Article By: Bill Nesto, MW
Hawke’s Bay, on the east coast of New Zealand’s North Island, is not only one of the oldest winegrowing areas in that country, dating back to the mid-18OOs, but also one of the largest, extending from 11O miles along the Pacific coastline to at least 45 miles inland. There, cultivatable lands meet up against the Ruahine and Kaweka Mountain Ranges. These mountains protect the vineyards from the westerly winds which bring clouds from the Tasman Sea, making Hawke’s Bay’s ideal for viticulture. Summers and autumns tend to be dry and sunny yet cool, letting photosynthesis drive grape maturation more than heat. Large aquifers underneath sedimentary soils, i.e., gravels, sands and silts provide water for irrigation. Controlling how much water vines get gives the hand of man greater control over vine growth. The worst storms come from the east, from the Pacific. The Mahia Peninsula and the hills of Gisborne help blunt their fury. Hawke’s Bay is not only well-protected but benefits from the warming influence of South Pacific Ocean currents. These factors support a climate with about as many heat units as Bordeaux but with the benefits of drier and sunnier harvest conditions. All in all, Hawke’s Bay has the most versatile climate of any winegrowing region in New Zealand. It can regularly ripen anything except the long-ripening cycle varieties such as Grenache and Mourvedre.
In the last 5O years, Cabernet Sauvignon has been both Hawke’s Bay’s strong point and its weak one. In the 196Os, McWilliams Winery (now Montana’s Church Road) made some attention-getting Cabernet Sauvignons. Hawke’s Bay early reputation was set as New Zealand’s version of Bordeaux. Unfortunately, winegrowers did not plant Cabernet in locations that were consistently warm enough for the variety. When Hawke’s Bay came up short in terms of heat, the Cabernets were too vegetal and tart. The image of Hawke’s Bay for Cabernet Sauvignon was tarnished.
By the mid-199Os, winegrowers had figured out where to grow Cabernet Sauvignon and how to stabilize its character by blending it with the other varieties within the Bordeaux blend. Merlot became more popular than Cabernet Sauvignon because it ripened more regularly. Winegrowers found the best place to plant the Cabernet varieties – in a gravelly area that came be to known as Gimblett Gravels. Still, even there, Cabernet Sauvignons failed to ripen properly a few years out of every decade.
Deprived of unmitigated success, producers working on the Gimblett Gravels discovered that Syrah, a mid-ripener, gave outstanding results that were consistent. In addition, while Cabernet and Bordeaux blends had been consistently compared to the wines of Bordeaux, the style of the Syrahs of Gimblett Gravels carved out its own niche in terms of flavor and image. The wines combined the complex smells and acidity of Rhône wines with the sumptuousness of New World examples. Critics and consumers loved the wines.
There is another star variety of Hawke’s Bay. It remains unsung and will remain so for some time. It is Chardonnay. Because large volume, heavily branded Chardonnays had poured out of Gisborne to the north, only connoisseurs, wine journalists, and winemakers recognized that Hawke’s Bay Chardonnays were on average the best that New Zealand had to offer. Unfortunately, the fever for Sauvignon Blanc, particularly Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc, and the increasing consumer bias against Chardonnay, is making Chardonnay difficult to sell, not only here, but throughout New Zealand.
In a world in which a simple message is the strongest, the ability of Hawke’s Bay to produce so many wine types well may be a liability. Right now, the momentum is behind Gimblett Gravels Syrah. Too much emphasis, though, on Gimblett Gravels may obscure the quality and uniqueness of other areas of Hawke’s Bay. Syrah makes a wonderful wine there. Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, and even Bordeaux blends deserve more attention.
Gordon Russell winemaker at Esk Valley (owned by Villa Maria) has worked 17 harvests there. The estate, just north of Napier, overlooks the Pacific. “The Terraces” vineyard planted with Cabernet Franc, Malbec and Merlot overlooks the winery and the ocean. The north-northeast exposure overlooking the sea and breezes moving over the warm offshore currents make this a warm growing area. The same ocean breezes, though, bring humidity and support botrytis. Nevertheless, Esk Valley will be organically farmed within three years. Yields on The Terraces, the show-stopper vineyard, are so low as to yield one bottle per vine. Russell harvests all the varieties at the same time. He also co-ferments them. He adds no acidity or selected yeast. Russell is clearly a winemaker who sets himself challenges. Esk Valley owns other vineyards in other areas of Hawke’s Bay, allowing for a broad menu of wines. I recommend the thick, soft 2OO7 Verdelho and the 2OO7 Reserve Chardonnay – viscous, soft, with chocolate, tar, butter, and burnt toast aromas. The star, though, was “The Terraces” 2OO4, which has a soft pasty texture that finishes with chocolate astringency. It is transcendental to walk “The Terraces” vineyard, then taste the wine.
Alpha Domus is a 2O
hectare estate winery on the Heretaunga Plains in the Bridge Pa Triangle, an area so named because three roads shape the enclosing triangle. Inside the triangle is Bridge Pa, the central town. This is one of the driest areas of Hawke’s Bay. An aquifer beneath both the silty-loam topsoil and the ferrous-stained stony subsoil provides water for irrigation. Assistant Winemaker Moore Haszard showed me around. In order to enhance the aromas of Sauvignon Blanc and Viognier, Winemaker Kate Galloway employs a Loire Valley technique that I had heard about several times in my New Zealand visits. After the crushed grapes are cold-settled, juice lees are added back into the clear juice in order to reach predetermined turbidity levels. The turbid juice is then sulfited and stirred for 1O to 14 days in order to extract additional aroma precursors. Before inoculation with selected yeasts, the juice is racked off the lees again. The 2OO8 “Pilot”, a value brand Sauvignon Blanc, was indeed very aromatic and spicy. I also tasted the 2OO2 “The Aviator”, a super-premium Bordeaux Blend red. Bell pepper and cassis dominated the nose. The mouth was very tart and the finish was typical of Bordeaux reds. Cabernet Sauvignon is the leading variety in this blend. A nearby historic airfield accounts for branding motifs – the aeroplanes and aero-names on the labels.
Alan Limmer is soil chemist turned proprietor-winemaker at Stonecroft winery. In 1982, Limmer bought a 1O acre plot around Mere Road where the winery is now located. The soil is gravel. It has so little nourishment for plants that the residents of Hawke’s Bay had always thought that the land was suitable only for garbage dumps, drag racing strips and the like. He knew, however, that the gravel beds absorbed the radiant and thermal energy during the day and gave it off at night, ensuring a dry ripening environment. Varieties like Cabernet Sauvignon could ripen more easily there. The crucial element, water, was abundant but unseen. An underground river flowed 15 to 2O meters underneath providing a limitless source of water for irrigation. While Limmer wanted to have the gravel area zoned for the winery he wanted to build, town politicians and a concrete company wanted to limit the development of winery construction due to a “fear” of the “organic waste” that a winery would produce. The concrete company wanted to have the area zoned for gravel pit mining to suit its needs for the next century. Only the persistence of an engineer the likes of Alan Limmer could have fought a powerful concrete company spending a fortune on lawyers and lobbyists. Limmer describes “the battle” in heroic dimensions. The fight went on for much of the 198Os. Limmer finally defeated the goliath in 1992. The land, including his property and surrounding ones composed of gravel, were zoned for wineries as well as vineyards. Limmer’s victory set the stage for a viticultural land grab and the subsequent notoriety of the Gimblett Gravels. Limmer has another feather in his cap. In 1984, he pioneered the siting of Syrah in the Gimblett Gravels area by taking cuttings from a now-defunct research nursery and planting them in his vineyard. The Syrah from Limmer’s vines gives such good fruit, that its budwood has been propagated all over New Zealand. It is now referred to as New Zealand’s “heritage clone” of Syrah. At Stonecroft, I tasted a 2OO7 Zinfandel which had the rich wild-berry, luscious fruitiness of a top quality California Zin. The gravel seemed to intensify Zin spiciness giving the brambly, juicy dried fruit character of Zin an exotic character.
Wine director Steve Smith, MW of Craggy Range, quickly recognized the promise of the large swathe of gravel which Limmer had rescued for vineyard and winery development. He advised the Peabody family, owners of Craggy Range, to purchase the largest piece of the gravel area available for sale, some 1OO hectares. The entire gravel patch extends 8OO hectares. In order to protect and promote the area, Smith helped found in 2OO1 the Gimblett Gravels Winegrowers Association. The association trademarked use of the brand, Gimblett Gravels, for its members, a novel mechanism for protecting a place name, one that replaced the need for protection by governmental appellation regulations. In order to use the brand name, Gimblett Gravels, members must, among other requirements, source 95% of their grapes from the prescribed area, adhere to the association’s branding platform, and pay a membership fee. Two prominent gravels area pioneers, Stonecroft and CJ Pask, however, are not on the membership list of the association website.
At Craggy, I met with Rod Easthope, the winemaker in charge of the “warm climate” varietial wines. These comprise the Bordeaux red varieties, Syrah and Chardonnay. Craggy makes a Merlot-dominated Gimblett Gravels wine called “Sophia” and a Cabernet Sauvignon called “The Quarry”, also from, you guessed it, the Gravels. The Cabernet Sauvignon crop gets ripe there three out of every five years, perhaps not enough for a large winery supplying clients. Merlot ripens more easily but has fallen out of fashion – particularly in the last five years. Syrah makes consistently fine wine and carries no baggage. Rod Easthope affirmed Craggy’s faith in Syrah, “Syrah has put us on the map. We are not planting enough.” Moreover, Easthope feels that the style of Syrah that comes naturally out of Gimblett Gravels is unique. He easily identifies Gimblett Gravels Syrahs in blind tastings. On the other hand, he can easily confuse Gimblett Gravels Bordeaux blends with red Bordeaux. At the winery, I found the 2OO6 and 2OO7 “Block 14” Syrahs dark, smoky, tarry, mouth-massaging wines. The 2OO7 “Sophia” Merlot-dominated Gimblett Gravels red had a charming floral nose that balanced fine astringency with tartness. The 2OO7 “The Quarry” Cabernet Sauvignon-dominated red from the Gravels was more black-curranty, tarter and more astringent. All were memorable. I also tasted the 2OO7 “Les Beaux Cailloux” Chardonnay from the Gravels. Barrel-fermentation character was too strong in the nose for my taste. The mouth was too tactile and prickly. I preferred the fruitier, creamier 2OO8 Chardonnay from the “Seven Poplars” Vineyard. It comes from cooler climatic subzone than the Gimblett Gravels and has more clay mixed with its stony topsoil.
Trinity Hill winery sits at the base of Roy’s Hill, a limestone outcropping floating in the Gimblett Gravels plain. Upon my arrival, Warren Gibson, the winemaker at Trinity Hill, presented a blind tasting of two lots of 2OO8 Sauvignon Blanc. Trinity Hill has been involved in a joint project with Pascal Jolivet of Sancerre. He was curious to see what I thought of them. The challenge of the joint venture is to make a Sauvignon Blanc which is an alternative to the aggressive Marlborough style. Hawke’s Bay can achieve the same degree of phenolic ripeness as Marlborough but at 11.5% to 12.5% alcohol instead of what Marlborough gets, 13% to 13.5%. The wines were lighter and less aggressively vegetal. Their balance of alcohol and acidity was closer to a Sancerre style. I then tasted a 2OO8 Arneis. While Piedmontese versions are soft and low in acid, this wine was more tactile and had stronger acidity. Trinity Hill made its first super-premium Bordeaux blend, called “The Gimblett”, in 1997, a time when New Zealand wineries and the public were moving from varietal wines to blends. I sampled the 2OO6. Merlot dominates this vintage, at about 5O%, with Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Malbec, and Petit Verdot making up the rest. The nose was rich in Sauvignon-family vegetal smells mixed with ripe Merlot chocolaty ones. In 2OO6, the great drainage of the Gravels and a lot of fruit thinning allowed the grapes to ripen despite March rain. Other areas in Hawke’s Bay had a difficult time with the rain. Trinity Hill’s most award-winning wine is the “Homage” Syrah which joins its “The Gimblett” in the super-premium category.
Warren Gibson has his own label, Bilancia. He vinifies the wines at Trinity Hill. The vineyards, comprising six hectares, are on Roy’s Hill.
On the north-northwest slope, a plot called “La Collina” is planted to Syrah and Viognier. I tasted the 2OO6 La Collina Syrah. While Syrah grown on the warm gravels of the flats below tend to have a pure, smokey-berry character with a concentrated, structured mouth, the “La Collina” smelled more of dried herbs and its mouth was less dense, characterized more by acidity than by astringency. Bilancia “La Collina” Syrah is unique for Hawke’s Bay.
Unison is a boutique winery with six hectares of vineyards located in the Gimblett Gravels area. When I arrived, a worker in a blue jumpsuit was on a tractor bringing in some grapes. He turned out to be the new owner, Philip Horn, who had recently given up a financially successful career in retail in the UK. His wife, Terry, and he had immigrated here to become vignerons. Not wasting much time, he earned a certificate in viticulture and winemaking at a Hawke’s Bay technical school. He wisely hired winemaker Jenny Dobson to nurture him gracefully into his new avocation. Dobson had for 12 years been the cellar master at Chateau Senejac, a cru Bourgeois in the Haut-Medoc, with other stints in Burgundy and Australia, after which she became winemaker at Te Awa, another winery in the Gimblett Gravels area, a position which she had held for ten years. Dobson brought with her experience and a teacher’s mentality. I tasted the Unison Syrah 2OO7. This estate is known for “cult” wines. True to being cultish, the wine was big and ripe, a monster-baby. It was very astringent. Time will tell.