When Amy Bertha Crawford married William John Gimblett in Havelock North on 14 August 1898, little did she know that with her new name came the promise of immortality.

William owned land to the west of Omahu Road, from Fernhill to Ngatarawa. Farming with his two sons, John Samuel and William Crawford, would not have been easy. The soil was thin and smattered with river stones. What grass grew was soon burnt off in the early summer. The heat stored up in the stones like a hangi, shrivelling the roots, and the radiant heat withered the fragile shoots. It was regarded as the most infertile land on the Heretaunga Plains.

Not far away in Frimley, J N Williams was growing so much fruit he established a canning factory, and his winery annually produced 20,000 litres and caret, hock and Madeira. His land was on deep alluvial soils deposited by the Ngararoro River before it changed course in the great flood of 1867. The Gimblett land was part of the old river bed.

Prior to the flood the Ngararoro flowed from Roy’s Hill through where Heretaunga street is today to the foot of the Havelock hills then in a route to the sea where the Karamu creek now flows.

When viticulture expert Romeo Brogato visited Hawke’s Bay in 1895 he recognised the region as, “the most suitable for growing vines.”  He described a Pinot crop from Henry Tiffen’s Greenmeadows Vineyard as, “among the finest I’ve ever seen.”

If Romeo Bragato had been shown the land on which William Gimblett was to farm, it is likely he would have recognised the ground as similar to parts of Bordeaux in France. Graves could have come to mind, named after the gravel nature of the soil.

Farther Yardin from the Catholic Mission in Meeanee had made the comparison as early as 1890. In a talk given to the Hawke’s Bay Philosophical Institute on 11 August he said, “In France, and elsewhere, the vineyards most celebrated for the excellence of their wine are on stony soils. In the best vineyards the land is so much covered with small stones that the soil itself has been completely hidden.” In Hawke’s Bay he observed,  “we have the proper soil … composed of sand or gravel, and which can be well drained.”

Curiously, Father Yardin’s observations and Bragato’s predictions needed a hundred years to mature.

Bragato envisaged, “a competent body in each district would determine the suitable varieties … each district would subsequently gain notoriety for the wines produced as in the various famed wine districts of the Continent.”

Father Yardin recognised the terrior value of stony soils in saying, “… the grapes, receiving the action of the sun directly and through radiation, may attain their finest qualities.”

These century-old opinions have now blended in the creation of the Gimblett Gravels Winegrowing District, which resembles an Appellation in the French model, and is defined by its stony soil.

The Gimblett Gravels brand is taking the wine world by storm because in the words of Jancis Robinson they produce, “the closest comparison to the Bordeaux wines of any wine region (in the world) today.”

In February this year she and two other highly respected names within the international wine community, Michael Schuster and Neal Martin, were the principal judges at a double-blind tasting of six Gimblett Gravels wines against six Bordeaux wines.

Michael Schuster commented, “there was a lovely freshness in all the wines, and it was quite difficult to tell which was which.” And Jancis Robinson confirmed the Gimblett Gravels challenge to Bordeaux when she said, “it wasn’t evident as to which wine was which.”

Of the six top wines chosen two were from Gimblett Gravels. The winner was 2005 Chateau Lafite Rothschild, Pauillac, Bordeaux, costing $2,215 per bottle. In fourth place came 2006 Sacred Hill, The Helmsman, and sixth was 2006 Newton Forrest Cornerstone, both priced under $100. Sitting between them in fifth place was 2005 Chateau Haut-Brion, St Steppe, Bordeaux, costing more than a return airfare to London at $1,950 a bottle.

For decades, nobody valued the stony land farmed by William and Amy Gimblett, but the Gimblett Gravels Winegrowing District is today a treasure of immense value, and is promoting Hawke’s Bay as the premier wine growing region in New Zealand.

It is a salutary lesson in wise resource management that 20 years ago those who recognised the wine growing potential of the Gimblett Gravels battled with the Hastings District Council to save a large portion from being quarried.

The story of how C J Pask first came to plant a vineyard on Gimblett Gravels, and the fight to preserve the resource led by Dr Alan Limmer, are next issue’s theme in The Romance of Wine.

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