Ten minutes drive south from Gisborne city, and a left turn down a quaint country road you will find the tranquility of Matawhero Wines and their Cellar Door. It’s an iconic boutique winery, which is steeped in local history and lives on as a testament to the passion of the people who have shaped it along the way.
The Riverpoint Road property was first purchased by Bill Irwin in the 1960’s; a time when people either raised livestock or grew maize on the Poverty Bay flats. Bill however, was determined to transform the land into a vineyard. He began to import new grape varietals from Europe and America in earnest, most notably the Gewürztraminer variety, which the vineyard was the first in the country to plant.
Bill had previously worked as a bookseller with no horticultural background to speak of, but the clones he propagated were taken up by vineyards all over the country, and he became known as New Zealand’s “father of modern viticulture”.
In 1975, the first wines were produced under the Matawhero label and in 1977 were internationally recognised at the World Wine Show in Paris, where they achieved overall fourth place for their 1976 Gewürztraminer. Bill’s enthusiasm and drive was passed down to son Denis, who left overseas to get experience, working in wineries in South Africa and Germany before returning to nurture and grow the Matawhero vineyard in innovative ways over the ensuing years, to great success.
In 2008 Kirsten and Richard Searle bought the by now dormant Matawhero vineyard and winery from the Irwin family after a ‘rigorous process on Denis’s part’. While they were already busy with starting a family, the couple couldn’t let the opportunity of Matawhero pass them by. Kirsten had a background in the wine industry and found her ‘vine roots’ re-ignited with the prospect, and Richard is from a grape growing family and had previously managed the family vineyard in Gisborne. The idea of owning a winery together made perfect sense…
With three children under the age of 4 years, the early years of taking over the property were understandably busy. The winery and vineyard hadn’t produced or sold wines for 8 years when the couple purchased the winery, but with the guidance and encouragement of Denis, Kirsten and Richard learnt the rich history of the winery, picked up tips of the trade and set about bringing the vines and the winery back to life.
Living on site, the first step was to tackle the overgrown garden and vineyard, and after 18 months of ground work they launched their brand and took on two grape growers, who are still with them today. The team has continued to grow over the years and Kirsten emphasises that human relationships and Gisborne are the essence of Matawhero Wines.
After having worked with Gisborne grapes for his own label for over 30 years, Kim Crawford joined the Matawhero team to head their winemaking. They feel so fortunate to have someone of Kim’s calibre guiding them to get the best wine out of the region. While all of their grapes are grown locally their wines, along with the Matawhero story, make their way all around the country and the world.
Richard works full time as the General Manager for Economic Development for Trust Tairawhiti but is very much involved in overseeing the vineyard and working alongside Kirsten on the business side. He takes a hands-on approach to replanting, lawn mowing and all the general property management that comes with owning a winery. Kirsten is a passionate vintner and works full time at Matawhero in all aspects of the vineyard and winery, and when she is able, especially loves to talk to customers and clients who visit the cellar door.
The vineyard produces naturally dry farmed wine, which is a great point of difference in these times. The grapes aren’t irrigated, instead they rely on natural rainfall; possible because the soil is moisture retentive. With water such a precious resource, this is a more sustainable way to grow grapes and also allows for a more “fruit driven wine varietal” to be produced.
A memorable moment for Kirsten was the launch of the “Irwin Chardonnay” in 2016, which she reckons was the “Bomb daddy of Chardonnay, the absolute top notch and the best we could produce out of the region”. It was hand picked and pressed to barrel with love, care and attention in tribute to a couple of pioneers of New Zealand’s winemaking industry, Bill and Denis Irwin. It was an extra special release as it was the only one Kirsten “was allowed” to produce as a full barrel fermented style Chardonnay with five years of cellaring!
Kirsten and Richard have recently expanded their vision for the Winery to include onsite accommodation with two luxurious cabins nestled amongst the vines, and two more coming. It’s a way of sharing the beauty and tranquillity of their little slice of paradise with others.
The couple have a deep appreciation for the history of the vineyard and winery and are honoured to be the kaitiaki of a vineyard and winery which have such significance both in our own local and national viticultural and winemaking history.
Gisborne’s oldest Cellar Door is open all year around, just give them a call to book a table. You can head out for a platter and a wine tasting amongst the vines, enjoy live music on Sundays over summer and get a taste of this iconic Gisborne gem!
By Gillian Cowperthwaite Photos supplied