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Jefford on Monday: Sifting the Gravels

Is gravel the greatest soil medium of all for wines? Almost certainly not.

All the evidence suggests that (as Professor Robert White points out in the preamble to his succinct book Understanding Vineyard Soils) that the vine is gratifyingly unchoosy about exactly what it buries its roots into, and fine wines can be produced on a wide range of soil types.

Former river and glacial gravels, though, repeatedly prove propitious, since they drain well (the vine hates soggy lodgings), yet they usually conceal a variety of nutritional treats, as well as late-summer water for dry-farmers, in the lenses of clay, silt and sand buried beneath them.

The fact that Gimblett Gravels seems to be as well-known an identifying mark as the region in which those gravels are found (Hawke’s Bay) testifies to the appeal of small, water-rounded pebbles. In their millions.

When I first travelled to New Zealand fifteen years ago, I remember some viticulturalists predicting that Gimblett gravels would never work. Nothing more than hydroponics, they said — and vines aren’t lettuces.

It’s true that these are very young and very pure gravels; soil moisture retention of 7 per cent means that almost all irrigate (though Te Awa is managing not to). The vines, though, seem to demand less nutritional help than was first thought – and the quality of the wines continues to confound the pessimists. What’s best, though: Syrah or the Bordeaux blends?

I remember being sniffy about Cabernet and Merlot back in 1996, and feeling that full ripeness would always elude them, so I was expecting to come down on the side of Syrah. Tasting a set of samples recently (selected independently by Andrew Caillard MW) showed me the error of my predictions.

The Syrahs are certainly showy, but I found them rather exhausting to drink, with piercing balances and often overweening oak profiles. Every wine needs a bottom as well as a top. The problem is that the Syrahs strike me as all top at the moment.

The Cabernets and the Merlots, by contrast, have managed to locate their own bottoms over the last 15 years. Their balances still mainly remind me of the best of the Loire rather than Bordeaux, but in the global context that’s attractively rare.

The Church Road 2008 Merlot Cabernet, for example, has a weight and wealth on the tongue unmatched by any of the Syrahs I tasted; Esk Valley’s 2008 Merlot-Cabernet-Malbec equalled that and even added an aromatic meaty fullness which sets its compass for plateau St Emilion in a bright and breezy vintage: irresistible.

Trinity Hill’s 2008 The Gimblett was sweet, poised, stylish and shapely, though the oak was at the limit for my palate. Delicious wines all, crying out for a billet on restaurant wine lists.

Interesting to note, too, that none of these Bordeaux varieties were showing any overt leafiness. In the Southern Hemisphere, herbaceous tones seem to be characteristic of warmer zones when the components of ripeness are allowed to skid out of synch with each other (it can happen at any time in Chile and often in Margaret River, too). Lush canopies are often to blame. I note that many in the Gravels are lacework.

It’s early days for Syrah, of course: it wasn’t planted at all in Gimblett Gravels until 1993. The best (like Craggy Range’s 2008) are beautifully lean: every inch the thoroughbred. Remember, though, that race-winning Hermitage has muscular flanks, and that the appeal of Cornas lies in its belly. I wouldn’t fret about over-extraction just yet.

Written by Andrew Jefford

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