Kurow: vines, wines and social security

I first met Emer in the Harbour Street Collective. I noticed that the Kurow Winery desk was open for business and wandered over. Emer was on the phone. She made hand gestures to tell me she would end the call asap, but I gestured back for her not to worry – I’d have lunch first, then come back. Amazing what you can say with a few waves of the hand and exaggerated lip reading.

‘I’m sorry about that,’ Emer said when I went back. ‘My mother.’ I caught the Northern Irish accent straight away.

‘Don’t tell me – earthquakes!’

‘Yes, she’s terribly worried I’m going to die out here. The morning after the Kaikoura quake, she was on the phone before I was out of bed.’

‘I know exactly what you mean!’

Emer told me about Kurow Winery and Pasquale wines and invited me to visit the vineyard – where, in fact, she spent most of her working week. So I did.

There’s more than one way to get to Kurow from Oamaru. On the way there, I took the quickest route, up State Highway 1, turn left at Pukeuri onto State Highway 83 and keep going. Past Georgetown, the road runs parallel to the River Waitaki. Past Duntroon, you feel the hills start to close in on both sides of the river. Now you’re definitely in a valley.

The Pasquale Kurow Winery is just east of Kurow itself. The vineyards have been planted on a bed of silt and shingle next to the river, each row supported by neat lines of taut wires. The Alps to Ocean cycle trail (A2O) takes a zigzag route through the vineyard from the road to the river, at one point running between two long rows of tall trees. The line of hills just across the river provides a perfect backdrop.

Back indoors, Emer and I chatted while she kindly made coffee, before the Uruguayan manager, Renzo Miño, came bounding in.

After observing that there couldn’t be many Renzos in Waitaki – or Uruguayans, come to that – I asked him how he had ended up here.

‘I came as a backpacker and got a fruit-picking job with the previous owner of this land. There used to be five or six orchards in Kurow – now there’s only one left, just across the road. Anyway, while I was here, the owner sold up to Antonio Pasquale, who asked me to stay and help establish a vineyard here. In other words, I’ve been here from day one. I helped plant all the vines and build the winery, studied viticulture [vine growing] here in New Zealand, and worked my way up from there.’

‘No previous experience?’ I asked.

Apart from drinking wine, no!’

Antonio Pasquale loved the Waitaki from the moment he first arrived. Fortunately for him, he had the means to buy land and plant vines, initially at Hakataramea on the northern side of the river, and later here at Kurow.

The wines of Central Otago are world famous. North Otago and South Canterbury not so much. And the reason is simple; there weren’t any vineyards here until Antonio Pasquale and one or two other pioneers decided to give it a go.

By rights, they should all have failed by now. The climate here isn’t kind to vines. The temperature drops to -10°C in winter, with a long spring slowly giving way to a hot, dry summer.

‘When I started studying viticulture,’ Renzo said, ‘the first lesson was about something called “growing degree days” – a measure of how many heat units you have in the growing season. The first page of the textbook said, if you have fewer than 1000 growing degree days in the growing season, don’t bother. We never come close! We’re lucky if we get 900 growing degree days here. As a result, yields are small.’

‘How small?’

‘We average around 3.5 tonnes of grapes per hectare. To put that into context, they get 20 tonnes per hectare in Marlborough.’ Wow.

And that’s not all. ‘Fruit here has a natural tendency to high acidity, which is good for preservation, but makes our red wines almost undrinkable in the early years. One of our Hakataramea wines disappointed Antonio so much that he told the winemaker to put it in plain bottles with a simple black cap and leave it. A few years later it started to win awards, including a gold medal and trophy in the Bragato awards here in New Zealand – a pinot noir we thought undrinkable became outstanding. Now, we age reds in oak for up to 18 months, age again in the bottle for two or three years and – finally – the wine is ready to go.

‘Actually, the flavours we get here are amazing: most of our wines are multi-award winners – Rieslings and Gewürtztraminers as well as pinot noirs. It must be something to do with the micro-climate. Aromatics do brilliantly here. Eight of the top Auckland restaurants buy our wines, which proves they are good – but making them is hard work and expensive.’

Kurow Winery also makes the only méthode traditionnelle (Champagne style) wine in the region, as well as Passito, a sweet dessert wine. Renzo explained how they make it.

‘Pinot Gris and Riesling grapes harvested by hand, spread in a single layer to dry, and pressed once they look a bit like a raisin. Tell me how much juice you get from a raisin!’

Another reason production costs are high is that contractors don’t bother coming to the Waitaki valley. With so few vineyards in the area, it just isn’t worth their while. Whenever anything needs doing, whether it’s pruning or harvesting, Renzo has to employ local people to do it. Or do it himself.

As it happens, Renzo no longer does the pruning, and he misses it.

‘I loved pruning! It’s cruel – it can be minus five in the morning – but I loved it for the silence, the blue skies, the chance to think … Now I am a manager, I still enjoy myself, and I am learning about wine making. But I miss the hands-on work in the vineyard.’

Do you get time off?

‘No chance! I’ve heard that people in New Zealand have something called a holiday – what’s that?!’

And what about the future?

‘We’re trying to change the way we work here. I started to use sheep in the vineyard to keep the grass down. People said it wouldn’t work, that the sheep would eat the vines. But it does work, provided we don’t leave the sheep too long. We no longer add fertiliser. We’ve applied for organic certification. And when it comes to making wine, we are going for low intervention techniques – no sulphur, no filtering.’

The other challenge is getting known.

‘We don’t get buyers just dropping in. If they do come here, they are very impressed. We’ve been written about, more at the start than recently, but look at it this way: it only takes one special visitor to make a breakthrough. One day we will be discovered!’

I love Renzo’s optimism. He absolutely, 100 per cent believes in the vines he is growing and the wines he is helping to make. Fortunately for him, so does Antonio.

‘He took a risk, no doubt about it. He invested to have the best of everything. You have to do this out of passion, not turning a quick profit.’

And you see it the same way, Renzo?

‘We have a short lifespan – so what are you going to do? Work eight hours a day for your pay cheque, or do something you’re passionate about? I’m not doing a job – I’m doing something I love!’


I said farewell to Renzo and Emer and headed into Kurow. I’d been through the place before, noting the shops, bars and cafés either side of the street, but this was the first time I stopped for a proper look.

The first impression was of a quaint, happy-looking town. People were going their unhurried way from shop to shop, pausing for a flat white, gossiping with neighbours.

Yes, but here’s the thing: the total population of Kurow is 312. The village where I grew up is 50 per cent bigger than that, and it’s TINY. It doesn’t even have a shop – not one. Yet here’s Kurow, looking for all the world like a town, and hardly anyone lives here. I am never going to get used to this.

I went to the museum. The website says it is a ‘quirky museum which provides a snapshot of early European life and features tools from the local Maori (Waitaha)’. The first part of that statement means it is full of gas masks, pith helmets, army uniforms, cigarette packets, tobacco tins, farming implements, sheep shears and old kitchen gadgets. The second part means it has a lot of greenstone tools, particularly adzes, and a replica mokihi a boat made out of reeds by the late Rangi Te Maiharoa, descendant of the Waitaha. There are stuffed birds and animals, too, and a cardboard cut-out of Richie McCaw, rugby player, helicopter pilot and proud native of Kurow. I loved it.

But that’s not all. This all sits side by side with the National Museum of Social Security.

I live near the National Railway Museum in York, which is big. Very big.

New Zealand’s National Museum of Social Security is slightly more modest. In fact, I had to look for it. It is a double-sided display panel with a few pictures and a bit of text.

Don’t get me wrong: I was not in the least disappointed. On the contrary, the good people of Kurow have every right to be proud that they live in the birthplace of social security, New Zealand-style. For it was here, in the depths of the depression of the 1930s, that three men worked out a system of state support for all citizens of New Zealand. They were Girvan McMillan, the local doctor; a head teacher, Andrew Davidson; and the Presbyterian minister, Arnold Nordmeyer.

The three wise men started work on welfare reform because of mass unemployment. Two thousand people were gainfully employed on the Waitaki Dam, a massive hydro-electric scheme being built a short way upstream from Kurow. Hundreds more trekked up the valley from Oamaru in the hope of joining them, only to be turned away. They lived in conditions of abject poverty at an impromptu camp by the Awakino Stream. Kurow School had a sudden, massive influx of new pupils and Dr McMillan was kept busy night and day tending to the needs of the sick. The dam workers benefited from health care funded by worker contributions and the hospital board, but people living in the shanty town had nothing: no unemployment benefits and no access to health care.

By 1938, McMillan and Nordmeyer were members of the House of Representatives: McMillan represented Dunedin West; Nordmeyer, Oamaru. They developed their ideas into a comprehensive Social Security Act, designed to ‘safeguard the people of New Zealand from the disabilities arising from age, sickness, widowhood, orphanhood, unemployment, or other exceptional conditions’.

I read all this, nodded appreciatively, and set off back down the valley. I wanted to see the cave paintings.

Pasquale Kurow vineyard

Pasquale Kurow vineyard