- by Stephen Brook
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Stephen Brook in New Zealand - Ata Rangi, Elephant Hill & Craggy Range
Elegant Chardonnays and Pinots at Ata Rangi got the weekend off to a good start. It’s a four-hour drive north to Hawkes Bay, where a large regional tasting was presided over by Jenny Dobson, whom I last met twenty years ago when she was the winemaker at Ch Sénéjac in the Médoc.
Hawkes Bay can produce anything, which is a drawback as well as an advantage, since it makes it difficult for this dispersed region to establish an identity. Chardonnays and Sauvignon can be very good, but the strength of Hawkes Bay is Syrah, which attains great fruit intensity and a cool-climate character.
Bordeaux blends can be excellent too (and worryingly similar in style to Bordeaux itself!) but in cooler years there can be a slight greenness, as there can be in Bordeaux, of course. My favourite wines were from the small Paritua winery, which recently went bust.
I spent the next morning at Vidal with winemaker Hugh Crichton and visited the Gimblett Gravels area that is the source of most of the top red wines from Hawkes Bay.
I tasted and lunched at the German-owned Elephant Hill winery, which proves it is possible to grow vines along the shingly sea shore.
The viticulturalist is Californian, and thought she had experienced cool-climate farming there until she arrived in Hawkes Bay and froze. Indeed the weather is positively Mancunian.
Steve Smith runs the impressive Craggy Range winery here, and was one of those who realised early on the potential of the Gimblett Gravels.
We dined at the winery’s handsome restaurant and I indulged in some unsubtle lobbying. Steve is also chairman of the Air New Zealand Wine Awards next week, at which I will be one of the international judges.
I had a nightmare that I could be presented with three days of constant Sauvignon Blanc. He reassured me that I’d have the occasional red-wine flight too.
It’s now Sunday and I have three more visits ahead of me before boarding another small plane and heading up to Auckland.
From then on I’ll have my nose in a glass for three long days. The judging will confirm what I have already realised: that for all the woes of an over-supply of Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc (and a slump in that style’s reputation), New Zealand wine is on a roll.
Rieslings of precision and elegance, Pinot Noir in a range of styles, and a rapidly improving grasp of other reds wines such as Syrah and Bordeaux blends.
The prevailing cool climate here means full ripeness cannot be guaranteed, but when the vintage obliges, the wines can be world-class.