/online/ngata/
  • On the Vine Magazine. "Michael Cooper Wine Atlas of New Zealand." "This is your life Roger McLernon." Summer 2008. (Accessed 02/13/2009)http://www.gisbornewine.co.nz/myfiles/on-the-vine-summer08.pdf
  • Statistics New Zealand. "Gisborne Region Community Profile." (Accessed 02/13/2009)http://www2.stats.govt.nz/domino/external/web/commprofiles.nsf/findinfobyarea/05-rc
  • Stevenson, Tom. The New Sotheby's Wine Encyclopedia. 2001, Dorling Kindersley. "New Zealand."
  • Strong, Janice. "Mudholes, Maori & Chardonnay City, New Zealand's North Island, From Gisborne to Rororua. (Accessed 02/13/2009)http://www.gisbornewine.co.nz/myfiles/IMP-Result-Canadian-Traveller-Feb-2008-Page-1.pdf -
  • Wine Technology in New Zealand. "Rabobank Warns New Zealand Wine Industry to Maintain a Global Supply Shortfall." (Accessed 02/15/2009)http://www.winetech.co.nz/global_supply.htm

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