NZ’s First Wine Review

Dumont d’Urville, the French explorer, penned it

This morning, a person on the radio mentioned that Dumont d’Urville, the 19th-century French explorer had penned NZ’s first wine review. My ears went onto full alert but I was too late to catch the name of the person speaking or any other details.  Google brought up the following article by John Saker published by Stuff on September 28th 2015.

Dumont d’Urville His life had its share of intriguing historical incidents. One of these was talent spotting the Venus de Milo in the Aegean early in his career and arranging for the statue’s transfer to the Louvre. Another was writing New Zealand’s first wine-tasting note.

This second event occurred in 1840 in Waitangi. Having arrived months after the treaty signing, one morning d’Urville decided to pay a visit to James Busby. He was disappointed to find the British Resident not in residence, but had a pleasant encounter with a wine made by Busby. That evening back on board the corvette ‘Astrolabe’, he penned our first wine review.

It’s very likely that that was the first wine ever made in this country. As Busby left no record of his brief winemaking career in Aotearoa, d’Urville’s tasting note is a big deal. It is our only link to the foundation stone of the New Zealand wine industry.

So why does an erroneous translation of the Frenchman’s words keep being trotted out? This flawed version was written in the 1950s by Olive Wright, a retired English schoolmistress, and continues to appear in even the most esteemed publications. The other day I saw it again in the recently published biography of d’Urville by Aussie academic Edward Dyker.

The contentious part of d’Urville’s brief description of the wine is the poetic phrase “plein de feu” – literally, “full of fire”. It is open to interpretation, but most French people I have spoken to feel it refers to bright acidity or fruit intensity, two features for which New Zealand wine is well known.

Ms Wright bizarrely translated the phrase as “very sparkling”. I don’t know what that’s supposed to mean, especially as “sparkling” has a specific meaning in regard to wine, and “plein de feu” would certainly not have been a reference to the presence of bubbles.

For what it’s worth, here’s what I think should be the official translation of d’Urville’s thoughts on our “first growth”: “I was served a light white wine, bright and intense, which I found to have an excellent taste and which I drank with pleasure.”
Feel free to spread the word.

James Busby  

Delving further, I found that Busby is considered to be the father of the Australian wine industry, but the ‘pioneer’ of wine in NZ.

Busby made wine in sufficient quantity to sell the military in 1846 but complained “My vines are open to the ravages of horses, sheep, cattle and pigs. The leaves are nipped off as soon as they come out.”

A similar problem halted the first 1819 planting of grapevines in NZ by the Reverend Samuel Marsden. These never produced wine, allegedly being gobbled by local goats.
Read more about Busby’s wine connections