Four seasons in one day pass over the Turanganui River as we watch while judging the Gisborne Regional Wine Awards. Recent times in the region have been similarly marked by change, but after some grey skies at the turn of the decade, this doughty region seems to be looking on the sunny side again, with plenty of bright spots on the horizon.
It helps that it has just brought in an outstanding harvest. Spade Oak's Steve Voysey says "2013 is without doubt the best vintage I've seen anywhere." Voysey was honoured with the Bill Irwin Trophy at this year's awards, for more than two decades of service to winemaking in the region. "From start to finish, it's surpassed expectations and produced bright, fresh and varietally pure wines."
This is particularly welcome given the challenges of the two previous vintages; the 2012 - with double the usual rainfall at vintage - was dubbed "the most disappointing harvest since 1979" by longtime winegrower James Millton. Nevertheless, a 2012 wine, the Villa Maria Reserve Barrique Fermented Gisborne Chardonnay, won Supreme Wine of the Show.
It's chardonnay that's historically been Gisborne's greatest strength. But it also became its achilles heel when tastes swung away from the variety to the sauvignon blanc which is unsuited to the region. This saw the country's largest wine company - and once the region's most important grape buyer - Pernod-Ricard, as well as some other significant players, retreat from the region four years ago, leaving many growers without contracts.
It could have been catastrophic, but the region pulled together. Since then, the GroCo co-operative has been established, and now makes and markets wine for 32 growers; the Gisborne Wine Centre, which acts as a communal tasting room and wine bar for showcasing the region's wines, has opened; and the Gisborne Regional Wine Awards have been launched.
Gisborne has also demonstrated that it's no one-trick pony. "There's been an evolution, which means we can fulfil every style segment, from sparkling to fortified," observes veteran vigneron Denis Irwin, now behind 747 Estate. "We're now also making wines from many different varieties, each with the potential to make an impact."
This diversity was evident in the entries to the Gisborne show, which featured new and lesser-known varieties such as albarino, gruner veltliner and marsanne in the whites, to St Laurent, nebbiolo and tempranillo in the reds. It's something that has doubtless been assisted by having one of New Zealand's leading vine nurseries, Riversun, in the region; it has been bringing a wide selection of new grapes and vine material into the country.
However, it's also testament to the adventurous spirit of the region, which boasts the organic/biodynamics pioneer, Millton, and risk-taking growers like Doug Bell, who's been at the forefront of trialling varieties never before grown in Kiwi soils.
Bell is particularly excited by the potential of albarino. "Albarino ticks all the boxes for our climate and already has a reasonably high profile among the international trade and media," he says.
There's talk of some of the larger companies that withdrew from Gisborne giving it a second look, while Villa Maria, the major player that remained committed to the region, may soon be putting Gisborne on more of its labels.
"The success of Villa Maria's barrique fermented chardonnay highlights the quality the region can produce. But we also source many other varieties from the region and I'd like to see some of our East Coast labels become Gisborne wines," says the maker of the show's top wine, Nick Picone.
"The region produces some fantastic wines, and who knows, maybe there are still some great sites still to be found."
Villa Maria Reserve Barrique Fermented Gisborne Chardonnay 2012 - $36.99
This wine from Villa Maria took the title of Supreme Wine of the Show for the third year in a row. Its powerful palate of stonefruit, zesty grapefruit and a flinty minerality illustrates just how great Gisborne chardonnay can be. (From Villa Maria Cellar Door.)
Matawhero "Church House" Gisborne Gruner Veltliner 2012 - $27.90
A fabulous wine from the newly planted gruner veltliner grape, which combines notes of white peach and crisp citrus with the variety's classic note of white pepper. (From Glengarry.)
Lindauer Special Reserve Blanc de Blancs Bottled Fermented NV - $19.99
The three years this impressive sparkler remains in contact with its complexity-giving yeast lees is longer than that of many champagnes and is doubtless behind the nutty, toasty complexity paired with crisp notes of citrus and apple in this phenomenally well-priced wine. (Widely available from supermarkets and liquor outlets.)