21 May 2022

Small and proud - Northland's wine industry bears fruit

From Country Life, 3:37 pm on 21 May 2022
The Landing, Bay of Islands

The Landing, Bay of Islands Photo: RNZ/Carol Stiles

When Monty Knight was toying with the idea of growing grapes on the outskirts of Kaitaia in the 1980s, a respected wine maker gave him a piece of advice.

"He said to me 'Monty, it'd be better to go out the back of your property and dig a big hole and start throwing your money into it - it'd be cheaper'."

Northland, with its humid climate, high rainfall and untested soils, was considered unsuitable for wine production.

Monty was one of just two growers brave enough to plant grapes in the region.

Monty Knight, Okahu Estate

Monty Knight, Okahu Estate Photo: RNZ/Carol Stiles

He decided to heed the advice of another wine maker who told him 'given good grapes, red wine practically makes itself,' and went on to produce the first New Zealand syrah to win a gold meal.

"You just have to look after them (the grapes) and every one or two years you'll have a really good crop. Sometimes you'll have failure and disaster just like potato growers or kumara growers. There's no magic formula - just do it well."

Today Northland has about 40 grape growers.  Nearly all of them take their fruit to Marsden Estate near Kerikeri to be transformed into wine.

Its owner Rod McIvor says most of the region's vineyards are a hectare or less in size, a handful have three or four hectares in grapes and three have 12 hectares planted.

In all the region has less than 100 ha in grapes.

"Northland is like Central Otago where you buy a block of land, you see your see a neighbours growing grapes and think that's a good idea."

He says Northland may be a tiny part of the New Zealand's wine industry but it's an important part.

"We get a lot of tourists here and their experience of wine here will influence what they think of New Zealand wines."

Rod McIvor

Rod McIvor Photo: RNZ/Carol Stiles

To ensure standards are high, Rod organises a number of viticulture and wine workshops each year.

"We are all one brand ... so we are trying to get consistency and lift the profile and quality of the wines.

"It doesn't take too many bad wines to spoil the whole brand."

Some of this year's grapes are spectacular, he says.

"We've seen some of the highest sugar rates in 30 years this year and part of that is growers doing their jobs properly and site selection."

Rod believes every red variety will do well on a different site in Northland, perhaps excluding thin-skinned grapes which may split in Northland's rain.

Peter Jones, The Landing

Peter Jones, The Landing Photo: RNZ/Carol Stiles

Northland's chardonnay and viognier also shine, he says.

"There'll be varieties we haven't planted yet that will be very successful. So that's the excitement, that's the thing that keeps you going."

Bay of Islands vineyard The Landing is one of only two in Northland to export wines.

Its director Peter Jones says the label is selling well in Orange County, California.

"I think the idea of a wine from New Zealand that's not a Marlborough sauvignon blanc or a pinot noir actually really piques people's interest over there."

The Landing's wine currently sells for US$50 a bottle, more in a restaurant.

Vines, Northland

Vines, Northland Photo: RNZ/Carol Stiles

Rod McIvor

Rod McIvor Photo: RNZ/Carol Stiles

Marsden Estate, Northland

Marsden Estate, Northland Photo: RNZ/Carol Stiles

Pietro Aloisi

Pietro Aloisi Photo: RNZ/Carol Stiles

Northland grapes

Northland grapes Photo: RNZ/Carol Stiles

View from The Landing

View from The Landing Photo: RNZ/Carol Stiles