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Alex Corban - Wine Industry Visionary



17 March 1925 – 7 September 2014

Alexander Annis Corban led the changes that set the platform for the modern New Zealand wine industry. An ambitious and far-sighted leader during the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, his work on many fronts was fundamental to the development of a cohesive industry producing high quality table wines for domestic and international markets. He was committed to industry unity, wine education, international networking and peer comparison to benchmark and improve the quality and standing of New Zealand wine.

A grandson of pioneering patriarch and Lebanese immigrant Assid Abraham Corban, Alex had winemaking embedded in his DNA. The third successive generation of Corban winemakers to make a significant contribution to New Zealand wine, his endeavours culminated in his election as the inaugural chairman of the Wine Institute of New Zealand.

Recognition for his achievements came with an MBE, followed by an OBE in 1978. He was among the first to be elected a Fellow of the Wine Institute of New Zealand in 1982. He was awarded the 1990 New Zealand Commemoration Medal, accorded honorary life membership of the New Zealand Society of Viticulture and Oenology and, in 2005, like his grandfather before him, was inducted into the New Zealand Winemakers’ Hall of Fame – an honour later accorded his brother Joe as well.

Alex was proud to point out that wine was first made in the Middle East – “the France of the ancient world”. And, as he observed of the family culture, “I was born into an environment where adults lived, spoke and practised wine.”

When Alex and cousins Assid and David Corban were born in 1925, his uncle Wadier Corban put down a special 180-gallon barrel of port which was first broached at their 21st and used at many family celebrations thereafter.

As a toddler growing up among an extended family who worked the vineyard established in Henderson in 1902, his first ‘job’ was to follow hand harvesters picking up fallen berries. “The primary lesson I learned about grapes,” he said of this experience, “was that the crops from each variety were hard-worked-for, once-a-year commodities needed for wine and were not to be wasted.”

Another lesson learned early was his only experience of getting drunk when, at the age of four, he finished off remnants left by winery visitors. He was found the next day, “fast asleep on the floor, with every glass empty on the tasting room bench”.

On leaving Mt Albert Grammar, Alex enrolled for a Bachelor of Science (Botany) at the University of Auckland. However he interrupted his degree studies to become the first New Zealander to study Oenology at the highly regarded Roseworthy College in South Australia, completing his Diploma in two rather than the four years usually required for the programme.

On returning home, he immediately became involved in industry politics, first as secretary of the New Zealand Wine Council in 1949. He was a “young turk” set on change, and a full generation younger than his contemporaries George Mazuran of the Viticultural Association and Tom McDonald of the Hawke’s Bay Grape Winemakers Association. In 1952 he was elected president of the Wine Council, a position he held until the incorporation of the Wine Institute in 1975.

Reporting at the conclusion of Alex’s chairmanship of the institute in 1979, wine writer for the New Zealand Herald Jock Graham said:

“In the past four years the once fragmented, rather chaotic wine industry in New Zealand has achieved unity, order and a sense of direction.

“Progress has been made in establishing standards, devising controls and ways of monitoring them, both for domestic and export markets. International recognition and regard have been won for the country’s wine organisation. Areas for future progress have been identified and targets set.

“Much credit for the transformation in so short a time goes to Alex Corban, whose term as foundation Chairman of the Wine Institute has just ended. Few people have an inkling of the amount of work and thought that has gone into the task.”

On resuming studies at Auckland University, Alex fell in love with a fellow student whose “crème de menthe” dress had caught his eye. Gwen Jerram of Gisborne, who also graduated with a science degree, became his devoted partner of 57 years, predeceasing her husband in 2008.

The trans-Tasman experience had convinced Alex of the limitations of New Zealand’s widely cultivated hybrid grapes and he considered that appropriate vinifera varieties would do well in our cooler climate. As winemaker for the family-owned business A A Corban & Sons, he saw no future in continuing production of the fortified wine styles that were the cornerstone of the industry at that time.

That put him in the vanguard of the push that started in the early 1950s to make quality table wine for domestic and export markets. He adopted an innovative approach, starting with what was available. He set about making dessert table wines from the muscat-flavoured hybrid known as Golden Queen, meticulously cleaning 800-gallon oak sherry ovals for the fermentation. He repeatedly racked the fermenting wine to slow and eventually stop the fermentation with residual sugar remaining.

At the first Agricultural and Pastoral Society (A&P) Wine Show in 1953, Alex claimed the Championship Award for the Best Wine in the Show with Corbans Reserve Sauterne 1951. A wine of this style and quality was initially met with suspicion and the award was only allowed to stand and be publicised after thorough inspection of stock at the winery proved it was bona fide. After that, Alex renamed the wine “Gold Medal Reserve”.

Of a scientific and progressive bent, he adopted a tactical approach in promoting new ideas to the older generation of Corbans who then ran the business.

“When I suggested something new to my uncles and different ways of doing things, they were hard men to shift. However, once they were convinced the idea was their own and sound, they were ready to go all the way in support.”

He quickly introduced stainless steel tanks for fermentation and storage, refrigeration for temperature control, the use of cultured yeasts, cold pressure fermentation to enhance flavour and aroma in table wines, back-blending unfermented juice to provide natural grape sweetness and sterile cold bottling.

He worked closely with his brother Joe Corban, the company’s vineyard manager, to find a suitable vinifera grape variety for commercial production.

Influenced by German styles, Riverlea Riesling from Muller Thurgau grapes became his benchmark wine. Characterising that as “a wine-pioneering endeavour”, he considered his vinifera wines from the 1957 vintage spearheaded New Zealand’s classical wine era and introduced many to the joys of table wine.

He also enjoyed working with the two great French varieties which were still harvested in small volumes from his grandfather’s vineyard - Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay. It was Alex’s 1955 Cabernet Sauvignon and Tom McDonald’s 1949 Cabernet Sauvignon that Andre Simon took with him in 1964 “to show his Australian friends what New Zealand can do”.

He crafted a true flor sherry which, dry and pale, was markedly different from the syrupy fortified wines consumed in vast quantities at the time and introduced the Charmat process, employing secondary fermentation in the tank to create the sparkling wine Premiere Cuvee launched in 1962 to celebrate 60 years of Corban family winemaking in New Zealand.

Always precise in his winemaking, he did find new technology could sometimes have unexpected outcomes.

“On one occasion I accidentally made 10,000 litres of ice wine…when the temperature controls on the refrigerating tank stuck and didn’t function as programmed. The wine was so excellent it was never sold, but used for formal functions and private consumption.”

Alex saw his drive for quality vindicated as this country’s reputation for making “bloody awful” wines gave way to international recognition for our increasingly sophisticated winemaking. He insisted New Zealand wines shouldn’t have European names or be promoted with images that included mountains and snow or dirt floors and cobwebs.

“Our wines, with their own identifying names, have since earned a better and enduring oenological identity. They have done and achieved more in a few decades than the estates of Europe had achieved in centuries.”

While accepting that New Zealand would always be a small cog in the international wine machine, he regarded exporting as the equivalent of David facing Goliath. “Look at the size of that target – how can I possibly miss?” While on a trade mission to Canada in 1963, he secured the first continuing export orders for New Zealand wine.

In a rare honour for a non-German, he was awarded the German Agricultural Society Medal for International Cooperation in 1981. The society’s president said Alex had

shown “cooperation beyond international boundaries important for the development of science and technology”.

He “had been continuously engaged in [his] home country in furthering the technologies of vinification and promoting wine quality, unselfishly conveying knowledge and experience to others”.

The commendation said he had introduced many new techniques and methods in cellar technology during his 32 years of managing one of New Zealand’s leading wine companies.

Alex took every opportunity to advance the appreciation of wine in general and New Zealand wine in particular. He was a foundation member and later president of the Auckland Wine and Food Society. For his international network, he never hesitated to make a speech, write an article or host a wine tasting. He was also a charter member and past president of the Henderson Rotary Club and was made a Paul Harris Fellow in 1982.

He was not a shareholder when Rothman’s bought up 25 percent of the company in 1972, nor when Corbans Wines later passed out of family ownership signalling the end to his full-time career in the Industry - far too young at 58 years of age.

In the early 1990s, Alex and Gwen moved from Auckland to Hawke’s Bay to be closer to the two eldest of their four children – Alwyn, Jenny, Heather and Jeremy. In his retirement, Alex maintained his keen and close interest in wine. He was immensely proud and very supportive of the family tradition being carried on by Alwyn, founding winemaker and, with cousin Brian Corban, proprietor of Ngatarawa Wines in Hawke’s Bay, and Jeremy, who, with his wife Katherine, established and operates Big Sky Wines in Martinborough.

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