New Zealand’s wine history may be much shorter than Burgundy’s, but it was producing fine red wine almost a century before the celebrated region of Central Otago produced its first Pinot Noir. There was already wine in Hawke’s Bay as early as 1851. Mission Estate Winery was established by missionaries a decade before gold was discovered in Central Otago.
Te Mata Estate, Vidal Estate, and the estate now known as Esk Valley were up and running by the 1920s – half a century before the first Sauvignon Blanc was planted in Marlborough and 60 years before Central Otago released its first Pinot Noir. “We are not the new kids on the block,” says Warren Gibson, Trinity Hill’s winemaker. In 1964, before most winemakers in Hawke’s Bay were out of shorts, the late wine writer André Simon visited the region and praised a 1912 claret and a 1949 Cabernet Sauvignon.
Today, veteran winemakers continue to wear shorts year-round in Hawke’s Bay’s temperate, maritime climate. Situated on New Zealand’s North Island, Hawke’s Bay is much warmer than Marlborough, 300 km to the south. The climate sits somewhere between Bordeaux and Napa, but is warmer than Coonawarra, and that’s reflected in the fruit ripeness. When it comes to size, Hawke’s Bay is the country’s second-biggest wine-producing region after Marlborough, and in international terms, covers approximately the same area as Margaret River or about a quarter of Saint-Émilion, the Médoc or Napa.
Comparisons to red winemaking regions specialising in Merlot and the Cabernets are no accident, as these varieties make up one-quarter of all the vines planted in Hawke’s Bay, making it the home of New Zealand Bordeaux blends. Merlot typically dominates blends, as the late-ripening Cabernet Sauvignon can struggle to reach full maturity in cool or wet vintages. The resulting wines could be compared to Right Bank Bordeaux in warm years, offering ripe fruit with classical structure, fine-grained tannins and firm acidity. But making great Bordeaux-inspired red blends is hardly novel. Gordon Russell, senior winemaker at Esk Valley, is realistic – “No matter how good our Bordeaux blends are, there is a sea of wines like them across the world.”
However, the region has another red variety that the international wine media has fallen in love with – Syrah. It offers the elegance, spice, and savoury nuances of the northern Rhône paired with sweet New World fruit. It is a unique and characterful combination. “We do have something different with Syrah and it can find a niche in the global wine market,” adds Russell. Yet the admiration of wine critics has not yet translated into sales. Australian Shiraz continues to dominate the category. Even domestically, the Shiraz/Syrah shelves are dominated by South Australian Shiraz while the local Syrahs often occupy an embarrassingly small, dusty corner.
While Hawke’s Bay is responsible for almost nine out of ten hectares of Cabernet, Merlot, and three-quarters of the Syrah grown in New Zealand, the region isn’t just a red-wine producer. More than 50% of plantings are white, and the styles range from richly textured-yet-precise Chardonnay to ripe, round Sauvignon Blanc, and voluptuous Viognier. The diversity of varieties layered on top of 25 different soil types in the region is enough to make your brain hurt. “We don’t have a key variety. Hawke’s Bay does too many things well,” says Vince Labat, head of sales, Elephant Hill – and that’s both a blessing and a curse. “It’s not as if the customer and the trade are able to put us in a box like Marlborough and Sauvignon Blanc or Central Otago and Pinot Noir.”
Currently, Hawke’s Bay does not have the renown of Marlborough or Central Otago, and its heterogeneity makes it difficult to explain in a 30-second elevator pitch. “The challenge for Hawke’s Bay in China is to become as well known as Marlborough and Central Otago,” says Fongyee Walker MW, whose company Dragon Phoenix Wine Consulting has organised a series of educational roadshows across China for the Hawke’s Bay Winegrowers Association. Yet, the lack of a star variety is not a big concern in her opinion. “In China, one of the key buying cues is region rather than grape – perhaps a knock-on from the Bordeaux effect – so it’s important for Hawke’s Bay to establish itself as a high-quality production area regardless of the varieties.”
With some of the country’s finest wines on its books – Te Mata Coleraine, Vidal Legacy Chardonnay, Trinity Hill Homage Syrah – there’s little doubt that Hawke’s Bay can produce outstanding-quality reds and whites. From the coast to former river beds like the Gimblett Gravels, and climbing up to the Crownthorpe Terraces, the general standard of wine production across its 76 wineries is good to excellent.
Yet it’s not the first region that comes to mind when buying New Zealand. Gaëtan Turner, president of South World Wines, is based in Paris and sells Elephant Hill’s wines across France, which sounds like a task akin to selling ice to Eskimos, except that you’ll now find Hawke’s Bay wines in Michelin restaurants from Paris to Monaco. His customers – if they know anything about New Zealand wine – have heard of Marlborough, but not Hawke’s Bay. “But there’s a different story to tell, and then we show them the photos of Elephant Hill and it blows them away.”
Elephant Hill is a wine-photographer’s dream location – the untamed Pacific waters ebb and flow within metres of its vineyards. The rugged peninsula of Cape Kidnappers, which juts out into the ocean, provides a dramatic backdrop. Drive 15 minutes inland to the artsy town of Havelock North and there is more natural beauty. Follow Craggy Range’s winemaker Matt Stafford on Instagram and his images of morning runs up Te Mata Peak or along the local beaches (sometimes meeting a seal along the way) attest to the spectacular landscape of this region. What’s more, its main city, Napier, was destroyed by an earthquake in 1931 and was rebuilt in Art Deco style, making it a mecca for architecture lovers.
And it also has its own event that is ripe for attracting international wine lovers. For the past 25 years, it has organised New Zealand’s equivalent of the Hospices de Beaune. While bidders from the four corners of the globe attend the Burgundy auction, attempting to secure a parcel from the latest vintage, the make-up of the Hawke’s Bay event is rather more local, and the region could seek to raise its profile beyond New Zealand shores. There has been a string of excellent vintages (2013, 2014, 2015 and 2016), and the prices that the wines have attained, while impressive in New Zealand terms, look like absolute bargains compared to the prices paid at the Burgundy charity auction. The event also provides an opportunity for outsiders to understand the region’s laid-back attitude – no shirt and tie needed here, there’s beer to drink at the auction, and winemakers present their lots in their own idiosyncratic ways. At the 2015 auction, Clearview Estate donated a personalised blending session to make a quarter barrique of wine (56 L), followed by a meal that was clearly going to involve a lot of wine. “This will be a lunch that you won’t remember,” announced the winery’s owner, Tim Turvey, at the auctioneer’s podium before the bidding climbed to NZ$7,000.00 ($5,100.00).
Hawke’s Bay has history on its side, natural beauty, and a range of unique, high-quality wines. It also has a long-running auction that is ripe for internationalising. What it does not have is one variety to hang its hat on. This can make it more difficult for consumers to understand, but as Walker pointed out, that’s no issue for some markets, including China. Of course, spreading the word – whether it’s masterclasses in China, Australia or the UK – costs money, and with most wineries producing less than 200,000 L annually, advertising and promotional budgets don’t stretch to multiple market campaigns. There is collaboration within the region, but the international success of the region’s wine brands currently rests on the success of individual wineries. They might be Hawke’s Bay wineries, but the Hawke’s Bay name is not sufficiently renowned to sell their wine alone. It is brand first, New Zealand second, Hawke’s Bay third.
Rebecca Gibb MW