Sauvignon stories: the Spence brothers

28 Apr 2021

Bill and Ross Spence came from three generations of winemakers. Wine was part of their early life, working on their father’s winery before and after school. Both brothers went on to study winemaking and viticulture, and they founded Matua in 1974 with a vision to revolutionise the New Zealand wine industry.

Spence brothers
Ross and Bill Spence

In the 1960s, with the help of their family, the Spence brothers bought their own block of land on Matua Road in North-West Auckland. They were driven to trying new things, so they hunted across New Zealand for different grape varieties to plant in the vineyard. They sourced everything from Semillon, Gamay Tienturier, Chablis Cabernet Franc, and Grey Riesling.

In the mid-1960s, they managed to obtain some plant material that was labelled Sauvignon Blanc from the governmental Te Kauwhata Viticultural Research Centre and Ross grafted it in his small nursery that he operated with his wife Adrienne. They planted about 250 vines in the Matua Road vineyard in 1968.

The vines grew vigorously, but they were susceptible to diseases. However, Ross told NZ Winegrower magazine, “the small amount of fruit was distinctively flavoured, aromatic and quite delicious to eat when fully ripe.”

The brothers learned that Joe Corban from Corbans Winery had provided the Department of Agriculture with some land for trialing grape varieties. He did not know what the varieties were but knew they were about to be pulled out.

With an Ampelography book in one hand and notebook in the other, they walked through the trial block until he found three Sauvignon Blanc vines in the vineyard. The vines had come from the University of California at Davis and were released to the trial block in 1970. The brothers removed the propagation wood, just weeks before the block was destroyed.

It was a happy accident that they had found the vine because most Sauvignon Blanc today in New Zealand are direct clonal descendants of the ones the Spence brothers cultivated.

The original winery. Credit: Matua Wines.

Several years later once the vines were fully grown, the Spence brothers made a small run of 400 wine bottles in their tin shed winery. It was 1974 and they had just created New Zealand’s first Sauvignon Blanc.

The brothers continued bulking up a small amount of the Sauvignon Blanc cuttings over two years to provide enough grafting material to plant the first commercial block of Sauvignon Blanc in Matua Waimauku vineyard in 1978.

Ross told NZ Winegrower magazine Sauvignon Blanc wasn’t instantly successful in the 1970s, “The fruit was distinctive and had very powerful and aggressive aromas and flavours which were a shock to the palate of the New Zealand wine consumer."

"They were more used to Muller Thurgau which was usually bottled with a generous addition of sweet grape juice to give it an extra dimension.”

But the wine was attracting attention from other people in the industry. It wasn’t long before Montana, Corbans and Hunters Wines were using the Waimauku Sauvignon block as a source block of scion wood for plantings in a new wine region called Marlborough.

When Montana produced the first Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc, things started taking off. Exports in the 1980s made a name for the Marlborough New Zealand style and international acclaim followed.

There is no doubt that New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc will continue to stun the world with its distinctive character and quality and provide a solid base for further opportunities with other grape varieties.

Ross Spence, NZ Winegrower magazine 2001

Mark Robertson, who joined Matua in 1987 and is now Chief Winemaker, said that had it not been for Bill and Ross, Sauvignon Blanc as we know it, may have been different. “Had they not reached the vineyard in time, who knows how long it would have been before Sauvignon Blanc would have made it to NZ shores and whether it would have reached the heights that they initiated.”

Both brothers remained committed to the business, Bill led viticulture, marketing and exports, while Ross focused on winemaking. They stayed with Matua for a significant amount of time, Ross left in 2003 and Bill stayed on as General Manager until 2010.

For the past ten years, Bill has travelled the world as Matua’s Global Brand Ambassador, sharing stories of the origins of New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, telling the Matua story, and getting people excited about the New Zealand wine industry in general. He announced he will retire from his role in April this year, drawing a remarkable career to a close.

Now that he won’t be doing as much travelling, Bill plans to enjoy more time doing what he started doing back in 1969 – propagating plants. Not grape varieties, however; instead, he and his wife Eileen have planted a citrus orchard on their property north west of Auckland where they have been propagating native trees from seed.

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