A missionary from Farsley was a pioneer of New Zealand wine, Christine Austin reports.

200 years ago, on September 25 1819, a Yorkshireman from Farsley decided to plant a vineyard in New Zealand. Samuel Marsden, son of a blacksmith had left Yorkshire a few years earlier, as a missionary to Australia and spent time in New South Wales. Apart from his ministry work, and a little sheep breeding, with much of the wool heading back round the world to Yorkshire, he also befriended a Maori chief Ruatara and so became interested in New Zealand.  Eventually Marsden visited New Zealand and after his usual sermons and missionary work, he planted a vineyard in Kerikeri in the Bay of Islands in the north of New Zealand.

He planted over 100 different varieties and noted in his journal ‘New Zealand promises to be very favourable to the vine as far as I can judge at present, of the nature of the soil and climate.’

Whether his vineyard was a success, or even which of his 100 varieties did best in the warm, rather tropical conditions of Kerikeri is not known, but he probably kick-started an interest in vine cultivation in New Zealand and its potential for wine.

Progress in New Zealand viticulture was slow, and at one point an agronomist advised that the land was more suited to apples rather than grapes.  The 1970’s was the real start of the Kiwi wine industry and vineyards sprang up across the country, with Marlborough located at the top of South Island proving to be ideal for Sauvignon Blanc.

New Zealand now produces around 300 million litres of wine, and despite the best efforts of the local population to drink it, most is exported, and the UK takes a huge share.  Last year we imported around 100 million bottles of New Zealand wine, and that enthusiasm shows no sign of diminishing.  While we all know and love New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, there is great potential for other grapes, including reds.

Despite Samuel Marsden’s early start with viticulture, very little survives of those early vineyards but he did lay the foundations for other missionaries to follow in his footsteps.

In 1851 French missionaries arrived at Hawkes Bay on the dry, eastern side of New Zealand’s North Island and they established their own mission near the Ngaturoro River.  They started to grow vines, but successive floods, including one in 1867 that changed the course of the river meant that they needed to move to higher ground. Undaunted, they cut the Mission House into 11 sections, put logs under it and rolled the whole building to its present site with the help of traction engines.  That Mission House is still standing, and I have looked for the joins but I couldn’t find them.

As a place to cultivate the soil, Hawke’s Bay is pretty much ideal with more sunshine than anywhere else in New Zealand.  It has warm temperatures, tempered by its closeness to the sea, a mix of soils including some stretches of fertile alluvial soil, and a good supply of water for irrigation.  No wonder that this is now a thriving market garden area.

But that change in the course of the river 150 years ago did far more than just make the missionaries move their house. It exposed a rocky expanse of ground made up of the rounded stones which had previously formed the bed of the river.  Difficult to cultivate, this stretch of gravel was ignored for generations, becoming a wasteland.  Then in 1988 a gravel extraction company wanted to take it over for their cement business and that is when the local grape growers decided that it would be a lot more use as vineyard and they rescued it.

Now the Gimblett Gravels is one of the most distinctive soils in the whole of New Zealand.  Its unique stony terroir, free draining, with low fertility and the ability to hold the daytime heat in the stones is now famous for the quality of its reds, in particular rich flavoured Cabernets, Merlots and Syrah.

As for the missionaries, they have moved on, but their house still stands, although it probably has a few more creature comforts now.  There is a restaurant, vineyard accommodation and regular top-name concerts, and while the vineyards have been expanded and include local growers as well as their own production, they are still making excellent quality wine.

Le Bon Vin in Sheffield (0114 2560090) is the main regional stockist for Mission Estate wines.  Most are from Hawke’s Bay although there is an excellent Pinot Noir from Central Otago and a Marlborough Sauvignon.

Another long-standing Hawkes Bay property is Te Mata. First planted a few years after the missionaries dragged their house up the hill, the estate was bought in the 1970’s by John Buck. He has gradually restored and expanded the estate and now has vineyards at three key points across the region taking in different soils and different altitudes.  Now run by Nick Buck, the estate has six times more vineyards than it needs and so selection is rigorous and quality is high.

While Samuel Marsden’s vineyards have disappeared he would probably have been pleased that other vineyards planted so long ago are still thriving and making good wine.  There is a memorial to him in Farsley, so if you are passing, raise a glass to his memory and his adventure.

Here are some wines to try from those old vineyards in Hawkes Bay.

Mission Estate Hawkes Bay Syrah 2017, Le Bon Vin £13.50

Ripe, spice-driven cassis fruit with a rich compote centre and pepper notes on the finish.

Mission Estate Syrah Reserve 2010, Gimblett Gravels, Hawke’s Bay, Le Bon Vin £16.95

A definite step up in depth of flavour and rounded concentration with dark forest fruits, layers of peppery spice and silky tannins.

Te Mata Estate Elston Chardonnay 2016, Latitude Wines, Leeds, £30.99

Made from grapes planted in 1892 and these vines give tiny yields, hence the price.  But this is exceptional, with creamy, elegant, balanced fruit and a long finish.  Close your eyes and you could be in Meursault.

Te Mata Estate Bullnose Syrah 2015, Hawkes Bay, Field and Fawcett £33.40

A serious amount of money for a very serious wine.  Dark and brooding, with white pepper on the nose and layers of dark fruit, cinnamon, herbs and fine grained tannins.  A dinner party special.

 

 

 

 

About The Author

Christine Austin

Christine is a wine writer, broadcaster and a wine judge for several international wine competitions. She has a technical background and spent five years as a buyer for a major supermarket before moving to wine writing.She writes for The Yorkshire Post Magazine and organises the York Festival of Food and Drink. She has won both the Lanson and the Roederer prizes for wine writing.

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