1910 - W. N. Irwin (Bill) is born in Gisborne. Considered the father of modern viticulture in New Zealand, it was his drive and enthusiasm that lead to the importation of new grape varieties from Europe and America into New Zealand from 1969-1970.
1947 - Denis Irwin is born in Gisborne, New Zealand.
1968 – Bill purchases the land at Riverpoint Road at a time when people either raised livestock or maize on the Poverty Bay flats. He plants the original block in Riesling, Chassalas and Pinotage. The Pinotage, which performed pourly, is later replaced by Chardonnay and Gewürztraminer along with smaller plots of Sauvignon Blanc, Chenin Blanc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Malbec and Syrah and Pinot Noir.
1969 – The vineyards supply contract grapes for the local wineries. As a bookseller with no horticulture background people laughed at Bill all the time, but the clones propagated by Matawhero were taken up by most NZ vineyards to form the basis of the emerging industry.
1970 - To gain overseas experience Denis worked in wineries in South Africa and Germany. In Germany he worked at the Breisack winery on the Alsace-German border.
1974 – Denis returns to New Zealand determined and inspired to establish a winery run on similar lines as the family wineries he had worked in overseas.
1975 – The first wines are produced under the Matawhero label. The label features the image of the Matawhero Church, the district’s oldest confirmed building. The building started its life as a school room and it was of the few buildings to survive the Maori and European conflict in the area in the 1860s. Denis explains it was a little bit of a risk putting the Church on the label as he was not sure how people would react. In the early days of Matawhero Wines the Church was subtle and not as prominent on the label until they gauged the reaction to its use. For Denis the Church served as a symbol for their purist approach to making wines. They used natural yeast and did not add water to the wines, when some producers where doing so. In the words of Denis "They felt a morality to the product and the Church represented this well as well as being one of the most iconic buildings in the area".
1977 – Matawhero first gained international recognition at the World Wine Show in Paris where it achieved overall fourth place for the 1976 Gewürztraminer.
1977 – On her visit to New Zealand, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II is served the 1976 Matawhero Traminer Riesling at a dinner in her honour at the Prime Minister’s residence, Vogel House in Wellington.
1978 – The 1978 Matawhero Gewürztraminer is awarded a Gold Medal at the NZ National Wine Competition.
1979 – A tough year as recounted by Denis. “Very wet and the wines are over coloured”.
1980 – By now Matawhero is also developing a considerably reputation internationally for Chardonnay as well as Gewürztraminer with one claiming sixth place in a New York showing of New World Chardonnays.
1980 – Matawhero 1980 Chardonnay awarded Gold at the NZ Easter Show.
1981 – The 1981 Matawhero Traminer Dry Reserve is awarded a Gold Medal at the NZ National Wine Competition.
1981 – The wines are in the Queen’s cellar and in demand by some of New Zealand’s political figures including Prime Minister Robert Muldoon. Denis tells us that at the time in Gisborne the Member of Parliament was National’s Bob Bell who liked to bring the visiting politicians when they came to Gisborne.
1981 – Denis recalls some of the best selection of wines across the board at Matawhero only to run into a problem with leaky corks.
1982 – Gisborne experiences a long, dry summer resulting in a superb grape crop and exceptional vintage, one of the best seen in Gisborne in many years.
1982 – The 1982 Chardonnay achieved 8 out of 100 in a wine show in New York
1982 – An Aussie guy, Blair from the Clare Valley joins the Matawhero winemaking team for the season along-side Denis. In the words of Denis, "He arrived on the plane to help wearing pink jeans and pink sneakers, a little out of the box and would fit in perfectly at Matawhero”. They were both Scorpios and he tightened up the winemaking at Matawhero that vintage.
1982 – The 1981 Matawhero Gewürztraminer is awarded a Gold Medal at the NZ Easter Show.
1982 – The Bridge Hotel and land is purchased at the highway end of Riverpoint Road. A restaurant called La Pont is established with a renowned chef from Auckland running the kitchen. This is born out of Denis’s desire to open a main road outlet for wines. However it did have it complications with the patrons in the bar being very different from those who wanted to dine in the restaurant!
1983 – Hatch Kalberer joins the winemaking team at Matawhero. He imparts his own style onto the wines with yeast imported from Switzerland and the vision to make more dry wines (up until this time Denis was using natural yeast). Denis stills has the vision to make wines that challenge the palate and the mind. Regardless of market pressure he does not want to make the same wines year in year out and wants the wines to evolve and change every year.
1983 – Wines in the Matawhero range at this time include; White varietals such as Chardonnay, Gewürztraminer, Sauvignon Blanc, Traminer Riesling and Chenin Blanc. Red varietals include Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, an Estate Red blend and a “Gamay de Beaujolais”.
1983 – Mr Denis Irwin receives a royal telegram from the Queen thanking him for the wine he sent to Buckingham Palace after her visit to New Zealand in 1978, “Her Majesty much looks forward to sampling and enjoying the wine”.
1983 – Matawhero wines enjoying considerable favour with overseas wine buffs. Sales in the UK are going well. Wine correspondent for the Times, Jane MacQuitty in a review of New Zealand wines, writes; “For me New Zealand’s star white wines are still their Gewürztraminers, and the finest are still that North Island Gisborne Gewürztraminer made by Denis Irwin – his Matawhero 1982 is as spicy, fresh and traditional as one could ask for, backed up by a rich, fruity taste”.
1983 – Matawhero wines exhibited at Expovin in Melbourne, Australia. This started the first sales of wines into Australia of Chardonnay and Gewürztraminer. Denis recalls, “It was hard as NZ wines were not favourable in Australia. He managed to grab hold of some of the Australian wine media and get them excited about what he was doing”.
1984 – An important year in the development of Matawhero with a wider selection of wines being available in limited quantities and the addition of some new wines; Rose and a Chenin/Chardonnay blend.
1984 – The 1982 Matawhero Traminer Riesling x Sylvander is awarded a Gold Medal at the NZ National Wine Competition.
1984 – The 1983 Matawhero Merlot is awarded a Gold Medal at the NZ National Wine Competition.
1984 – The Matawhero 1980 Chardonnay is awarded 9th position out of 80 Chardonnay’s tasted in the English wine magazine “Decanter” wine tasting.
1984 – Len Evans a prominent Australian wine judge and wine entrepreneur selects the 1981 and 1983 Chardonnay from Matawhero as two of the three New Zealand wines that impressed him the most.
1984 – Matawhero Wines to be showcased at Expovin in Sydney, Australia. A tough market to crack recalls Denis. There were huge changes in the market with Sauvignon Blanc starting to gain traction hence changing the styles of wine people wanted.
1984 – Denis decides he is not suited to the restaurant/bar business and leases out the Bridge Hotel.
1984 – Denis is starting to get itchy feet and after his visit to Melbourne that year feels like this might be where he belongs for a while.
1985 – The variety Semillon is added to the stable of Matawhero wines and the first Pinot Noir is produced.
1985 – For the first time in 9 years Matawhero does not feature in the list of awards from the Royal Easter Wine show as Matawhero decides to withdraw prior to the 1984 competition from the show arena for a time. Denis’s reasoning for this decision was “To enable us to consolidate our individual style, which is a marked contrast to the squeaky clean wines that are acceptable to the attitude of the judging panels both here and in Australia”.
1985 – Denis develops the first NZ wine cooler named Kwanone to help with cashflow, which to his disappointment is not a huge success. Grape varietal Muller Thurgau forms the base of the cooler along with citrus and kiwifruit juice.
1985 – The Melbourne Age describes the 1983 Matawhero Cabernet/Merlot as “A wine that will make the French sit up and take notice”.
1985 – W.N Irwin passes away in May. The 2.5 hectare Bridge Estate vineyard was established in memory of Bill. It was his foresight that saw the importation of varieties such as Merlot, Malbec, Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc that constitute the Bridge Estate vineyard.
1987 – Gisborne sees a challenging season, however Matawhero’s pioneering spirits sees the vineyard team over summer develop a new leaf-removal machine which gives controlled leaf-removal periodically during the season. This, plus improved vine understanding, enabled us to ripen and harvest some good grapes in a particularly difficult vintage.
1987 – The first Sauvignon/Semillon is produced under the Matawhero label.
1987 – Denis looks to purchases an 80 Hectare block of land in Victoria, Australia. The historic property is situated in the Macedon Basin 5km from the town of Gisborne, 45kms from Melbourne. The acquisition of the property has been the realisation of a 4 year search for a site to enable Matawhero to extend into Australia to grow varieties the climate makes difficult in NZ. He hopes to get plantings of the initial varieties underway in winter.
1987 – Matawhero harvests a small first crop from new Pinot Noir plantings.
1987 – By October, Denis has moved to Australia and purchases a pub named The Rose of Australia in Williamstown, Melbourne. He tries to sell New Zealand wine including his Matawhero range from the bottleshop and spends a lot of time doing “night shifts”. The former favourite pub of Ned Kelly proved too rambunctious for the refined clients he sought (and for his own physical safety at times).
1987 – Matawhero Wines purchases an already established 13 acre block of Gewürztraminer at Manutuke about 10kms S.E of the Riverpoint winery. This block in the past has produced some of the fruit for some of Villa Maria’s most successful wines.
1988 – Cyclone Bola causes devastation in the Gisborne/East Coast region. Matawhero fortunately survives the brunt, however the crops for this year are down 50% and they decide only the best fruit will go into the Matawhero label. Denis comments, “However the quality of the fruit I tasted coming into the winery is a credit to the vineyard staff and will ensure that Hatch and myself will be able to put together wines from the ’88 vintage that will carry the Matawhero hallmark of quality.” Denis is proud to say that the 1988 Matawhero Merlot then went on to get a Gold Medal to prove they could do it!
1988 – The planned explanation of Matawhero into Australia is put on a “back burner” for a while. Denis decides to lease “The Rose” and return to Matawhero and to Gisborne. “Nice try, my bank manager said, as he shouted me lunch at the Carlton and sent me packing – having got everything but the front of my shirt”
1988 – First release of Matawhero Magnums – 506 bottles of 1983 Cabernet Sauvignon Merlot.
1989 – Matawhero Wines re-appear in the Easter show – Denis comments “These were entered by the organisers without our consent so take them as you wish.”
1989 – Denis and Vi Irwin purchase Scotty’s Bar & Grill in Gisborne to generate some cash flow for the Matawhero operation. They served only Matawhero Wines and draught beer and grew a lot of their own produce while Vi operates the kitchen.
1990 – Matawhero Wines for the first time are entered in the Australian Small Winemakers Competition and the two wines submitted – The 1987 Gewürztraminer and the 1987 Pinot Noir, were selected in the Top 100 wines. The Pinot Noir went onto win the award for “Best Pinot Noir” and also runner-up “Wine of the Show”.
1990 – Hatch’s last vintage at Matawhero.
1991 – Eurowine Fine Wines (1990) Limited was appointed exclusive distribution agent for Matawhero enabling them to concentrate on the vineyard, winemaking, marketing and cellar door.
1994 – Denis and Vi Irwin are involved in a serious car accident which almost costs them their lives.
1994 – Eurowine Fine Wines ceases distributing Matawhero Wines in NZ Market.
1995 – Negociants NZ is appointed exclusive distribution agent for Matawhero in NZ. Denis hires a new winemaking assistant Ross Nichols to help him make the wines. At this time Denis recalls the Estate Chardonnay was their top selling line.
1998 – “Matawhero Magic” or the Matawhero Rose is launched by well-known rose breeder Sam McGredy along with Denis. This is named in memory of his father, Bill.
1999 – The last year the Irwins’s makes any wine of significant volume. Denis recalls bringing in a chap called Nick from Europe to assist with the vintage and inject some fresh blood into the wines.
2000 – Denis sells the bottom block of the Matawhero vineyard to Montana leaving approximately 38 acres and the winery.
2000 – This year saw a re-burst of energy as Denis and Vi build and open the Colosseum on their land next to the Bridge Estate vineyard at the highway end of Riverpoint (on the site of the former Bridge Hotel which burnt down a few year earlier). Denis explains that this was once again to have a roadside outlet that was easily accessible from the highway for people to try and purchase the wines.
2001 – Whilst their energy for the Colosseum is very much alive, Denis recalls how much the market has changed since they started Matawhero in the 70’s. Sauvignon Blanc is growing ever more popular and of course Gewürztraminer is a little out of style!
2002 – 2005 – Very much a period of building the Colossuem business as a place to enjoy great cuisine and wine along with a great story or two from Denis. It has always been very important to the Irwin’s to make wines that are a great accompaniment to food.
2005 – By now Denis’s health is very much in decline and the focus is on building the Colosseum business to sell and enjoy retirement.
2008 – The Searle Family purchases the Matawhero vineyard and winery at Riverpoint Road from Denis Irwin. The vineyard needs revitalising and replanting. Denis was pleased the see the vineyard remain as a family business rather than being swallowed up by the big boys and comments “It was like handing over the baton. It’s great for the district”.
2009 – The first of the new release wine are bottled and include the following varietals – Gewürztraminer (of course!), Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Gris, Viognier, Arneis and Merlot. This heritage label now lives on……
2009 – Hancocks Wine and Spirit Merchants is appoint NZ Nationwide distributor for the Matawhero Wines.
2010 – The cellar door officially re-opens at Riverpoint Road in October. The old Matawhero Cellar Door faithfully portrays that idiomatic character the brand is so much loved for.
2011 – The Church House series of wines are released and include several new clones imported by Gisborne Company Riversun. The Matawhero Church has graced our wine label since 1975. Our Church House series is a collection of small and unique parcels of wine that serves as a tribute to this historic building and is inspired by the pioneering spirits of our founders. New wines in this range included Chardonnay Musque and a Barrel Fermented Chardonnay.
2011 – The Matawhero 2010 Gisborne Merlot is served on all Air NZ business class flights from June to September.
2012 – Matawhero Wines continues to add to the Church House series of wines with the following varietals in the 2012 vintage; Grüner Veltliner and a Barrel Fermented Sauvignon. Kirsten Searle comment’s “It was always very important for us to ensure that we carried on that pioneering tradition Matawhero was known and loved for. It allows us to showcase Gisborne as a diverse region and also allows us to have a little fun in the winery!”
2013 – Matawhero Historic Church celebrates its 140 anniversary as a church in February. Guests who attend the service and lunch are served some of the current release Matawhero Wines.
2013 – Gisborne experiences the best vintage in the region this century with a long hot summer that grape growers will remember for years (any many farmers will try to forget!).
2013 – Our 2012 Church House Grüner Veltliner is awarded a Gold Medal at the Gisborne Regional Wine Awards in May. As it was the first crop from these vines we are excited to see how the variety develops over time.
2013 – Matawhero continues to add to the stable of wines it produces. The 2013 vintage will see the first release of a Pinot Rosé to our white label wines and will also include in the Church House range a Chenin Blanc and new kid on the block - Albariño.