Plant & Equipment

Good neighbours: A story of fine wine and lime

When I’m not writing about extraction and civil contracting, I write about food and wine.

In late 2015 I attended a media lunch hosted by New Zealand winemaker Villa Maria to sample some of the company’s top single vineyard wines.

Included was the Villa Maria Reserve (Reserve Barrique) Chardonnay from Gisborne, in the north-east of New Zealand’s North Island.

As a venerated Kiwi wine maker, Villa Maria is no stranger to awards and accolades, but this particular chardonnay has picked up more (award) gold than is mined out of Waihi in any given day, without mentioning the numerous prestigious show trophies it has taken home.

Most of the fruit (grapes) comes from a tidy, gently sloping little vineyard called McDiarmid Hill on the base of Gentle Annie (a bloody big hill to Gisborne’s north-west).

There are many reasons why this chardonnay is consistently one of New Zealand’s most awarded, among them the advantageous position of the vineyard and the skill of the wine making.

But you could have knocked me over with a feather when Villa Maria’s company viticulturist Oliver Powrie told me, with a bit of a grin, that he is pretty sure the dust from the local quarry also has something to do with the quality of the McDiarmid grapes!

These grapes are grown on eight hectares next to the entrance to Patutahi Quarry that is leased from the McDiarmid family.

Hard lime

Patutahi Quarry, owned by Rock Products, produces gabion, chip, road stone and agriculture lime from a very hard lime resource on the sides of a valley where the McDiarmid farm starts to get very steep.

{{image2-a:r-w:200}}The pit operation is currently working the steep southern slopes. On the day of my visit, when the temperature was hitting 30 degrees, you could see dry lime dust gently drifting down the valley and settling over rows of grapes as they ripened towards their autumn harvesting.

Frank Alderton, the managing director of Rock Products and son of the quarry’s founder Jack Alderton, laughed down the phone when I mentioned the award-winning neighbouring grapes.

“About time we started charging them for the dust,” he quipped.

Frank Alderton was away on the day of my visit to the quarry, so my host was quarry veteran Mike Ross, the operations manager for Rock Products and Frank’s nephew.

Ross has a long affiliation with Patutahi Quarry, having started his quarry career there in the 1970s. He rejoined the company in 2005 after “a six-year sabbatical” with Fulton Hogan at Reliable Way in Auckland, and then with Isaac Construction in Christchurch.

“I started here at the age of 12, digging a lime scraper out with an enamel mug,” Ross recalled. “I did manage to get a reasonable engineering education when I was younger, so I didn’t have to work here and, funnily enough, I am still here.”

The lime on McDiarmid’s farm has been extracted for more than 100 years, starting as a public works department quarry in 1915 to supply ballast to the doomed inland railway to Wairoa. The government abandoned it in 1923.

In 1946 Jack Alderton bought the site and brought it back into operation with a new crushing plant and a mixture of the old machinery and abandoned rail lines – still in use today.

“Stripping on the steep hill was carried out by hand,” Ross said. “The overburden was thrown downhill with shovels, where it was removed by an Aveling-Barford AG dumper.

“This was loaded by a trackscavator, the company’s first new machine, purchased off Gough Gough & Hamer in 1948.” It’s still a tough quarry to work in, Ross added.

“A bloody lot of work – dust in the summer and mud up to our knees in winter,” he said.


Rock Products has since applied to purchase more land from the McDiarmid family, and has waded through the inevitable “red tape” that goes with such a large transaction. At the time of writing, the quarry was partly leased and partly owned by Frank Alderton.

“It’s a convoluted bit of dirt,” Ross said. “It was just too hard to work out when we were quarrying lease land or our own, so we agreed to pay royalties on all material.”

Neighbourly Bond

Villa Maria set up the vineyard next door in 1998 on a right of renewal lease arrangement, and the relationship has been a close one since.

However, the fact the vineyard produces one of the country’s top white wines is lost on the quarry workers.

Ross himself is a non-drinker and, typical of most quarry workers, the rest of the staff prefer a cold beer.

“I do appreciate the ‘dark art’ of wine making and that vineyard does collect a lot of awards,” Ross conceded.

“Tony [Tony Green, the viticulturist at McDiarmid] is not getting any smaller, and every time he gets up on stage to collect another award for his chardonnay, his suit has shrunk some more. We might have to shout him a new one this year.”

Green reciprocated the neighbourly bonding, but played down the role of the free lime from the quarry.

“It could certainly help,” he acknowledged. “The soil is mostly light pumice and doesn’t hold a lot of minerals and is very low in lime, so the irony is we still have to buy in lime.”

The neighbourly relationship goes a lot deeper than fertiliser, though, Green added.


“We get on very well with the quarry and even share the same entrance. In the early days, when they reclaimed land near us, we built a dam together on our vineyard from a spring and a swamp, which was very useful for irrigation when the plants were young. It’s still a good resource for the likes of spraying.”

I mentioned to Green that Rock Products was undergoing a consent process to extend the quarry and was thinking of filling in a little gully between them with (lime overburden), which may be offered to Villa Maria for leasing.

“I heard that,” he said. “That land would have the same nor-east aspect for good grapes.”

And closer to the quarry operation means more free lime, I suggested?

“Yes – it all helps, thanks.”

Alan Titchall is the editor of Q&M, the New Zealand Quarrying & Mining magazine. Story originally appeared in the April-May 2016 issue of Q&M.

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