A press statement arrived yesterday from Klaus Sorensen, a long-ago journalism colleague, now a prosperous PR man and bon vivant in Auckland. It announced that the Sorensen family had acquired a vineyard in Poverty Bay.
Klaus now joins that growing class of hedonistic urban professionals whose interest in wine has progressed from drinking the stuff – which he always did with great enthusiasm – to actually making it. Along with the BMW and the beach house, vineyard ownership has become something of a status symbol. But in Klaus’s case, he has a personal connection with the vineyard concerned and a longstanding family association with the Gisborne area.
The vineyard he’s bought is the 2.5 hectare Bridge Estate, which is notable for the fact that it was the last remnant of the Matawhero Wines holdings formerly owned by the enigmatic winemaker Denis Irwin, with whom Klaus has a friendship going back 30 years.
Irwin holds a place in New Zealand wine history as the man who proved that Poverty Bay, once noted mainly for bulk production of undistinguished müller-thurgau and muscat, was capable of producing premium wines of world class. His Matawhero Reserve Gewurztraminer, first made in the 1970s, was one of the milestone wines that signalled New Zealand’s emergence from the era of “Dally plonk”.
Michael Cooper, in his Wine Atlas of New Zealand, described Irwin as an individualist. Cooper might have gone further and labelled him a contrarian, always swimming against the current. “In a Women’s Weekly world, I’m doing Hemingway,” Irwin told Cooper. He didn’t seem to care much for commercial success and indeed sometimes seemed, to observers, to be wilfully making wines of a style calculated not to appeal to popular taste. Even the winning style of his gewürztraminer was not sustained.
In recent years Irwin has suffered ill-health and made wine only sporadically. Other wineries, notably the Millton Vineyard, have filled the vacuum and kept Gisborne on the international wine map. The vineyard that once produced Matawhero Gewürztraminer was sold several years ago to Pernod Ricard, owners of Montana, and is now the source of the excellent Montana Terroir Series Riverpoint Gewurztraminer.
Even the vineyard Klaus has acquired says something about Irwin’s idiosyncratic approach. It’s entirely planted in red Bordeaux grapes – merlot, cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc and malbec – which conventional wisdom says are not well-suited to Gisborne’s warm, moist climate and fertile, loamy soils. But smart viticulture can triumph over inauspicious conditions – just look at Australia’s Hunter Valley, or West Auckland’s Kumeu River – and Klaus intends to retain the existing vines, even though they have fallen into “elegant disarray”.
His press statement says the Bridge Estate vineyard, named for the moribund steel-arched Matawhero Bridge nearby, is “renowned for some of New Zealand’s great Bordeaux-style red wines of the last 20 years” (well, Klaus is a PR man) and will continue to produce premium wines under the Bridge Estate label, though the new company will be known as Poverty Bay Wine Estates.
A second label, Poverty Bay, will also be established. Expect to see the first wines on the market later this year.