A group of Horowhenua property investors got more than they bargained for when they called in viticulturist Kate Gibbs for advice they hoped would help sell lifestyle sections on a new subdivision.
They expected to hear about ornamental olive trees and grape vines, but they ended up with a full- scale vineyard instead.
Mrs Gibbs told them the stony river terraces of the subdivision at Ohau, south of Levin, were ideal for grape growing on a commercial scale. "That was the last thing we expected," says the development company's executive director, Dave Munro. "It took quite a while to get our heads around it."
The investment syndicate of 20 mainly local people took nine months to decide what to do next. They came up with a $10 million plan - cut back on the number of sections and planted a 22-hectare vineyard. On Mrs Gibbs' advice they planted sauvignon blanc, pinot gris and pinot noir grapes.
This year they harvested their first grapes, sent them away to be made into wine and entered their first wine competition, the Romeo Bragato Awards, New Zealand's only competition that honours grapegrowers.
To the amazement of the wine world, this small vineyard in an unknown region won the champion pinot gris trophy and a gold medal. Other wines were awarded silver and bronze medals.
The success was not a surprise to Mrs Gibbs. "I already knew from my sampling of the grapes in the vineyard that they would produce something special."
She says the area, now known under the new wine appellation Ohau Gravels, is characterised by a soil profile of big river boulders, topped with gravel and rich fertile soil that holds water and nutrients. The climate is frost-free and prone to long summers that extend ripening through to as late as May.
The grapes are sent to Jane Cooper, winemaker at Matahiwi Estate, Masterton, who says she doesn't do anything "too fussy" with them. "I want the fruit to express itself," she says. She, also, was not surprised to see the pinot gris do well, saying the grapes were meticulously handpicked and had a ripe peachy-apricot character.
She is enthusiastic about the sauvignon blanc, describing the flavour as centred between Marlborough's "pungent sweaty green edge" and Wairarapa's "lime skins and minerals" with a "powerful palate and vibrant nose".
Two weeks after the Bragato success, the Ohau wines were again in the medals. Sauvignon blanc and pinot gris wines under the Ohau Gravels and Woven Stone labels picked up a silver and two bronzes at the New Zealand International wine show, the country's biggest, in Takapuna.
Mr Munro's investors have not been idle. They have split the vineyard off into a separate company, bought another 20ha and planted it in vines and have bought a further 24ha. A "cellar door" for tastings and bottle sales is planned. What began as a straightforward property development has become a sizeable long-term business. Mr Munro expects it to grow to a $20m operation bringing in $7m-$8m a year when fully developed.
It could be the birth of a new wine region. Mrs Gibbs, who with husband Tim manages the vineyards, has identified 120ha of Ohau Gravels quality in the immediate area and is certain many more good winegrowing sites lie undeveloped on the coastal strip from the Hautere plains at Te Horo to the sandhills north of Foxton.
The couple, and their three children, are based at Te Horo on Stanmore Farm, 48ha of sheltered, rich, fertile paddocks, and run an intricate horticulture business anchored on the production of grafted grapevines for the winemaking industry. Blackberries, pears and jam-making round out the year so the business and its 15 fulltime staff are always busy.
After graduating from Lincoln with a horticultural science degree majoring in management and marketing, Mrs Gibbs started work at Ruakura Research Centre. She was employed to commercialise the research work of Dr Richard Smart, who would become one of the world's foremost vineyard consultants, and travelled the world with him learning canopy management and how the best grapes are grown.
She was viticulturist for Corbans Wines, which was making the transition from bulk to quality wine, and then moved to Delegat's Wine Estate, where she helped set up the Wither Hills and Oyster Bay vineyards in Marlborough.
When she and her husband, a partner in a civil engineering consultancy, came to Stanmore in 1994 it was growing kiwifruit, raspberries, boysenberries and strawberries. The kiwifruit were a hangover from a boom in the 1980s and the yield was only 60 per cent to 70 per cent of the country's prime growing area, Te Puke. So the fruit vines were pulled out and replaced with grape vines.
Today, Stanmore Farm is the country's third-biggest producer of grafted grapevines, growing more than half a million vines a year. Mrs Gibbs insists on a high quality, growing to the industry's grafted grapevine standard that she, as a New Zealand Winegrowers subcommittee member, was instrumental in establishing. The farm is accredited to Sustainable Winegrowing NZ, the industry's environmental best- practice programme.
Te Horo's isolation from the main winegrowing regions is its big advantage, she says. "It means we're not under disease pressure - we have no phylloxera - and our fertile soil is perfect for producing strong, healthy vines. They get a good start in life and have an energy reserve when they are transplanted into a vineyard's often poor soils."
They work hard to look after the soil. Great care is taken to ensure it is not compacted, compost from Living Earth is used, straw mulch is laid between the vines, biologically active organisms are watered in to control root diseases and blocks are rotated with crops of lupins, oats and mustard to rejuvenate the soil.
Grafting the rootstock and planting are the main winter jobs while blackberry-harvesting is summer's. Jam-making fills out the year. Pears were another big crop but the export trade has died away as technological advances have lengthened the availability of local varieties in their main European markets. Now they supply only to the local market. Other crops, such as limes, tamarillos, sunflowers and olive trees, have been tried.
"You have to be alert to what could be the next trend - you've got to look three to four years ahead," Mr Gibbs says. "And it is equally crucial to know when to get out of a product. Pulling out crops is hard, but you have to steel yourself."
Jam-making was an obvious extension of fruit growing. They were a manufacturer of Anathoth jam for 15 years, making about a third of its production, but were not needed when the company changed hands a couple of years ago. So they decided to use their commercial kitchen to make their own jam and have just released a preservative-free New Zealand fruit jam under their Te Horo brand.
"We chose the brand Te Horo because we live in one of New Zealand's premium food-producing regions and we wanted to reflect this," Mr Gibbs says. They spent a lot of time designing the pots with a lid and seal that could be easily opened. "Now comes the hard work and a whole new skillset selling the jam into supermarkets. This can be tough but when you have the same quality focus as the grapevines and wine, it makes it easier," he says.
He has worked fulltime on the business for the past 10 years and his engineering experience can be seen at Stanmore, which includes a big work area that changes with the season, two big coolstores, offices and the kitchen. The irrigation and fertigation system is computer controlled. Having a versatile staff able to handle the seasonal change in crops is one of the business's main strengths, he says.
Vine workers at Stanmore and Ohau are encouraged to improve their abilities with New Zealand Horticulture Training Organisation courses.
The Gibbs feel the Kapiti- Horowhenua coast is ideal for horticulture ventures. "The light is very intense and the climate is temperate, with cold nights and hot days," Mrs Gibbs says. "The fruit and vegetables are slow to ripen, which means their flavours are heightened. This is particularly notable in red fruit, such as blackberries, which have a higher concentration of antioxidants and anthocyanins than blueberries."
At the Ohau Gravels vineyards, Mr Munro says his investors are in it for the long-term. "It could be the start of a fairly substantial industry up that coast, aided and abetted by the wine tourism possibilities - 500,000 people live within 90 minutes drive of Ohau and 24,000 vehicles go past it every day."
He describes the venture's inception as "a huge leap of faith" and says the competition wins were more than he had dreamed was possible. "In 2006, when we started planting, I remember seeing the little sticks in the ground and having no idea what was going to come from that.
"But I tell you what, this year, when we tasted the first tank sample, even though it looked like lemon barley water, it tasted absolutely superb. It was a huge relief to find that what Kate had said from day one was bang on."
- The Dominion Post
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