Locals laughed when the late Bill Irwin, a bookseller with no horticultural experience, began importing grape cuttings from Europe, Australia and the US, and planting them just outside Gisborne, in 1968. Farmers had always raised stock or planted maize on the Poverty Bay flats.
But Irwin got the last laugh. He’s considered the father of the modern wine industry in New Zealand for importing and propagating virus-free root stock. He gave plants to emerging winemakers around the country. His son Denis created Matawhero Wines in 1975, putting this country on the map, and on menus around the world. The Queen and various prime ministers drank his vintages.
Denis sold Matawhero to locals Richard and Kirsten Searle in 2008. They have honoured the father and son legacy with a flagship chardonnay bearing the family name.
The limited edition Irwin is a barrel-fermented chardonnay from Gisborne. The wine is produced from Mendoza chardonnay vines – the clones that Irwin imported almost 50 years ago. “He would be immensely proud,” says Denis. “I reflect on what Dad did for New Zealand grapegrowers and I am incredulous. He was ordering cuttings from overseas when no-one else was, and generously distributing them throughout the country. It was the ultimate gift to the industry.”
The virus-free root stock gave vineyards and the industry a strong base from which to flourish, he says. “When we opened Matawhero Wines there were probably 20 wineries around the country. Now there’s about 700,” the 70-year-old recalls.
During the ’70s and ’80s, Denis won numerous Kiwi wine awards with his gewurztraminer and chardonnay, and even entered international competitions, introducing New Zealand wine to Britain and Australia. “We were radical for back then,” Denis says. “There was almost a superstar element to it as we were entertaining prime ministers and international wine critics.
“But behind the scenes the life we were living was a continuation of my father’s hardworking days.” The Searles have restored the cellar door with a focus on premium single vineyard wines. “We take pride in maintaining the pioneering spirit that Bill and Denis so clearly had,” Kirsten says.