Hawke's eye view

  • Thursday 1 February 2001

Pinot Noir may have found a home in Martinborough and South Island, but what about Bordeaux varietals? JAMES LAWTHER MW explains that Hawke's Bay
is the next great site for Merlot-based blends, and
names those on the premium track.

Premium red wine from New Zealand? It once seemed a misnomer, but not any more. Martinborough and South Island have pinned their colours to Pinot Noir, but in Hawke's Bay on North Island it's Bordeaux blends and the Syrah grape that are of interest. Not that this is necessarily news. Te Mata's John Buck has been making a solid case for Cabernet-Merlot blends for a number of years, but quality has otherwise been thin on the ground.

The difference today is the increased level of commitment and investment from producers. The Villa Maria group, Montana, Matua Valley, Te Mata and Babich are all expanding here, and there are some serious new investors to keep an eye on. Add to this improved site selection, winemaking and viticultural techniques and the region looks to be headed in a positive direction.

Hawke's Bay is one of New Zealand's pioneer wine regions and, with 2,339 hectares (ha) under production, is second only to Marlborough in terms of output. Chardonnay is the single most cultivated grape, but red varieties account for 41% of the total area under production – and this is due to rise to 48% by 2002, making it the country's most important red wine region. Cabernet Sauvignon is the major variety, but it is steadily being overtaken by Merlot. The Bordeaux components Malbec and Cabernet Franc are also showing steady increase, as is Shiraz. Varietal Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot exist, but producers are convinced that the Bordeaux blend, with a dominance of Merlot, is where the future lies.

In fact, comparisons with Bordeaux are often made. Climatically, Hawke's Bay has a marked maritime influence and similar hours of sunshine and temperature. As in Bordeaux, where the autumnal equinox can hasten in rain at the time of harvesting, Hawke's Bay can be beset by cyclonic depressions that bring rain during the picking in March and April. Both regions need late-season clemency to help with the ripeness of flavour and tannin. Sugar ripeness, however, appears to be less of a struggle in Hawke's Bay, perhaps due to the ultra-violet penetration that results from the thin ozone layer.

When it comes to site selection, Hawke's Bay, like Bordeaux, has put a premium on free-draining gravelly soils. This was not always the case: until recently, many of the vineyards were located on the fertile, silty soils of the Heretaunga Plains, a contributing factor to the herbaceous character in many wines. Gravelly soils, though, exist in tracts around the region; and over the last 10 years producers aiming for quality have been falling over themselves to acquire blocks of land in these zones. The two prime areas are the Gimblett Road and the Ngatarawa triangle. Hill sites will be the next stage of development, and already there are some small vineyards being established in the limestone-rich foothills of Te Mata Peak and at Roy's Hill.

In light of these trends, John Buck is a man who is running ahead of the game. In 1974, he and partner Michael Morris purchased Te Mata Estate, convinced that this was the location from which to produce top-quality Bordeaux-style wines. The oldest winemaking property in New Zealand (vines were first planted here in 1892), Te Mata possesses vineyards on the north-facing foothills of the Peak and near the Tukituki River, all of which have been replanted over the last 20 years. The top-of-the-range Coleraine and Awatea wines are Cabernet Sauvignon-dominated, with a blend of Merlot and Cabernet Franc. Under the guiding hand of winemaker Peter Cowley they have an elegant, rather than powerful, style. The Bullnose Syrah is one of the most convincing examples of this variety to appear in Hawke's Bay.

Another major project is now close to completion. In 1993, the Buck family bought a 200ha property known as Woodthorpe Terraces. About 110ha of gravelly river terrace are being planted with Bordeaux varieties, Chardonnay, Shiraz and Viognier, and the aim is to be on stream by 2002. A new winery will process the fruit, some of which is already being sold to other producers. The major New Zealand wine companies are, in turn, scaling up their operations in Hawke's Bay. Church Road Winery is moving from a crush of 3,000 to 6,000 tonnes over the next couple of years, most of which will be red. In a link-up with Bordeaux négociant Cordier, the winery has been able to benefit from the expertise of Georges Pauli, oenologist and manager of Château Gruaud-Larose, to craft a more complex range of red wines. 'The French have given us a better understanding of tannin management and have convinced us that lower acidities are not such a bad thing,' observes Church Road winemaker Tony Prichard. The Reserve wines are top of the range, along with the limited-release Tom, a stylish blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. The Villa Maria group is represented in Hawke's Bay by Esk Valley and Vidal Estate, both of which have a reputation for their red wines. Grapes are sourced mainly from contract growers, but the group has its own vineyards and more land is being developed. The Vidal Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon-Merlot is a round, fleshy wine, while the Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon 1998 has a big, firm structure and plenty of lifted fruit. 'You can still find some greenness in Hawke's Bay's commercial wines, but, from 1995, it's rare in the premium range,' says Vidal winemaker Rod McDonald.

Top of the range at Esk Valley, and one of New Zealand's most expensive wines, is The Terraces. The wine was produced in 1995 and 1998 from a blend of Merlot, Malbec and Cabernet Franc. Judging from an impressive barrel sample of Malbec from the excellent 2000 vintage, this variety is evidently a key component in the blend. 'I'm a great believer in Malbec, as it ripens early in Hawke's Bay and gives colour, spice aromas and a mouthfilling sweetness to the wine,' explains winemaker Gordon Russell.

Of the newer faces, Sileni Estates is definitely the area's most ambitious project. The vision of owner Graeme Avery, the complex includes a vathouse, cellars, two restaurants and a wine education centre. Externally, two vineyards of about 50ha each are being developed. Grape varieties include the Bordeaux mix, but winemaker Grant Edmonds, formerly of Villa Maria, reckons the future lies with Merlot. 'Cabernet Sauvignon is too vigorous here and too irregular in quality,' he says. As proof of this conviction, he is having the Cabernet Sauvignon at his own property, Redmetal Vineyards, grafted over to Merlot. The Sileni Merlot-Cabernet 1998 (the first vintage) is a rich, firmly structured wine, but bigger and more voluptuous still is the EV 1998, made from 80% Merlot and 20% Cabernet Franc.

The Gimblett Road area is the chosen location for a number of other new ventures, including Matariki, Craggy Range, Te Awa Farm, Unison and Trinity Hill. At the six-hectare Unison Vineyards, husband-and-wife team Bruce and Anna-Barbara Helliwell run a small European-style operation. The work includes plenty of shoot and leaf plucking to provide an open canopy, and green harvesting to reduce the yield. Both wines, the regular Unison and the Unison Selection, are made from a blend of Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Shiraz aged in French and American oak. The 1998s are finely crafted wines.

Craggy Range is a venture on a different scale. The brainchild of US businessman Terry Peabody and viticulturalist Steve Smith MW, the aim is to produce only single-vineyard wines. A new winery is also planned with John Belsham, the former manager of contract winemaking facility Rapaura Vintners in Marlborough.

Another estate that looks set to stay the distance is Te Awa Farm. The Lawson family has been farming in the region since 1964 and has been growing grapes for contract fruit since 1980. In 1992 it sold off its existing vineyards and bought land in the Gimblett Road area with a view to producing premium red wines from estate-grown fruit. There are now 40ha of Bordeaux varieties, Shiraz, Pinotage and Chardonnay under vine and a steadily expanding winery.

Te Awa's winemaker, Jenny Dobson, spent 12 years as cellarmaster at Médoc cru bourgeois Château Sénéjac and a year at Frankland Estate in Western Australia. Her use of French winemaking practices, plus her expertise in blending, have helped create a more complex style of wine, in particular the top-quality Boundary. 'Red winemakers in Hawke's Bay should look to France for inspiration rather than Australia as the fruit can be handled in the same way,' she says. Recent vintages, in particular 1998 and 2000, have highlighted the red revolution in Hawke's Bay. Add a few more years to the age of the vines and this could be labelled a 'classic' red wine region.

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