Andrew Jefford tastes a selection of Gimblett Gravels wines from the 2013 vintage and explores the history and soils of this area within New Zealand's Hawke's Bay.

  • See Andrew Jefford’s tasting notes on Gimblett Gravels wine from the 2013 vintage – scroll down this article

In the established wine-growing zones typical of Europe, each new vintage promises a change of stylistic emphasis.  We already know the script: that’s the character and potential of each region, defined by innumerable past efforts.  How, though, will next summer’s performance turn out on stage?  Will it be a flop, or win an Oscar?

Leave Europe, and things are different.  We still don’t know the potential; there’s always a greater vintage ahead.  These regions have scripts which are still being written. Newly planted wine regions are more like young children than film stars; the vintage is the school report they bring home at the end of each term.  Each report tells us a little more about the child or the class in question.

The region I’m thinking of is just 34 years old; indeed most of its planted 630 ha of vines have gone into the ground in the last 25 years.  It’s also unique in terms of its status.  Gimblett Gravels is not a wine region but a trademark, dating from 2001, and belonging to a producers’ association.  It lies within the New Zealand region of Hawke’s Bay.

The idea behind going private in this way is both to avoid Coonawarra-style terroir disputes, and to amplify the terroir focus from the off: all of the 700 ha of plantable land lies on the former course of the Ngaruroro River.  It switched its route (as the Rhône has done many times) after floods in 1867, leaving deep gravel beds layered with lenses of silt and loamy sand: the Omahu Gravels.  River-gravel vineyards often prove auspicious in other vineyard regions, notably Bordeaux’s Médoc and the Southern Rhône itself.

There are nonetheless differences with European models.  Irrigation is considered essential in the Gimblett Gravels, as it is in Argentina’s Mendoza.  There are no controls over the grape varieties planted or the winemaking methods used, including must adjustment; and there is no tasting panel to which the wines must be submitted — so no notion of ‘typicity’ other than the one provided by the market, in rewarding some wines with higher prices than others.  Bordeaux varieties account for around 60 per cent of plantings, and Syrah for another 20 per cent or so.

The Gimblett Gravels Association circulates its own school report – in the form of a surface-shipped annual tasting case, independently selected by Andrew Caillard MW, and sent to commentators around the world.  Last year’s case, to be honest, was a ‘could do better’: the 2012 vintage in Hawke’s Bay was long, cool and challenging, and the wines were often tart and shrill (and overoaked); they made unalluring drinking.

Happily, the 2013 case is more exciting; indeed it’s the first one of the five which have been sent out so far which seems to me to make a compelling case for this much-fancied, often-lauded zone of New Zealand’s North Island.  (The tendency to exhibit marked vintage quality swings may, in itself, be significant: Europe’s greatest regions tend to perform in this way, too.)

There is a climate challenge here.  The wider Hawke’s Bay area is a little too cool to ripen Bordeaux varieties and Syrah satisfactorily, not so much in terms of overall heat summation as in terms of daytime heat: the sea breezes mean that many summer days peak at 25˚C, which according to Steve Smith MW is not enough of a warm throb for complete phenolic ripeness, even though satisfactory sugar levels can be reached.

Gimblett Gravels, by contrast, is a hot spot within Hawke’s Bay (its summer-day maxima are 2˚C-3˚C higher than elsewhere in the region), and by crop thinning, deficit irrigating and bunch positioning, growers have no trouble getting to full ripeness in favourable vintages.

2013 certainly looks like one of those: there were very few green notes in the wines, the fruit flesh was rounder and more tender than I had noted in previous vintages, and there was a little more structure and tannic power to the wines, balancing out their marked acidities (see notes below).  This is a region where climate change might be expected to lend a helping hand to winegrowers rather than put them out of business.

What of the soils?  The key difference between the very young Gimblett Gravels, and the older Médoc and Southern Rhône gravels seems to be that the sub-surface lenses within the banks are principally silty or sandy in this part of Hawke’s Bay, and lack the clay strata which are such a feature of (for example) Pauillac and St Estèphe, just as they are of Châteauneuf du Pape’s Crau plateau.

This is major reason why irrigation is essential here, at least for the time being; perhaps deeper root penetration might one day permit vines to be dry farmed.  At a guess, then, one might expect that the wines will always have a certain delicacy of style. Margaux rather than Pauillac, let’s say, or St Joseph rather than Hermitage.  In terms of the balances and the style of energy in the wines, better analogies than these for previous vintages would have been Chinon or Bourgueil, but with 2013 the wines have taken a clear step ‘down latitude’.

As in the past, the Bordeaux blends seem to me to have been deeper, more complex and more successful than the Syrah, and that’s still my view with this year’s case, too.  This year, though, the gap is less marked – and in any case the Syrah is unquestionably distinctive enough to justify its place in what must be vineyards of rapidly rising value.  All the oak regimes could be eased back further, though none of these wines was grossly over-oaked.  I feel producers could afford to be more adventurous with their extractions when the vintage allows, and no one need fret about acidity here.

But let’s not judge the class too soon: terroir will always surprise us, and there are decades of development ahead within an ineluctably warming world.  What the 2013 vintage shows is that there is real talent here – not just in the stones and the sunlight, but in those crafting the wines.  2012 may have been ‘could do better’, but 2013 looks like ‘should go far’.

The 2013 Gimblett Gravels Tasting Case

Beach House, Cabernet Franc

Clear, vivacious, pungent and fresh raspberry scents, with a dramatic, bracing palate which contrives to soften towards tar at the end: every inch the soloist.  Don’t serve this too warm. 88 points (out of 100)

Anthony Joseph Vidal, Legacy Syrah

Quietly classy scents: pressed black fruits with a sweet sheen.  Calm, smooth, pristine, pure and fresh on the palate: a light-bodied Syrah of unstrenuous, naturally articulated appeal. 89

Craggy Range, Le Sol Syrah

Some of the Syrahs almost seem to have a thiol-like note when first opened, and this is one of them (though it’s not under screwcap) – but there is also pristine blackcurrant here.  On the palate, it is soft, smooth, resonant and beautifully defined: fresh air in the cool of the morning.  There’s a little juniper mixed in with the blackcurrant on the palate. 90

Esk Valley, Winemaker’s Reserve Syrah

Spice, oak, ripe leaf and clean blackcurrant scents, then an ample, fruit-saturated palate with the best textural wealth of any of the Syrahs in this selection, giving the wine’s exuberant style plenty of shape and persistence. 89

Mission Estate, Jewelstone Syrah

A richer, creamier style of black-fruit aroma than its peers, yet the palate is fresh, bright and cascading, with lots of pure-scented appeal and discreet supporting textural wealth. 89

Te Awa, Syrah

This wine needs some air (or a quick decant), but once it’s had it, you’ll find it packed with ripe Morello cherry scent and flavour, and with a liquorice root finish: very choice, tasty and moreish.  It seems almost like a juicy Côtes de Nuits in its fruit style, and that fruit lyricism, perfume and intrinsic sweetness bodes well for the future. 90

Villa Maria, Braided Gravels Merlot, Single Vineyard

An exotic style of Merlot, with notes of tomato and peach as well as more classical plum and tobacco.  It’s an attractively soft wine with round fruit and plenty of nascent complexity, though structurally lighter than some of its peers in the case. 88

Anthony Joseph Vidal, Legacy

The Cabernet Sauvignon-Merlot blend has classic blackcurrant and black cherry scents with a sweet sheen.  Smooth, beguiling, amply contoured and very satisfying on the palate: glowing ripeness of fruit plus a classic sea-breeze lift. 90

Mills Reef, Elspeth

This pure Cabernet takes the ripeness further than its peers in the sample case: blackberry, raspberry and creamy coffee notes, while on the palate there is more of that creamy coffee, and even a prune note behind the blackberry.  Mellow, opulent and relaxed: amazing to see a wine of this style from anywhere in Hawke’s Bay.  It could do with beefier tannins, but there’s lots to enjoy in the luxurious fruit. 90

Newton Forrest Estate, Cornerstone

Sweet red fruits are what you first notice on the nose in this Cabernet Sauvignon-Merlot-Malbec blend, but with time in the glass there are autumnal leaf and leaf-compost notes.  On the palate, this is engaging and assured, with near-European levels of structure and textural depth.  The creamy fruit of the mid palate modulates to something dryer, more austere and more penetrating by the end.  An excellent effort. 92

Trinity Hill, The Gimblett

More aromatically forthcoming than many of its peers, this Bordeaux blend (Cabernet Sauvignon 40%, Merlot 30%, Cabernet Franc 29% and Petit Verdot 1%) shows lots of exuberant red fruit and a liquorice-fenugreek spice edge.  Fresh, charming and complex on the palate, and more classical here than the aromas suggested; firm shaping tannins and a little finishing austerity to gather the threads together. 91

Squawking Magpie, SQM Cabernets/Merlot

This blend of the two Cabernets and Merlot has lots to say for itself: plenty of vivid fruit, but also notes of spice, blood and milk chocolate, too.  It’s another wine with impressive ripeness and complexity on the palate: red and black autumn berries, crab apple and cranberry, but folded together seamlessly and with some promising tannins to lend depth and perspective.  Pristine definition and clarity, too. 92

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