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Huge influence in wine

Obituary: Denis Irwin

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'

“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

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

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

LEDGENDARY VINTNER: Denis Irwin with his 747 Estate wines in 2013.
Denis Irwin August 1984

  1. Kerry Taggart says:

    💖 RIP Denis. Lots of love to you Vi.

  2. Nick Britton, Auckland says:

    Denis certainly was a great pioneer for the New Zealand wine industry but more than that he was a Kiwi icon with his passionate and uncompromising endeavours to create astounding wine.
    I remember Denis at Vinexpo in 1996 encouraging the exhibitors to taste some real wine from Gisborne – Matawhero of course!
    Rest in peace Denis.
    Love to Vi.

  3. Dave says:

    The loss of a another city icon. Enjoyed many of his wines. RIP

    1. Iain says:

      Was always great to see him tasting wines in Liquorland quite regularly. Big loss

  4. Mary Evans, Matakana says:

    This is a great obituary. And a great legend.

  5. Creina Weston, Tutukaka says:

    Wonderful hospitality shown to myself and Clive 20 years ago. Great company and a very dapper man.

    1. Sherry says:

      I will always remember Denis well from the 70s. We had so much fun. RIP. Love to you dear friend. You will be missed.

  6. Margot Seymour, Hawke's Bay says:

    RIP Denis… Peace and Love to Vi xxx

  7. Ross Bodle says:

    As a viticultural contractor in Huapai in West Auckland and later on Waiheke Island, the old saying “water the vine not the wine” still stands even today. RIP Denis Irwin.

  8. Harry Lyon, Russell says:

    Rest In Peace old chum. Many fond memories of sometimes outrageous times spent with you. A gent and first class scallywag. Love to you Violet.
    Harry and Marguerite Lyon

  9. Daniel Kemp, Bayswater, Auckland says:

    I’m deeply saddened to hear the news of Denis Irwin’s passing, he was a massive mentor of mine and a great friend.
    As a young boy in Matawhero I grew up on our family farm which backed on to his property and vineyard that carried the hugely respected name ‘Matawhero Estate’ in the early 1980s when Matawhero produced in my mind some of the greatest wines ever produced in this county. Even now they remind me of what great wine should be. At his best Denis was fearless and cutting edge, producing wines that were well ahead of the pack in the early days of the great NZ wine pioneers. For me his stamp was creating wines from the heart that I like to call soul wines.
    Because of my good friendship with Denis over the years he was generous with me and I was lucky to put many of his great wines away in my personal cellar, which I will cherish for many years to come.
    For me the Matawhero 1989 Bridge estate is certainly one of the greatest wines I have ever had the privilege of drinking in my 50 years on this planet to date and I feel super lucky that I have still got some of these wines safely cellaring away – and that the 89 vintage and others have many years of magical drinking to come.
    I will without question be telling the story of Denis and his genius for the rest of my life.
    Thanks for all the great special memories and love Denis, and I’ll be raising my glass and toasting you from the heart as i drink and cherish more then ever your very special bottles that tell such a wonderful story each time you pull a cork over the years to come⭐️ Love to Vi

  10. Gordon Smith, Malaysia says:

    RIP Denis, had such good times with you as your bar manager at Bridge Tavern, cheers bro.

  11. Darryl White, Auckland says:

    Denis was a force of nature. With his bold vision for the wine industry in the 70s, he carved out a place for himself as a flamboyant, irrepressible character who didn’t suffer fools. But he was fun to be around and was a friend to many. May he rest in peace.

    1. Dave Lawler, Blenheim says:

      Very nicely stated Darryl. I remember your friendship with him and Sally well. All the best to you in these troubling times mate….xx

  12. Ross Jensen and Sheree Drummond says:

    A beautiful, heart-felt, deserved tribute to an exclusive man who enjoyed excellent wine and excellent company. Our thoughts are with you Vi and Amanda, and Denis forever remembered, and always missed.
    Love Ross and Sheree

  13. Simone Ellis, Tokyo says:

    Denis is survived by his only son, Barret, and grandson Nassau.

  14. Doug Wilson, Vancouver BC Canada says:

    My days with Denis go back to 1977 when as a house surgeon at Cook Hospital our young families connected with the birth of my daughter Sarah and the birth of his son Barrett. Great times were had as our wives were good friends and our kids were toddlers. I left Gisborne in October 1978 but I did visit Denis many years later on a return visit to Gisborne after his car accident. He lived a passionate life and I was sad to hear of his death.

  15. Linda Yee says:

    Rest in peace Denis
    Saluting you for the best gewürztraminer

  16. Garry Barron, Melbourne says:

    My love affair with gewurztraminer is because of Matawhero – Denis Irwin. Never met the man but Matawhero holds a special place in my heart. Certainly a life to celebrate and my condolences to his family/friends and all those who knew him.

    In vino veritas.

  17. Michael Strong and Rita Rasink, Sydney says:

    Denis welcomed us as newcomers to Gisborne with a fully stocked fridge in our accommodation. Such good memories and fun had with Denis and Vi during our five yrs there. From Sydney, we shall raise a glass to Denis and reminisce. Our thoughts and love go to Vi and Amanda.

  18. Sean Lee, Melbourne says:

    RIP Denis Irwin
    My first boss granted me opportunities in life that were way beyond my capabilities. I flourished under his guidance and wouldn’t be the man I am today without it! It was a real privilege to be involved with a hands-on approach to producing some of the best wines in the country. I will always have a piece of Denis in my heart as a tearaway No.2 from our Limousine nights out to Vi’s sensational dinners under the stars with a red or two! Many thanks for a great upbringing, miss you heaps! Cheers Sean Big hugs to Vi and Amanda

  19. Anne Stanton, Nelson says:

    Saddened to hear of Denis’s death. He was an entertaining friend and flatmate in the early ’70s. A very dashing young man around town and a regular figure in the Gisborne Photo News along with his best friend Warrick. The wine at dinner parties in those days was really just a challenge to get the least rough red! How times have changed. Happy memories.