The Donaldson Family name is a well known one in Wine circles. Pioneers of the Waipara Region in North Canterbury, they have been growing and making wine there since the 1970’s. Being among the first to do anything always makes for an extraordinary story however, it begins with something far more ordinary, something common to a lot of us. You see, wine was Ivan Donaldson’s hobby. A hobby that turned into a passion… for his entire family!
Ivan trained as a Neurologist. His then girlfriend Christine, gave him a book written by leading British wine expert Hugh Johnson called…Wine. This seemingly simple gesture sparked an incredible journey embarking on a trip to Europe to explore their famous wine regions, and to learn all he could from the century’s old experts. Ivan returned home with a clear vision. To establish Canterbury’s first Vineyard and Winery, and to marry Christine…it seemed the book was a hit on both fronts!
He planted a practice vineyard and made wine in his garage in between his public hospital shifts and evening private clinics! He also started writing a local newspaper Wine column and became involved in Wine Judging around the world. By the mid 1980’s he was convinced that Canterbury was a credible place for wine growing, and in 1985 he and Christine planted Pegasus Bay in the Waipara Valley with the help of their four Sons.
A short trip 45 minutes North of Christchurch and you’ll find yourself in Waipara, North Canterbury. The Main Divide ( Southern Alps ) provides a sheltered position from the notorious Nor’Wester winds intensifying the high sunshine hours, hot dry summers, and a long autumn – perfect for growing grapes. Along with its sheltered position, its not far from the coast so there’s warm days, cool nights, and always a breeze to keep disease at bay. This micro-climate provides a prolonged season compared to other regions, with intense ripe flavours and good natural acidity in the grapes. Ivan saw this all along, and his pioneering footsteps were pivotal in paving the way for others. These days the region boasts around 90 vineyards based there, with numerous multi regional brands taking grapes from here because of its unique taste offering.
The Pegasus Bay vineyard is tucked up under the shelter of the Teviotdale Range, with additional protection from the easterlies coming off the Pacific. It was, many years ago a riverbed, washed down from the Main Divide with a high content of smooth stones and gravel in the soils that capture the heat during the day providing insulation into the night. The vineyard has remained mostly as it was when planted originally ( no grafting of new vines onto the old ) and so vine age is evident in the overall taste of their wines. In a relatively new region, this is a standout versus other producers and gives their wines a unique edge that can be distinctively identified as theirs. The vineyards are relatively low yielding, which provide fewer grapes with more intense flavours. The wines are truly a reflection of their unique terroir – an attribute that’s very important to The Donaldson Family.
And while the ethos of this winery was well and truly set by Ivan and Christine, it has been passed onto sons Matthew, Edward, Michael, Paul and their respective Families who are all involved in the business to some degree today – Winemaking, Sales, Marketing and of course, their Award Winning Restaurant.
Another common belief held by the whole family is their approach towards the land and the uncompromising goal to leave it in good shape for the future generations of Donaldson. There is fundamentally a deep respect for this land that has provided so much for their family, and an unwavering dedication to nurture its soil and vine health. They are members of the Sustainable Viticulture Programme and use natural alternatives for pest and disease control, rather than commercial pesticides and herbicides. And they are avid supporters of the Greening Waipara Valley Project – setting out to maintain all that they have created as a Family and also as a Community.
Their winemaking Philosophy is also one of minimal intervention. Just as it is in the vineyard, they also exercise a similar respect to the fruit during the winemaking process. Quality is paramount, and this means making wines that reflect the place. Keeping crop levels low, minimal handling and gentle pressing of the fruit, naturally occurring fermentation and no fining of the wines, all make for a greater texture and length in the wine. Everything that is grown on their Single Vineyard Estate goes into Pegasus Bay, but demand for their wines globally goes further than their supply will allow!
The Donaldson Family also purchase additional fruit from a handful of fellow North Canterbury growers to produce a range called Main Divide. This is a solution in part, to a demand for more of their wine but mostly it solves an issue for the demand of Waipara Wine, and continuing on the amabassadorial role for the region itself. Main Divide is a fresher more vibrant style that is distinctly cool climate Waipara in both Region and Varietal aspects. The Donaldsons work with their Growers to achieve the fruit they want stylistically throughout the season, and then craft these wines back at their Waipara Winery using the same resources as Pegasus Bay Wines.
The quality of Pegasus Bay Wines are world renowned. Critics from far and wide all know and love this brand, extolling its virtues as one of NZ’s most exciting producers. They have even been awarded Robert Parker’s Highest Producer Rating of ‘Outstanding’. And while the two ranges are made very differently, the quality is very similar with many critics noticing Main Divide often nipping at the heels of Pegasus Bay in blind tastings!
Quantities of both these ranges are limited and releases are often sought after with legendary wines like Bel Canto, Aria, Prima Donna, Encore and Maestro often selling out on release. But it’s not just these top wines that should be grabbing your attention, as the whole range is exceptional quality. We wouldn’t be doing our job well if we didn’t call out two of these that you wouldn’t usually find outside of the Cellar Door. First is the Pegasus Bay Malbec – a one off vintage that would usually be destined for blending in the Maestro Merlot/Malbec, this was simply too good to blend and with only 25 dozen produced Fine Wine Delivery got the lot! And the second wine is the Main Divide Tehau Pinot Noir. Only produced in good years when selected barrels call for a special wine to be made, this is a new vintage release but has already been awarded a Five Star rating. And once again the limited production of 120 dozen has all come to Fine Wine Delivery. We think you’d be hard pressed to find a better quality Canterbury Pinot for sub $30.
Regardless of which wine you fall in love with Pegasus Bay is a brand worth searching out. Buy their wines, visit their Cellar Door and support a pioneering NZ Family Business, and while you’re there visit a few others in the region too – that’s what the Donaldson’s are after!