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Hawke’s Bay—About To Become Very Famous

By Charles Olken

When we started organizing our New Zealand adventure, we were pointed in the direction of Hawke’s Bay because we wanted to visit the Craggy Range winery. Not only did its Sauvignon Blanc take top honors in our tastings of New Zealand’s offerings, but the winery is noted for its array of wines, its gorgeous setting, its restaurant and its reputation as one of the places one should visit on a wine excursion down under.

And, we were not disappointed. The Craggy Range is knockout, its wines are as advertised and we had a great educational visit with winemaker, and American baseball fan, Matt Stafford. That said, it was towards the end of the visit when Matt pulled out the winery’s fanciest bottling, its Le Sol Syrah priced in the triple digits, that the light bulb went on.

Hawke’s Bay is a warmer growing region than most of New Zealand. It sits on the east side of the North Island and is protected from the prevailing westerlies by a line of mountains. It does get its share of rain, and even during our visit in the New Zealand late summer, there was plenty of green to match with the brown that reminded a bit of California. Its reputation is based more on reds than whites although Hawke’s Bay does author its fair share of very likeable Chardonnay.

We tasted Le Sol and were immediately impressed by its depth, its richness and its range of character. Clearly, this was no ordinary wine. Quite the opposite. It was extraordinary, and upon visits to other wineries including Elephant Hill where the Syrah also impressed, we put two and two together and found the common denominator.

The grapes had come from an upland area somewhat away from the oceanside home of those two wineries. There, near the town of Hasting, there sits an old river bed that had been rescued from housing developers in the 1980s and planted with grapes. Now, thirty years later, the locals know that the Gimblett Gravels area, some 3000 acres total, is special. Virtually every inch of the area is planted to grapes, and to my taste, the Bordelais reds and the Syrahs are not only the best wines grown in the area, they are also among the best wines to come out of New Zealand.

Some of the Bordeaux blends are near world-class, although, since New Zealand is not known for its fuller-bodied reds, they do not get much attention here. Their competition—Bordeaux, California, Washington, Tuscany, Argentina, Chil—all do as well or better and the wines have something of a tough go.

And then there is Syrah—and to be absolutely specific, there is Gimblett Gravels Syrah. Every example we tasted, whether Reserve level wines or not, exhibited the qualities of greatness. In short, this combination of place and grape has turned out, in a few short years from its inception, to not only have the potential to be world-class, it already yielding wines that would be thrill winelovers almost anywhere in the world.

I have a lot more to learn about the Gimblett Gravels. Its current plantings are a hodge-podge of varieties, and one can see Chardonnay as well as Rose’ from the area. It is early days yet on the Gimblett Gravels. Its fame is not widespread, and the pressure to replant with grapes that will bring higher returns is going to bring about change there just as surely as it has in Rutherford for Cabernet Sauvignon and the western parts of the Russian River Valley for Pinot Noir.

Like California, New Zealand wineries can plant what they want where they want. In the next installment of my travelogue, I will explore the rightfully famous Marlborough area and its spry, fragrant, unique Sauvignon Blancs, and it will turn out that the wineries there have come to realize that parts of that region are better suited to other varieties. Economics and the coterminous pursuit of quality do that.

And just as surely as the parts of Marlborough with warmer temperatures and heavier soils are now being planted to reds including Pinot Noir and Syrah to good effect, so too will the Gimblett Gravels find that its soils are going to attract the grapes that make the best wines and bring the highest prices. Syrah will surely be at the head of the line. And Gimblett Gravels is a place to remember.


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Hawke's Bay, NZ
by Hiram K. Evans
Posted on:4/22/2017 4:27:50 PM

I had a similarly nice experience in Hawke's Bay on my last NZ visit; luncheon at Craggy Range was a particular treay.  Hope you don't miss Church Road, a bit further north, and for something a bit different, try an apiary tasting... Never knew there were so many things from which to make honey and all different.

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