This is the final part of a four-part report from my tour of some key New Zealand wine regions in 2020.
Back on the North Island, Hawke’s Bay is second only to Marlborough in terms of its wine output – though a distant second with around 12% of the country’s production. Given the region’s reputation for Syrah, Bordeaux varieties and, more recently, Chardonnay, it may be something of a surprise to learn that Sauvignon Blanc accounts for almost one quarter of plantings, though many celebrate it as quite a different expression from Marlborough’s mainstay, pungent style.
Vines were first planted in Hawke’s Bay back in 1851, by French Marist missionaries (who established Mission Estate, which we will visit in this report). Today there are over 70 wineries and around 5,000 hectares of vineyard. It is a large, warm and sunny region, with heat summation somewhere between Bordeaux and Burgundy. There are four major rivers that meander through the area and which have created a variety of soil types, including the famous Gimblet Gravels of deep, free-draining, near barren stones, and there is limestone and clay too in the increasingly planted hillside areas, as well as coastal-influenced soils where gravels and the maritime climate give yet more diversity.
Despite that dominance of Sauvignon Blanc, Hawke’s Bay is without doubt New Zealand’s red wine capital. Leaving Pinot Noir out of the equation for now, and concentrating on other regions that are known for Bordeaux varieties and Syrah, the plantings in Hawke’s Bay compared to the other significant regions (all on the warmer North Island) illustrate that (figures from 2015).
Chardonnay is seen by many as another ace in the pack, made in a variety of styles of course, but many showing the flinty complex sulphide character to one degree or another, with judicious use of oak.
As in all other regions, understanding their specific soils, climates and sub-regional characters is a huge focus across Hawke’s Bay. Gimblet Gravels may be one of New Zealand’s best known terroirs, but it is not a ‘GI’ or other officially recognised ‘Cru’ of the region: you will see its name proudly displayed on many top wines, as it is a trademark of the local winegrowers association, only to be used on wines emanating from the designated area of gravels. In a similar way, other sub-regional names are now being highlighted more and more, like the nearby Bridge Pa Triangle or Havelock Hills.
Flying into Napier on a beautifully sunny and clear day, and my first stop was to Smith & Sheth’s tasting room and cellar door in the centre of nearby Havelock North.
The eponymous Smith is Steve Smith M.W. (right of picture), ex-supremo of Craggy Range, who partnered with US businessman Brian Sheth to create their boutique premium wine company, sourcing fruit using Smith’s extensive industry contacts, but also purchasing and planting their own vineyards. Eyebrows must have been raised when they hit the ground running by purchasing Lowburn Ferry in Central Otago, and Pyramid Valley Vineyards in North Canterbury, two very highly-regarded operations.
The tasting lounge (and wine bar) are well worth a visit, for a fantastically immersive introduction to not only Smith & Sheth, but the Hawke’s Bay region. A few of Smith & Sheth’s wines were included in this tasting of 22 wines, representing Chardonnay, Bordeaux Blends and Syrah.
One sobering thing emerged from the line-up: all but four of the wines were closed with a screwcap. Of the four that were under natural cork, one was my top wine of the tasting, but two were corked and could not be assessed…
Sometimes even the best laid plans just don’t work out. My visit to Alpha Domus was scuppered by a date and time mix-up, but in a salvage operation co-founder Paul Ham apologised, and arranged to send three of the estate’s wines to my hotel in Auckland for me to taste a few days later.
The Ham family purchased 20 hectares of bare land in an area of the Western Heretaunga plains, later to become known as the Bridge Pa Triangle. Today their portfolio is divided into three ranges: Collection wines are described as “easy, relaxed and sociable,” while the Estate range are “quintessential Hawke’s Bay mid-tier classics.” I would taste three wines from the Special Reserve collection: “estate grown wines crafted only in the best years from Alpha Domus’ finest parcels.”
Craggy Range is the 24 karat, gold standard name of Hawke’s Bay, the business established by the Peabody family in the late 1990s. Terry Peabody, a US businessman, sought the help of leading viticulturist Steve Smith MW to help him identify premium, virgin land, with the highest potential to make ‘classed growth’ wines. Smith came on board as Craggy Range’s first Director, involved in all aspects of the business, and was synonymous with the brand as vineyards were planted and its fame grew.
Steve Smith is no longer with Craggy Range, having launched Smith & Sheth after 20 years as Craggy’s figurehead. When Chief Winemaker Matt Stafford left soon after, questions must have been asked about the business and certainly about who would take on the job of leading the company in wine-making terms. The answer to that was an Australian winemaker called Julian Grounds. As he dropped by my hotel to give me a lift to dinner and a tasting at Craggy Range’s superb Terroir restaurant, it was hard to believe that this smiling and youthful-looking Aussie had taken on one of the biggest jobs – and the biggest responsibility – in the New Zealand industry.
In fact, Grounds has an impressive CV, having come to New Zealand from McHenry Hohnen in Western Australia where he was head winemaker, and before that holding the same role at Giant Steps in the Yarra Valley.
As we sat down to taste I asked Julian about the very big shoes he had been asked to fill, and whether he saw his task as evolution, or revolution? “I want us to be more focused,” he told me, citing that they are no longer using fruit from Central Otago for example, and now work only in Hawke’s Bay and Martinborough (plus Marlborough for a Sauvignon Blanc), but there’s also the familiar story of bringing more precision to their farming: “I’m not looking at regions, or even vineyards: I’m looking at blocks within vineyards and what they do can do – we’re micro-growing row by row and trying to understand the beauty of each site.” That he says, is key to the future strategy: recognising each block is different, and farming differently in response. He is also trialling organic farming on some sites.
Damian Fischer has been a winemaker at Trinity Hill since 2008. Originally from Adelaide, South Australia, he says his overriding impression of New Zealand wines is their freshness and purity of fruit, but adds that here in Hawke’s Bay “there’s a lovely of ripeness and not over-ripeness.” We take a drive up to the top of Roys Hill, a bluff that not only protects the Gimblet Gravels vineyards from prevailing winds, but which provides a great vantage point to see all 800ha stretching towards the coast plus neighbouring regions like the Bridge Pa Triangle.
Trinity Hill was a founding member of the Gimblet Gravels Winegrowers Association in 2001, but their story begins in 1987, and not in New Zealand, but in London. Winemaker John Hancock met Robert and Robyn Wilson in their London restaurant, The Bleeding Heart. The ex-Kiwi couple were soon on board with the concept of establishing a Hawke’s Bay winery, and by 1993 Trinity Hill became one of Gimblet Gravels early pioneers, planting vines on a barren plot on the former bed of the Ngaruroro River.
Today 45% of their vineyards are planted to Syrah, in this warm region Damian says taming the vigour of Syrah is his challenge, so yields are carefully controlled within a philosophy he describes as “quality rather than quantity”. Their iconic ‘Homage’ certainly testifies to that. Despite the warm conditions of their sites, grapes retain good acid too: “we do put the wines through malo,” Damian tells me, “but we’re not trying to make ‘butter bombs’ here the wines don’t lose their acid; it’s all about texture.”
The story of Elephant Hill begins in 2001 with a German businessman with a passion for classic cars, and a 1956 Jaguar Mk II. It was at a motor show in Germany that chance brought Roger Weiss in contact with a full-time medic and amateur car restorer from New Zealand, called Dr. Greg Beacham. A plan was hatched that Greg would find and restore the classic Jag at his workshop in Hawke’s Bay, then Roger and his wife Reydan would fly over to collect it. When that day came, the Weiss’s fell in love with the area, and a patch of land that was for sale.
By 2003 Elephant Hill had been established, literally a stone’s throw of the Pacific Ocean on the Te Awanga coast of Hawke’s Bay. In a huge investment a state-of-the-art winery with top-end restaurant and visitor facilities soon followed. I met up with Roger’s son Andreas, who relocated from Germany to take over the running of the estate in 2015.
On a map in his office he showed me Elephant Hills three vineyard sites, spread across Hawke’s Bay’s prime sub-regions, here in coastal Te Awanga where Sauvignon vines run almost to the beach, in Gimblet Gravels and in the Bridge Pa Triangle, three renowned terroirs.
There is a large range of wines here, but winemaker Steve Skinner has mapped out the various blocks and varieties planted to give extensive blending options. The sites represent a wide variety of soil types, ranging from shingle, to clay, to very old, stony river beds, so there is material to make blends that utilise the properties of each, but also for a range of terroir-based, site-specific, single vineyard wines.
A sad postcript is that Elephant Hill’s truly excellent restaurant was forced to close by Covid-19 restrictions, and the decision has now been taken that it will not re-open.
Not far from Elephant Hill and also in the Te Awanga sub-region, Te Awanga Estate is run by the highly experienced winemaker, Rod McDonald. It’s a personal, passionate project, Rod having spent many years within the Villa Maria group where he says “most of the hard work had been done. The business had been developing for 50 years to get to a point where success was almost guaranteed.” So, the thrill of starting out again at Te Awanga Estate (formerly known as Rod McDonald Wines) was a natural, if brave leap into the unknown.
For all that Elephant Hill is impressive, big-scaled and lavish, the Te Awanga cellar door is homely and informal, an overgrown beach hut with a deck looking out towards the ocean. Around half of their vineyard estate is certified organic – with an ambition for more – and as well as the home vineyards in Te Awanga, there’s an inland site on ancient river terraces at Maraekakaho, and one on the alluvial valley floor at Bridge Pa. They also have a number of small blocks scattered around Hawke’s Bay, including some boasting rare (for the North Island) limestone soils. On route from picking me up from my hotel Rod drove me to the top of the Te Mata Peak for a fabulous view that lays the map of Hawke’s Bay before you.
Rod’s ambition is to have all of his vineyards certified organic, not just from an environmental point of view but because he thinks it makes “a massive difference to the way they taste.” And while he admires excellent, technically perfect wines crafted by skilled winemakers, he says “there’s also the kind of winemaking that reveals more about where the wine came from.” As he talks me through his various sites, and the reasons he has chosen each and what to plant there, he says “It’s impossible to make wine like that, if you haven’t managed to find a site to grow grapes like that.”
Supernatural Wine Co.
Organic, biodynamic, and ‘natural’ wines are still relatively few and far between in Hawke’s Bay, but that’s the absolute focus for this quirky young company. It is the brainchild and passion of owner, Gregory Collinge, and winemaker and viticulturist, Hayden Penny. I began the umpteenth visit of this trip with a much-needed coffee with Gregory (pictured) in the stylish holiday accommodation that forms part of the farm. It has stunning views over the vineyards towards the Pacific, which we then walked, joining up with Hayden as he tended to vines at the bottom of the slope.
The pair’s focus and absolute belief in organic farming and ‘hands-off’ winemaking shines through in this true single estate. Isolated from other vineyards, vines run down the steeply-sloping, north-facing site that is dry-farmed and has been organically certified since 2015. As well as adding minimal and sometimes no sulphur to the wines, they are unfined and most unfiltered too, so you can expect a little haziness in the wines. All fermentation is with wild yeasts, coming from a pied de cuve – think of that as being like a sourdough starter, with fermentation starting out among the vines, where yeasts develop in tubs of a few kilos of grapes which seed the fermentation for the vintage.
Whatever your impression of ‘natural wines’, this and previous tastings of The Supernatural Wine Co. have been consistent and impressive. Are there unexpected aromas, flavours and textures? Yes, and comparing with conventional Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc, for example definitely needs an adjustment in thinking. Finally, a word for the packaging: all wines (except the Minus 2020 Sauvignon) are under beer bottle-style crown cap, but Gregory says don’t worry if you have to stick one back in the fridge as the wines get better over a couple of days of air contact.
Mission Estate is one of New Zealand’s major visitor attractions. The tasting room, restaurant and lawns were thronged with happy day-trippers on my summer visit, while the natural amphitheatre of meadowland in front of the winery is one of the country’s top outdoor concert venues – the stage being readied for Elton John’s sell-out show a couple of days after my visit. History is what has put Mission Estate so firmly on the tourist map, based around the beautiful old seminary building which dates from 1880, though the French Marist missionaries had planted vines to make sacramental wine 30 years before. There are records of commercial wine sales dating back to 1870.
I met up with long-serving winemaker Paul Mooney and export manager Simon Swa over lunch and a tasting. I last visited here in 2006, and though the three ranges of Estate, Reserve, and Jewelstone wines are still the bedrock of the portfolio, Simon and Paul are quick to point out that there is innovation here too. A ‘VS’ range (standing for Vineyard Selection) as well as an ‘icon’ wine called Hutchet have been added, plus new varieties including Gewurztraminer. There are also organic trials taking place, with 16 hectares around the winery divided into organic and conventional blocks.
A massive investment in 2007 doubled winemaking facilities, making Mission Estate a very significant producer, with their own vineyards in Hawke’s Bay and Marlborough, as well as contracted fruit from various regions. Although a commercial enterprise, Mission Estate is still owned by the Marist brothers and operates as a charitable trust. That 2007 expansion was also designed to deliver maximum energy and water efficiencies in winemaking, matching their commitment to sustainable viticulture practices.
Te Mata Estate
One of the great names of Hawke’s Bay, Te Mata’s Coleraine is arguably the country’s most iconic red wine. Coleraine took the wine world by surprise with its first vintage in 1982, an outstanding red Bordeaux Blend, at a time when in quality terms, New Zealand was recognised as a strictly white wine country.
Te Mata’s story is much older however, established on the same site in Hawke’s Bay in 1896 by the Chambers’ family, it has been in continuous wine production since the first vineyards were planted. Today Te Mata is still family-owned, the Buck family having purchased the estate in 1974. I met up with bothers Nick and Tobias Buck, two of three siblings involved in running the business, along with winemaker Phil Brodie (pictured).
Though farming dozens of plots across several sites in Hawke’s Bay’s Havelock Hills, the iconic Coleraine vineyard, sitting opposite the modern winery, is still a principal source of fruit for the icon wine and other top wines in this portfolio. It is a steeply sloping, north-facing site, but all vineyards are cropped low and planted to suit the variety of soil types from sandy loams, to clay and silica, across the various sites.
Though much of Te Mata’s fame lies with the Bordeaux blends Coleraine and Awatea, and the Bullnose Syrah, there is in fact quite a diverse portfolio here. Their Gamay is one that I have reviewed very positively in the past, but in July 2019 two Pinot Noir wines from site chosen specifically for the variety came on stream – 20 years after vines were planted, and with 15 un-released experimental vintages under their belt. Chardonnay, Viognier and Sauvignon Blanc make up the white wine selection, all from estate vineyards.
This was my fourth tour of New Zealand’s wine regions since I first visited in 2006. Even in the relatively short period of 14 years much has changed, not only is the expansion of vineyards and the focus on ‘regionality’ becoming ever more pronounced, but confidence and quality are keeping up. Winemakers in Marlborough, for example, were alert to the potential of ‘Sauvignon overload’, and have diversified their offering, while the Pinots of Central Otago have reined back oak and extraction to produce much finer wines at the top end. Syrah in Hawke’s Bay has been a revelation.
It remains a breathtakingly beautiful and diverse country, seemingly filled with warm, welcoming winemakers, always humble but always confident, and very much focused on the ‘long game’ of coaxing the very best from their soils and vineyards.
Above all, New Zealand can be a country of great surprises. I can understand how one grape variety, and one region, represents the entirety of New Zealand’s wine industry for many consumers, but there is such a wealth of detailed, beautifully balanced and pure wines that it is an increasingly exciting wine country to explore. Over 300 wines were tasted and written up for this report, so I hope that provides plenty of inspiration.
Go back to part I – New Zealand 2020 overview and Kumeu River