I have quite elegant visual as well as flavorful memories of my recent visit to the Hawke’s Bay wine region of New Zealand. The vineyards stretch for miles along the seacoast, and the red Bordeaux-style wines are pleasingly well-made, as are the bold Syrah wines – though this is half a world away from France. The major municipality in Hawke’s Bay is Napier, a beautiful town built in the Art Deco style of architecture; it is a one-hour flight (or 5-1/2 hour drive) south of Auckland.
It is here that I first saw New Zealand’s small falcons and hawks soaring through the air. Doing a little research, I read that the Chinese character ‘ying’ can mean any one of several raptors: falcons, hawks and eagles. In decoration they symbolize boldness and keen sightedness – which are traits of the winemakers who settled here in the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries.
It is worth remembering Hawke’s Bay for the birds as well as the wine, though Hawke’s Bay is not named after these birds of prey; it was named in 1769 by the explorer Engish Captain James Cook, in honor of Sir Edward Hawke who was England’s First Lord of the Admiralty.
But Cook sailed away, and there was no further contact between Europeans and the native Maori people for 50 years, after which Europeans began sending Christian missionaries to New Zealand. The oldest winery in Hawke’s Bay is at one of these missions, as we will see shortly.
Today in Hawke’s Bay, many wineries proudly produce excellent red and white wines, but in this article I will be talking only about red wines. This is a region of refined red wines. One style is made with the same grapes used in France’s Bordeaux region: mainly cabernet sauvignon, merlot and cabernet franc. The other red wine I was particularly impressed with here is the bright purple, fruity, lively Syrah: a star grape from the northern Rhone region of France.
These wines can be quite sophisticated and complex, due to the soil where they are grown --most notably, the grapes grown on New Zealand’s famous Gimblett Gravels, as well as the adjacent Bridge Pa Triangle. Both of these areas have alluvial soil as their dominant characteristic. In fact these areas rose up from under a river that changed its course after an earthquake in the 1860s.
Interestingly, they were discovered to be great vineyard sites only a few decades ago, in the 1980s. It seems that both Bridge Pa Triangle and Gimblett Gravels produce great wines because their light colored rocky soil and their location causes them to be slightly warmer than the rest of Hawke’s Bay; the region tends to be cooled by the nearby ocean, making it difficult to fully ripen grapes sometimes. Many of the wines produced here exhibit great aromatics and layers of flavor, and they often take five or ten years to fully mature.
Bridge Pa Triangle is a wine district organized by wineries that have established themselves here from the 1990s on. The winemakers of Bridge Pa Triangle believe:
“It is the special nature of the soils here that provide depth and flavour to the resulting wines, based on free-draining “red metal” gravels overlaid by alluvium derived from loess, volcanic ash and greywacke. The combination of these special soils with high sunshine hours, low rainfall and Growing Degree Days comparable to Bordeaux makes the Bridge Pa Triangle a unique viticultural area.”
On the other hand, the famed Gimblett Gravels was created as a trademark in 2001. A wine can only be labeled “Gimblett Gravels” if 95% of its grapes are grown here. This unique area is literally gravel – small stones – with a small amount of silt (20%) and an even smaller amount of clay (9%). Because there is so little material to hold water in these stony vineyards, the vines are drip-irrigated. As the Gimblett Gravels producers explain:
“In this way we can produce smaller crops than on deeper soils with smaller berries having more flavour, colour and better riper tannins…The biggest effect of these low vigour vines is on exposing more fruit to the sun… For us, warmer grapes mean less herbaceous characters, more colour, more extract, better tannins, less malic acid.”
Hawke’s Bay is regarded as the oldest wine region in New Zealand because Mission Estate Winery, which is located there, is the oldest winery in New Zealand. Mission Estate was established by European Christian missionaries in 1851; it is still run by the Marists (a Roman Catholic religious group from France), and wine is still made here under their supervision. This was the first winery I visited in the Hawke’s Bay region, and its restored, historic white mansion set in beautiful lawns and gardens makes it an absolutely lovely place to visit and taste wines today.
Mission Taste Winery has two vineyards on Gimblett Gravels, which were among the first planted there, in 1985-86. The wines from that area were my favorites at this winery – though they could still use some ageing time to balance their tannins and flavors. The 2014 Gimblett Gravels Reserve Merlot offers bold color and flavor with good structure; the 2015 Gimblett Gravels Barrique Reserve Syrah has a silky mouthfeel and cigar box-spice tannins; the 2014 Jewelstone Syrah, made from some of the original, old-clone syrah vines in this area, has approachable fruit with moderate spice and tannin.
At Trinity Hill, another winery in Hawke’s Bay, the team had the foresight to plan a short tour of the immediate area, and we went up to the top of Roy’s Hill which overlooks both Gimblett Gravels and Bridge Pa Triangle. From this vantage point we could see the original river bed that delineates these two great vine-growing areas. We then descended into the vineyards where the vines are amazingly lush and well-established in this flat terrain of small, rounded rocks and silt.
Trinity Hill’s “Homage” wines pay tribute to the late Gerard Jaboulet of Tain L’Hermitage in France’s Northern Rhone area; Jaboulet provided cuttings from his vineyard to the Trinity Hill winemaker (who had worked a harvest at Jaboulet’s winery). Homage wines are made only in the finest years. The 2014 Homage Syrah was my favorite of the Trinity Hill wines: Old World sophistication with a beautiful balance of acidity, tannin and blackberry fruit – a candidate for long aging, too. My second was the 2014 Trinity Hill Gimblett Gravels Syrah, medium bodied, peppery, with soft, dark red fruit – very easy to drink.
Elephant Hill is one of the wineries with a tasting room as well as a restaurant. The winery is perched in the middle of acres of vineyards, yet it has a striking view of the sea. The buildings are rectangles and glass with the trim painted a turquoise that accents both the sea and the vines. The restaurant extends seamlessly from a white-columned interior to an outside deck shaded by large, white umbrellas. Again, my favorite wine came from the vaunted region we have been talking about: the 2013 Reserve Syrah with fruit from Gimblett Gravels -- a fresh wine with dark fruit and cocoa on the palate, and a bit of pepper too.
Down the road at Rod McDonald Wines things were much homier – yet full of activity, just like their non-stop terrier, Cricket, frolicked around us everywhere we went. A wine consultant, McDonald moved to Hawke’s Bay six years ago, and he now produces or consults on so many wines I got confused and had to refer to his website for guidance. There I found listings of labels including Wine Card, Te Awanga Estate, Two Gates, One Off and Quarter Acre – though several of these are undergoing repositioning at the moment, each aimed at a different type of wine consumer. McDonald himself says he is not a grape grower, not a marketer, but states: “I will take people’s grapes and make them into wine better than anyone else.” His Syrahs (under many labels) were all extremely good. I also appreciated the remarkable 2013 Te Awanga Estate Grown Merlot-Cabernet which, with its gracious fruit and exceptional tannins, reminded me of a light, fine Bordeaux wine.
After this new establishment I visited one of the older wineries, Te Mata Estate, established in Hawke’s Bay in 1896 and named for a giant in a Maori legend. Many people will be familiar with their Sauvignon Blanc and other white wines, but again, I’m focusing on red wines here. At Te Mata, I had a chance to taste some of the newer vintage wines, the 2015s. The 2015 Syrah was made with fruit from Bridge Pa Triangle: aromatic with red berries that were somewhat restrained, along with baking spices and fine-grained tannins. Tasting the 2015 Coleraine I found it was like an en primeur sample: blackberry, acidity, strong structural tannins. It is best to wait up to ten years to drink this wine -- though most people don’t. The winemakers at Te Mata have the same complaint about their Awatea Cabernet-Merlot blend: people are drinking it as soon as they get it, when they would be better off waiting five or 10 years. I sampled the 2015 Awatea Cabernet-Merlot (which also has a little cabernet franc in it); it will definitely take a few years for the tannins to mature, and for the big plum and cocoa aromas and flavors to integrate into the structure of the wine.
My next visit was to a winery owned by the prestigious and pioneering, Auckland-based Villa Maria. For many years, Villa Maria has been making significant investments in Hawke’s Bay and they currently own Vidal Estate, Esk Valley Estate and Te Awa wineries here. When I visited one of them -- Vidal Estate -- I was assured that all the wineries function independently.
Vidal Estate’s site first became a winery in 1905. Because the city of Hastings has grown up around it, the winery is essentially situated in the city’s suburbs so they are talking about building a new winery in another location…at some point. A few of the best of Vidal’s red wines include: the 2015 Vidal Reserve Gimblett Gravels Syrah, with a peppery heat and very good tannins had a lovely broodiness around the edges, as well as complexity and balance; the 2014 Vidal Legacy Gimblett Gravels Syrah led with big flavors and concentrated fruit, aided by garrigue, burnt sugar and peppery notes. I expect both wines to be at their best in a few years, and to age well for some time.
My final visit was to Craggy Range, one of the most famous New Zealand wineries. I arrived frazzled at the end of the day, and immediately found myself taking a welcome break with several members of the winery team. Within minutes we were seated outdoors on their restaurant’s terrace, sipping Riesling and slurping fresh oysters, while contemplating the tranquil scenery: a wide, still pond spread out immediately in front of us, and across the water several cows lolled in a verdant meadow, exuding calmness.
After this refreshing interlude I was ready to go back to work, tasting Craggy Range wines from all three of their vineyard regions. (Craggy Range has vineyards in Martinborough and Marlborough in addition to Hawke’s Bay.) My top red wines from Hawke’s Bay were once again made with grapes from the Gimblett Gravels area, this time they were Bordeaux blends. The 2014 Single Vineyard Te Kahu Gimblett Gravels was big and rich, a blend of 68% merlot, 18% cabernet sauvignon, 8% malbec and 6% cabernet franc. Sophia is another Bordeaux blend, and this wine is produced only in the best vintages. The 2014 Sophia Gimblett Gravels is 61% merlot, 20% cabernet sauvignon and 19% cabernet franc. It is extremely lovely but extremely young so if you have some don’t open it yet; it should be at its best starting in 2019.
Hawke’s Bay is an extraordinary region to visit, with many excellent wines to taste. In terms of hawks and other predatory birds, these are being encouraged in the region because at the moment many vineyards must be painstakingly covered with netting, row by row, before harvest, so flocks of small birds cannot swoop down and eat all the wine grapes. As much as the birds appreciate the grapes, I think people appreciate them more, when we taste the outstanding wines. Hawke’s Bay with its acres of vineyards and miles of seacoast is an elegant region of wines and vineyards, landscapes and flavors.
Visiting Hawke’s Bay
The Art Deco-style town of Napier is known for its 1930s architecture and it is a lovely place to stay, with easy access to the seaside walks and to local restaurants of all types.
Trinity Hill winery has an ultra-modern, luxury lodge, set high on a hillside, which can be reserved as lodgings. While there are not many winery lodgings in this area, several of the Hawke’s Bay wineries do have extremely good restaurants in beautiful settings. Restaurants may require advance reservations so it is important to check winery websites before visiting.
Most wineries have tasting rooms (aka cellar doors) that are open to the public, though some are by appointment only. In New Zealand a tasting room is called a “cellar door.”