Huge influence in wine
Legendary Gisborne vintner Denis Irwin died yesterday, ending a colourful chapter in the history of New Zealand's winemaking history.
Irwin created this region's first boutique winery.
He shot to superstar fame in the 1970s, when the gewürztraminer wines he made on the family land at Matawhero began winning almost immediate national and, soon after, international acclaim.
His 1977 gewürztraminer performed with distinction in Paris, where the following year it won gold.
His other wines won similar fame — it could be said that everything he created in those days turned to gold.
The 1976 Matawhero Traminer Riesling was served to the Queen during her visit to New Zealand that year, and was thereafter reputedly exported to Buckingham Palace.
As well as winning many national awards, Matawhero's Chardonnay won wine show awards overseas and Matawhero's Merlot attracted similar fame.
According to fellow Gisborne vintner James Millton, the 1989 Bridge Estate Cabernet Merlot was one of the best red wines ever made in New Zealand.
“He had a huge influence on the early stage of New Zealand's wine industry and it has been good to see him gaining recognition for his pioneering efforts.”
So great became his reputation in the early days that Denis rapidly became a celebrity, regularly entertaining politicians, celebrities and international wine critics.
He was named a finalist in Winestate magazine's “Young Tearaway of the Year Award” after being thrown out of a pub while celebrating his birthday.
According to wine commentator Bob Campbell, there were no surprises there except that Denis owned the pub.
That was in the 1980s, when he took a break from the local industry to run a tavern near Melbourne, Australia, leaving Swiss-born winemaker Hatch Kalberer to make the Matawhero wines.
His publican efforts came to a spectacular end and, returning to New Zealand, he met and married Vi, who operated the Chalet Rendezvous at Okitu, Gisborne.
It was a marriage made in heaven, Vi being a gourmet chef and Denis a winemaker extraordinaire. Their combined skills made for many fantastic dinner parties. They were incredible hosts, regularly entertaining guests from throughout the wine world.
Denis developed what was to become Gisborne's first brasserie restaurant and bar, Scotties, introducing Gisborne to a more cosmopolitan style of eating and drinking after decades of pub-style fare.
After a serious car accident, the couple decided to sell the Matawhero and Bridge Estates, and later the Colosseum restaurant they had developed and run nearby.
By then they had acquired a block of land in what Denis dubbed the Upper Patutahi Valley in Tiniroto Road, where they wanted to become self-sufficient and live the good life.
They planted a small vineyard to supply their 747 Estate Winery, as well as growing their own fruit and vegetables and running a few cattle — fulfilling Denis's dreams of being a hill country farmer and wearing a tweed jacket.
At the same time the new winery provided Denis with an outlet to exercise his winemaking skills. But although his more traditional styles, including chardonnay and La Blanc Peche (viognier) were hailed by buyers and critics, his more creative new variety, Marsanne and Friends, struggled to gain recognition, despite being one of the most silky wines he had yet to create.
During his lifetime, Denis enjoyed many great accolades. In 1988 rose breeder Sam McCredy named a new rose Matawhero Magic in memory of Denis and his father Bill.
More recently, Matawhero Wines new owners, Richard and Kirsten Searle, named their flagship chardonnay wine Irwin, in honour of Denis and his father Bill.
Denis always attributed his success to his father Bill, who paved the way for the success of New Zealand's winemaking industry.
Bill Irwin, a bookseller with no horticultural experience, became the district's first contract grapegrower in 1968. He began importing grape cuttings from Europe, Australia and the US in 1968, to begin propagating virus-free stock.
This stock gave vineyards in this district and around the country a strong base from which to flourish.
The clean virus-free fruit, ripened to perfection by his father, also gave Denis the perfect base from which to start.
Recently returned from a lengthy stint working in wineries in South Africa and Germany, Denis established Matawhero Wines in 1975.
With Andrew Ewart from the local office of the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries, he converted the chicken shed on the Matawhero property into a winery.
Denis had strong ideas about winemaking. He used unadulterated grape juice at a time others were still adding water.
He was also a stickler for natural yeasts and disliked the extravagant use of sulphur, keeping it to a minimum and using only just before bottling, to enable his wines to develop natural flavour and colour.
Denis was passionate about his wines and the grapes grown to produce them. Even crippled by bone cancer, Denis spent his last summer overseeing their progress and helping handpick them for what was to be his final vintage.
A service for Denis Irwin is to be organised later.
— Obituary by Marianne Gillingham