This month’s article is the second in a series on the history of Hawke’s Bay wineries. Here, Mark Sweet continues the story of the Mission Estate’s early days.
The man who introduced the first vines to Hawke’s Bay, Father John Lampila, a Catholic missionary in the Society of Mary, stayed only three years after establishing the first settlement of the Mission at Pakowhai in 1851.
His replacement was Father Euloge Reignier who for nearly forty years worked tirelessly in establishing Catholic congregation and education in Hawke’s Bay.
While ministering in Gisborne in 1852, Father Reignier visited the site which Father Lampila, and Brothers Florentin and Basil had mistakenly settled thinking they were in Hawke’s Bay. The vines they had planted flourished. Reignier picked and crushed; and in the tradition he had learned as a boy in his home town of Chateaubriand, France, he made a barrel of wine, which he sent by boat to Napier. The Pakowhai vines were not yet producing and wine for sacrament was in short supply. The barrel did not reach its destination however, and rather than being transubstantiated into the blood of Christ at the alter, the wine was quaffed on board ship by sailors, who replaced the contents with salt water.
On taking up his position at the Pakowhai settlement, Father Reignier realised the Mission’s security of land tenure was linked entirely to the fortunes of their patron, Puhara Hawaikirangi. Accordingly he began acquiring land in Meeanee, and by August 1857 he had purchased 406 acres for around 10 shillings an acre.
His foresight was rewarded under tragic circumstances when Puhara was killed in battle. On 11 April, 1858, the entire contents of the Pakowhai settlement, including the mission house, were packed onto bullock drays and transported across the Tutaekuri River at a fording near the end of Powdrell’s Road.
William Colenso described the Meeanee property as, ‘a swampy jungle of interlaced flax and cutting grass, taller than a mounted horseman, and so dense it was more practical to go by river than attempt to force a path through it.’
The priorities of clearing the land for farming and administering to a growing congregation left little time for winemaking, but in 1871 the Mission’s first serious winemaker joined the Meeanee community. He was Brother Cyprian Huchet, son of a Loire Vigneron, who had learned his trade from his father.
In 1879, a delegation investigating emigration prospects for tenant farmers in Lincolnshire, England, visited the Mission in Meeanee. They reported that, “near Tutai Kuri we saw a garden in which a very large quantity of grapes were growing beautifully in the open air. The vines were arranged on trellis work and comprised a great many varieties, all apparently growing nearly equally well.”
What vines constituted “the great many varieties” is unsure, but could well have included Chasselas, la Foellle and Muscat-Frontignac, as well as the original Moscata Paradisa planted by Father Lampila.
Brother Cyprian’s skills as a winemaker were recognised by winning a silver medal at the Paris Exhibition of 1892, after the French consul in New Zealand, Count Alexandre d’Abbans, organised samples from the 1885-88 vintages to be entered.
By this time the Mission at Meeanee was well established, but it no longer had a monopoly on the growing of grapes, and the making of wine.
Three of the largest landowners in Hawke’s Bay had entered the industry. They were Henry Tiffen, Greenmeadows Station, Taradale; Bernard Chambers, Te Mata Station, Havelock North; and J.N Williams of Frimley Orchards, Hastings.
Tiffen arrived in Wellington from England in 1842 having been engaged by the New Zealand Company as a surveyor. From October 1856 he headed the Napier Land Office. On the formation of Hawke’s Bay province in 1858, he became the Crown Commissioner of Lands; and in his dual role as Chief Surveyor, he oversaw the laying out of Havelock North and Clive townships.
Like many of the settler surveyors, Tiffen acquired land and engaged in farming and business interests which included shipping, gold mining, woollen milling, meat freezing, and fruit and vegetable processing.
Henry Tiffen was seventy-one years old when he took up viticulture after being inspired by the efforts of Wairarapa landowner William Beetham. He lunched with Beetham in May 1890, and on tasting the wine, was reported by his host to have said, “this is enough for me,” to convince him of the merits of wine making.
Tiffen spent the last years of his life establishing his vineyard at Greenmeadows, which by the time of his death in 1896 had 10 hectares in grapes, and state of the art production facilities. As Dick Scott explains in his excellent book Pioneers of New Zealand Wine, “A mechanised press-house carried the grapes by elevator to the second floor and fed them through stemming machines and crushers into a mobile wine press mounted on rails which emptied into a row of 1162 gallon totara fermenting vats.”
In a curious twist of fate, the Society of Mary, on behalf of the Mission at Meeanee, purchased 260 acres in 1897 from the estate of Henry Tiffen. Constant flooding of the Meeanee settlement had made further expansion untenable and within ten years the Mission had moved to its current site in Church Road.
So a new chapter began in the story of wine in Hawke’s Bay.