Letter from Hawke’s Bay; John Szabo’s New Zealand

Dateline: Hawke’s Bay, New Zealand’s North Island,
January 2013

John Szabo, MS

John Szabo, MS

Hawke’s Bay: Driving through parts of this North Island region is like making your way through a maze. Narrow roads are lined on either side by 30-foot high, orderly walls of cedar bushes so thick and dense that you can’t see through them. But hiding the fields lining the road from view is not their purpose. These hedges are windbreaks to protect the orchards they surround from strong offshore winds from the nearby Pacific Ocean, never more than a few kilometers away. The Hawke’s Bay area is New Zealand’s fruit and produce capital, producing 95% of the island nation’s tender fruit and produce. Heinz Asia has a huge processing plant here; if you’re eating ketchup anywhere in Australasia, there’s a very good chance the tomatoes used to make it were grown here.

I’m at the top of Te Mata Peak, a 550m lookout on a site that’s of sacred significance for the Maoris. I’m with Nicholas Buck, whose family owns the Te Mata Estate, Hawke’s Bay’s second oldest winery, established in 1896. He gives me a brief history and explains the lay of the land.

Panorama from the top of Te Mata Peak

Panorama from the top of Te Mata Peak

Vines have been grown here for well over a century, but real development of the wine industry wouldn’t get underway until the early 1970s, as in the rest of the country. The temperance movement in New Zealand was well established from the late nineteenth century right up until the end of the 1960s. The country narrowly voted against full-on, nationwide prohibition of alcohol in 1917; in fact the vote initially swung in favour of banning alcohol, until soldiers returning from the war, plied with beer and spirits from local companies, were encouraged to vote against the measure in a national referendum. Boozy soldiers swung the vote by the slimmest of margins.

Nicholas Buck of Te Mata Estate

Nicholas Buck of Te Mata Estate

Yet one of the measures put in place in this period were highly restrictive opening hours for restaurants and bars serving alcohol: six pm was mandatory closing time. The early closures inadvertently led to one of the darker social phenomena in the country’s history, known as the “five o’clock swill”. On their way home after work, men would stop in to the pubs and guzzle large amounts of alcohol in the short hour before closing and emerge drunk on the streets – a regular scene in working class neighborhoods after six each workday.

Additionally, each county in New Zealand was required to hold a referendum every three years on prohibition; if any are were to vote in favour, all producers of alcohol operating in the county were to be shut down immediately without compensation. It was hardly a comfortable climate in which to open a winery. Some counties eventually did go dry, and even today a handful of townships have special trusts set up to control alcohol consumption.

Radical political change swept through New Zealand in the late 1960s, as elsewhere around the world, and successive governments quickly lifted alcohol restrictions. Several entrepreneurs seized new opportunities and wineries quickly flourished. Thus began the re-birth of the New Zealand’s wine industry.

Hawke’s Bay is now Zealand’s second largest region with around 5000 hectares, and is considered the top spot in the country for full-bodied reds. The climate is among the warmest of the wine growing regions, with sufficient heat and sunlight to ripen varieties like merlot, cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc and syrah.

Over time, several distinct growing zones within Hawke’s Bay have emerged. The area out near the coast by Te Awanga benefits from the full mitigating effect of the ocean. Constant breezes cool the vineyards and grapes ripen up to two weeks later here than those grown further inland. Finely etched chardonnays, along with aromatic varieties like pinot gris and sauvignon blanc, and the occasional syrah, are strengths.

The Tutaekuri River

The Tutaekuri River from Te Mata;
Craggy Range Winery below

A short drive inland and you’ll arrive on the Heretaunga Plains north of the town of Hastings, across which flow two main rivers – the Ngaruroro to the south and the Tutaekuri to the north. These spring forth from the interior’s high mountains and reach the sea a few hundred meters apart just south of Napier, the largest city in the region and one of New Zealand’s most important deep water ports.

It was the Ngaruroro River, which, over millennia of meanderings, brought down thick layers of river stones, and deposited them across the plains, forming the base for the region’s future star wine sub-zone, the Gimblett Gravels. But it wasn’t until a violent flood in the 1860s stripped away the overlying layers of silt and sand of a section of the plain, that the gravels were exposed. These free-draining, poor gravelly soils were useless for agriculture or even sheep farming, and the area remained barren for over a century. Eventually in the 1980s it was discovered that grapes vines could flourish on these gravels, as they do on similar soils on the Left bank of Bordeaux.

Gimblett Gravels

Gimblett Gravels Wine Growing District

The Gimblett Gravels name is controlled today by an association of winegrowers. The group demarcated the zone based strictly on the boundaries of the unique gravelly soil, the first appellation in the world, they claim, to be drawn exclusively according to the predominance of a soil type. In order to use the Gimblett Gravels designation on a label, 95% of a wine must be source from the zone. The winery must also be a fee-paying member of the association. Several small producers with vineyards within the 800 or so hectares of delimited Gravels aren’t permitted to use the designation on the label as they are not members.

The Gravels excel in producing medium-full bodied reds. There’s on-going debate as to what should be the flagship wine: Bay blends (mostly Bordeaux varieties led by merlot), or syrah. In a lighthearted, humorous debate and showdown tasting put on by the Hawke’s Bay Winegrowers Association pitting syrah against blends, our international group of wine writers voted for syrah to be the calling card of the region.

For my money, although the blends can be excellent, balanced, fresh yet substantial wines, syrah produces a more distinctive wine that could rightly be considered a regional classic, or should be, in time. It’s perhaps premature to pass such a judgment, considering that the first syrah vines of the modern era in the Gimblett Gravels were planted only in 1984. And with the majority of syrah planted with the last decade, vines have yet to mature to full potential. But already the style is distinctive and the quality of the top wines exceptional.

The Syrah vs. Blends debate

The Syrah vs. Blends debate set up in the Chapel at Mission vineyard

The typical Gimblett Gravels syrah profile is more northern Rhône than Aussie or Californian, yet with cleaner, fresher, more pure red fruit flavours. Zesty, mouth watering, natural acids and fine-grained, dusty tannins carry a lick of licorice, violet and black pepper. The style is delicious, and highly food friendly. Wines from the gravels in general also seem to have that much more density, structure and mid-palate flesh than wines grown in the surrounding areas, with likely better ageing potential, but time will tell.

Another potential sub-zone awaiting further organized action to designate is the Bridge Pa Triangle, adjacent to the Gimblett Gravels. You’ll also find gravel here, but it’s buried under a thicker layer of topsoil, up to several feet of silt, clay and sands. The wines are more immediate, with softer tannins and more fleshy texture, but also very good.

The two other zones worth mentioning that produce distinct wines are the higher elevation hillside vineyards of the Havelock Hills, visible from our perch atop the Te Mata Peak between the ocean and the Heretaunga Plain, and so-called Central Hawke’s Bay, up river in the foothills of the higher mountains ranges. Vineyard expansion on the Havelock Hills is unlikely, however, considering the price of real estate. Havelock is one of the most expensive communities in New Zealand, with its suave, ideal climate, easy commute to other parts of the country via the nearby Napier airport, beautiful, unspoiled beaches minutes away, and ski resorts barely more than an hour inland. Nicholas points out a fallow patch of about 2 acres of land next to Te Mata Estate’s vineyards; there’s a modest shack on it, nothing more. The asking price: close to $3 million. Though he’d love to purchase the piece and extend his vineyards, at that price, it would take several generations to see any return. In any case, Te Mata’s Coleraine Vineyard, a cabernet-dominated blend with merlot, grown in the Havelock hills, is one of the country’s finest reds.

Central Hawke’s Bay has some of the region’s only limestone soils, and at over 200m off of the plain, the cooler conditions are well suited to pinot noir and chardonnay, as wineries like Lime Rock have shown.

Nicholas takes me back down the hill to Te Mata Estate for a tasting. I’ll publish my reviews, along with several dozen other Hawke’s Bay wines on WineAlign in the days ahead.

John Szabo, MS