Pegasus Bay, Waipara
Visiting one of New Zealand's top wineries, the Donaldson family's Pegasus Bay

The Donaldson family, founders and owners of Pegasus Bay, are an interesting bunch. In the last couple of years have visited and stayed with them twice in their Waipara Valley winery, and I reckon their wines are among the region’s (and country’s) best. Riesling vies with Pinot here for top rating, and both are excellent.

The story. Ivan Donaldson (above) was a neurologist at the hospital in Christchurch and he made hobby wines. He planted a vineyard with his friends, many of whom were fellow medics: just an acre of vines on the outskirts of Christchurch, with a range of varieties. It was known locally as pleurisy point because it was so cold, up on a hill. Ivan made the wine in his garage for about 15 years.

In 1984 he started looking at buying a piece of land in the Waipara Valley, where it was warmer because of a coastal hill range providing protection from the easterly winds. These easterly winds affect around 30% of summer days, and they are significant. (If the wind is from the northwest it is warm everywhere, including down in Christchurch, and if it's from the south, it's cold everywhere.) So Ivan and his wife Christine looked at every property coming on the market. They were looking for free draining soil. They didn’t find anything suitable so they ended up approaching the farmer who owned the site Pegasus Bay is currently located on.

They bought the property here in 1985. They’d already planted a nursery at Danny Schuster’s place in 1985, and from this they then planted 50 acres of vines on their own roots in 1986. The original ungrafted vines now give lower crops than the grafted vines on the property, but the flavours are more intense, and the vines are in better balance. A little bit of wine was made in 1990, but the first Pegasus Bay release was the 1991, made in their Christchurch garage. Matt processed 18 tons at the winery in 1992 after he returned from wine school.

The Donaldson brothers are all involved in the business. Matt (above) is the winemaker, Ed does the marketing and Paul is the GM.  

Riesling and Pinot Noir are the two star varieties at Pegasus Bay, and they’re also the main specialities of the Waipara Valley. I asked Matt about Riesling:

‘It’s a great variety and it really reflects where it is grown. It’s such a versatile variety: there are so many different styles. We make five or six different Rieslings, all totally different. It is a speciality of the Waipara Valley – we get quite a unique flavour here: an orange zest, spicy character. The longer we leave it on the vine the more this character comes out, and also as you age it in bottle it comes out more and more. The Bel Canto is a dry style, and we leave that on the vines for a long time. We like a bit of botrytis for extra richness. For most of the Rieslings we have a simple winemaking process. We use clean juice and inoculate with a neutral yeast, but the Bel Canto is a bit different: we use slightly cloudy juice, a bit of wild ferment, and we use some puncheons, all to give a bit of extra richness to the mid-palate.’

Is Riesling a tough sell still? ‘In general it does need to be hand sold, but we have been selling it for the last 22 years and we have built up a bit of a following for it,’ says Matt. ‘Our Main Divide Riesling is our biggest selling wine. We love it, and it’s what we drink. It’s not as popular as Pinot Grigio or Sauvignon Blanc but that’s not necessarily a bad thing.’

The other Waipara speciality is Pinot Noir. This is what Matt has to say about it:

‘Waipara Pinots are in general a bit fuller bodied than Marlborough or Central Otago. They get a nice earthy, rich complexity. They get a nice spicy character. I find quite a lot of similarity between the characters of Waipara Pinot and Martinborough Pinot – we have similar soil types and weather patterns. We handle it pretty gently, with traditional Burgundian methods. We destem without much crushing and we have some whole bunches at the bottom of the vats. We have about a week’s cold soak. Natural fermentations, hand plunged in small vats. Because the Pinots from here are generally quite full bodied they spend around 18 months in barrel, and we try to leave them in bottle for a year before release.’

So is the Waipara story about Riesling and Pinot Noir? ‘I think so, yes. They are our two flagship varieties.’

For Pinot Noir, picking dates have got a bit earlier of late. ‘We used to aim for 25/26 Brix, but if we hang the fruit out for too long little berries become jammy raisins, so if we have a lot of these we watch very carefully,’ says Matt. ‘If the fruit is physiologically ripe we will pick at 24/24.5 Brix to retain vibrancy. We want enough opulence to make it delicious to drink, but if it's not refreshing on the finish, what is the point in making Pinot? In New Zealand we have dry autumns so we can wait, which is why so many NZ Pinots are opulent. With Pinot you can't compensate for overcropping by leaving it out for longer. If you do you get results like 2004 which I don't like. For Pinot you get more tannins out of the seeds than the skins. The more whole berries the fewer seeds. For some blocks you need the seed tannins, though.’

Matt has some interesting things to say about Brettanomyces (brett). ‘There’s a hint of brett in the 2011 Pinot Noir. I really like a little bit of brett, but I don’t want it to dominate the wine. The difference between new world Pinot Noir and Burgundy is, I think, brett. There’s more brett in good quality Burgundy than people realize. Most of the good producers are on to it and are making sure that it doesn’t dominate the wine. I think it’s a vineyard thing, to some extent, so with some vineyards we always add sulfur. You only want a bit of it for Pinot Noir, but for Merlot and Cabernet, the more brett the better for me. In Bordeaux, brett never seems to dominate. It seems to fit a lot better. Our best years for Bordeaux-style wines is when they have a pH approaching 4, when they have mouthfeel and brett,’

In 2012 the vintage was very cool here, and they were initially really worried about it. 'I have tracked the ripeness for the last 22 years,' says Matt. '1992 was the coldest and latest, until 2012. 1992 was the first vintage after I came back from wine school, and there just wasn't a summer. The vines were struggling to reach full ripeness. 2012 was three days later than 1992 in terms of ripeness, on average. We were really worried we wouldn't get full maturity, but luckily the crop levels were quite low.' The crop levels balanced the late vintage and there was a dry autumn. He says he's very happy with the resulting wines.

Pegasus Bay has a second label, Main Divide. Initially it was created so that the quality of Pegasus Bay could be improved. ‘It started off as a bit of a dumping ground,’ says Matt, ‘but 12 or 13 years ago we realised that if we bought some fruit we could make it better and make a good wine. It has become a bigger volume than Pegasus Bay now and it allows us to afford to do what we want with Pegasus Bay.’

‘2003 was the first vintage we used screwcap,’ says Matt. ‘We did half and half. Then in 2004 we bottled everything with screwcap. We will probably go back to cork with reds eventually, if we can find a good supplier. Our trials show that they are a bit rounder and richer. Probably not for Main Divide, because it is such a hassle having cork taint.’

Ed Donaldson adds, ‘It would be fair to say that screwcap is the best closure available to us at the moment.’

Here's a short film from the visit:

And here are the famous eels in the garden at Pegasus Bay:



Main Divide Riesling 2011 Waipara, New Zealand
Lovely weight: textured, ripe, smooth with melon and citrus notes. Creamy and delicious with a hint of sweetness. 90/100 (01/13)

Pegasus Bay Bel Canto Riesling 2011 Waipara, New Zealand
Wonderful lively nose of citrus, spice and a bit of apricot and honey. The palate has lemon, melon, pear and peach notes with some apple. Lovely complexity here. Dry but full of richness. 93/100 (01/13)

Pegasus Bay Bel Canto Riesling 2009 Waipara, New Zealand
A nicely balanced vintage with 30% botrytis. Wonderfully precise and complex with fresh citrus fruit and some spiciness. Grapefruit, melon and pear with lovely depth allied with precision. 93/100 (01/13)

Pegasus Bay Bel Canto Riesling 2008 Waipara, New Zealand
A warm vintage with 15% botrytis. Deep coloured with lovely intensity of bright, focused citrus fruit. Intense with nice depth. 92/100 (01/13)

Pegasus Bay Riesling 2001 Waipara, New Zealand
Rich and toasty with nectarine, spice and toast notes. Fine, fresh, peachy fruit with some citrus freshness. This is developing beautifully. 93/100 (02/14)

Pegasus Bay Riesling 2002 Waipara, New Zealand
Very complex nose of spice, apricot and peach. Toast and citrus notes on the palate with finesse. Expressive and rounded with lovely complexity. Off-dry. 95/100 (02/14)

Pegasus Bay Riesling 2003 Waipara, New Zealand
Rich, showing quite a bit of evolution. Toasty and bold with some sweet spicy notes. Nice depth to this wine. 92/100 (02/14)

Pegasus Bay Riesling 2004 Waipara, New Zealand
Lively and precise with crystalline citrus fruits and a savoury, spicy edge. Taut and lovely with apricot and spice notes. 93/100 (02/14)

Pegasus Bay Riesling 2005 Waipara, New Zealand
Lively, precise and mineral with some toast and spice. Off-dry with good depth and some sweetness. There's a striking mineral edge here to the lemon and melon fruit. 94/100 (02/14)

Pegasus Bay Riesling 2006 Waipara, New Zealand
A bit reductive? Minerals, toast and sweet melon fruit with some spice. The mineral edge to the sweet fruit frames it really nicely. 94/100 (02/14)

Pegasus Bay Riesling 2007 Waipara, New Zealand
Lively, focused and sweet with melons, herbs and minerals, and some peachy, spicy richness. Lovely focus. 94/100 (02/14)

Pegasus Bay Riesling 2008 Waipara, New Zealand
Subtly honeyed, fresh and lemony with spice and peach notes. Off-dry and lively with lovely spiciness. Textured and fine. 94/100 (02/14)

Pegasus Bay Riesling 2009 Waipara, New Zealand
Textured, supple and rounded with lovely melon and citrus fruit, with some herbs. Bright and sweetly rich all at the same time. 94/100 (02/14)

Pegasus Bay Riesling 2010 Waipara, New Zealand
Lovely aromatics with ripe melon, tangerine and pear characters. Sweet, complex palate with great balance, complexity and well judged sweetness. 92/100 (01/13)

Pegasus Bay Aria Riesling 1998 Waipara, New Zealand
Aria is late-picked made in a sweeter style. Very rich, sweet and toasty with some evolved nutty notes. Oxidative palate has notes of apples, pears and nuts with lovely texture. Sweet, rounded and delicious, for drinking now. 93/100 (02/14)

Pegasus Bay Aria Riesling 1999 Waipara, New Zealand
Complex, bold, spicy and warm. Evolved but with great texture and freshness. Very rich with bold, broad fruit. 94/100 (02/14)

Pegasus Bay Aria Riesling 2000 Waipara, New Zealand
Lively and precise with rich toastiness. Sweet textured melon and tangerine fruit on the palate. Stylish. 94/100 (02/14)

Pegasus Bay Aria Riesling 2001 Waipara, New Zealand
Smooth and textured with melon and pear as well as some spice. Rich and toasty with a bit of petrol character as well as sweet pear, nectarine and melon fruit. 92/100 (02/14)

Pegasus Bay Aria Riesling 2004 Waipara, New Zealand
Pure, fine and rich with sweet mineral, melon, pear and peach notes. Lovely precision here. So fine. 95/100 (02/14)

Pegasus Bay Aria Riesling 2006 Waipara, New Zealand
Lively with grapes, melon, tangerine and spice notes. Very fresh and spicy with great balance and presence. 94/100 (02/14)

Pegasus Bay Aria Riesling 2007 Waipara, New Zealand
Precise, spicy and detailed with apricot and lemon notes. A lovely wine. 95/100 (02/14)

Pegasus Bay Aria Riesling 2008 Waipara, New Zealand
Lively and pure with melon, honey and grapefruit notes. Lovely texture and purity with some marmalade complexity as well as spice and herbs. Some waxy notes, too. Quite sweet. 94/100 (02/14)

Pegasus Bay Aria Riesling 2009 Waipara, New Zealand
Tangy, bright and sweet with precise citrus and melon notes. Some nice marmalade and citrus notes. Rich and bold. 93/100 (02/14)


Pinot Noir

Pegasus Bay Pinot Noir 2006 Waipara, New Zealand
This has just started to drink nicely now, apparently. Fine, spicy and slightly tarry cherry and plum fruit. Lovely elegance here to the supple black cherry fruit, with smooth texture and lovely weight. 94/100 (01/13)

Pegasus Bay Pinot Noir 2009 Waipara, New Zealand
30-40% new oak used each year. Vivid black cherry fruit nose is nicely intense. Focused black cherry palate with some spiciness. Juicy and focused with nice precision. Sweet and opulent, but structured too, and in need of some time. 92/100 (01/13)

Pegasus Bay Pinot Noir 2010 Waipara, New Zealand
Fresh, assertive black cherry nose is vivid and a bit tarry. Lovely focus on the palate with good acid and tannin. Nicely fresh. 94/100 (01/13)

Pegasus Bay Pinot Noir 2011 Waipara, New Zealand
Fine, fresh, vivid and interesting with an assertive cherry fruit nose. Lovely supple, elegant palate shows nice precision. Lovely sweet fruit combined with spicy structure. 94/100 (01/13)

Pegasus Bay Prima Donna Pinot Noir 2009 Waipara, New Zealand
From 2 blocks with older vines (27 years old) on their own roots. Beautiful focus here. Fine, expressive, floral nose. Elegant palate shows fine black cherry and plum fruit with smooth texture and some chocolatey, spicy notes in the background. 94/100 (01/13)

Pegasus Bay Prima Donna Pinot Noir 2010 Waipara, New Zealand
Sleek, smooth black cherry fruit nose leads to a palate showing ripe cherry and plum fruit. Smooth and focused with good definition and some lively spicy notes. Seems perhaps a bit clumsy and jammy now, but will be really good in time. 93/100 (01/13)

Pegasus Bay Prima Donna Pinot Noir 2006 Waipara, New Zealand
Stylish and taut with lovely supple, smooth, textured fruit. Pure black cherries. Fine grained tannins. Lovely weight and texture. 93/100 (01/13)

Pegasus Bay Pinot Noir 2003 Waipara, New Zealand (screwcap)
Fine, fresh and cherryish. Sweet, lively and aromatic with supple cherry fruit and also a bit of richness. Slightly cola-ish lively tangy finish. Drinkable style, now fully evolved and at its peak. 92/100 (01/13)

Pegasus Bay Pinot Noir 2003 Waipara, New Zealand (cork)
Sweet and with a lovely texture, showing nice aromatics. Rich, bold, fine and expressive with cherry and plum fruit and a hint of earth. Expressive and wonderfully textured, showing some evolution. 94/100 (01/13)


Main Divide Sauvignon Blanc 2012 Waipara, New Zealand
Fresh, green herbal nose is very bright and aromatic. Bright, exotic and fruity with real appeal. 87/100 (01/13)

Pegasus Bay Sauvignon Semillon 2011 Waipara, New Zealand
Nicely textured with and interesting nose showing a mineral/reductive character. Nice texture on the palate with good complexity and a savoury twist. Oak in the background. 90/100 (01/13)

Pegasus Bay Gewurztraminer 2011 Waipara, New Zealand
Bought-in grapes. Bueatiful, rich, textured soft palate with phenolics balancing the sweetness. Broad flavours of lychee and melon with a hint of apricot, finishing spicy. 92/100 (01/13)

Pegasus Bay Pinot Gris 2011 Waipara, New Zealand
Bought-in grapes. Ripe, grapey and textured with luscious fruit and some spicy notes. There’s a bit of sweetness, too. Typical and complex. 92/100 (01/13)

Pegasus Bay Chardonnay 2009 Waipara, New Zealand
All Mendoza on own roots. Natural ferments in 500 litre puncheons. Rich, toasty, spicy nose. Exotic and aromatic. The palate is concentrated and intense with toast, hazelnuts and a lovely grapefruit twist. Real complexity and intensity. 93/100 (01/13)

Pegasus Bay Chardonnay 2005 Waipara, New Zealand
Warm vintage with low crop levels. Rich yellow colour. Bold, rich and toasty with sweet ripe fruit and some nutty notes. A bit of melon too. Bready and buttery on the finish. Big, bold and ripe. 91/100 (01/13)

Pegasus Bay Chardonnay 2006 Waipara, New Zealand
High acid, high crop levels. Mineral and spicy with some pear, apple and fig. Very fine and fresh with nice weight and subtle notes of nuts and toast. Complex and taut with lovely savouriness. 92/100 (01/13)

Pegasus Bay Virtuoso Chardonnay 2009 Waipara, New Zealand
Complex, intense and spicy with subtle matchstick complexity. Very complex and full with tangerine, pear and peach on the palate. Complex and alive bringing together power and elegance. 95/100 (01/13)

Pegasus Bay Merlot Cabernet 2009 Waipara, New Zealand
From 27 year old vines. Ripe sweet blackberry and black cherry nose with some green notes. The palate is creamy, plummy and smooth, supple and luscious. Really seductive. 90/100 (01/13)

Pegasus Bay Maestro 2009 Waipara, New Zealand
Malbec and Merlot with a bit of Cabernets Sauvignon and Franc. Lovely floral, tar and rose nose with some black cherry fruit. Supple, sweet and rounded in the mouth with smooth, ripe black fruits. Seductive, pure wine. 91/100 (01/13)

See also:

Visiting Central Otago, New Zealand (series)
Visiting Martinborough, New Zealand (series)

Wines tasted 02/14  
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