Chuck’s Down Under

Regional Spotlight: Hawkes Bay, New Zealand

Regional Spotlight: Hawkes Bay, New Zealand

Post by Chuck Hayward | April 13th,2010

“One forgets just how fine New Zealand’s Cabernet Sauvignon and Bordeaux blends can be, particularly in Hawke’s Bay” -Neal Martin, Writer for Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate, May 2008.

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The relatively warm region of Hawkes Bay on New Zealand’s North Island has become the premier growing region for merlot and cabernet, with almost 80% of the country’s production for those grapes centered in the area. With a history of grape growing that goes back to late 19th century, it’s been just recently that Hawkes Bay has begun to make a name for itself internationally following on from the popularity of Marlborough sauvignon blanc and pinot noir from Central Otago and Martinborough.

The region’s first plantings were scattered along the coast where it is cooler and more exposed to weather from Hawkes Bay. Later on, plantings were focused on sites inland from the bay where the temperatures are warmer and become more conducive to varieties like cabernet and merlot. Although the Hawkes Bay region is somewhat compact, there can be a difference of five degrees Celsius between coastal and inland vineyard sites.

There are a number of subregions in Hawkes Bay that will become more defined in the near future and will become increasingly important as single site expressions of Bordeaux blends become more recognized. In the meantime, most Hawkes Bay designated Bordeaux blends will come from grapes throughout the appellation with an emphasis on areas that can ripen grapes on a consistent basis.

Esk River–North of Napier, the home of some historic wineries such as Glenvale (now Esk Valley).

Te Awanga–South of Napier, this coastal area is best suited to earlier ripening varieites becasue of the cool climate conditions.

Dartmoor Valley–A secluded valley north of the Hawkes Bay basin combined with calcareous, gravelly soils allows for more consistent growing conditions.

Havelock Hills–The north facing hills were among the first areas to be planted years ago and are home to famous wineries like Te Mata.

Gimblett Gravels–The most famous subregion of Hawkes Bay, gravelly soils left from an old river allow for exceptional drainage and slightly higher temperatures perfect for bordelais varieties as well as syrah and chardonnay.

Ngatarawa Triangle--Just west of the Gravels, this area makes reds that are slightly more elegant compared to what Gimblett can produce.

Hawkes Bay reds have been a consistent part of the US wine market for some time now but their success has been limited compared to other varietals like sauvignon blanc. Part of this is due to the style of wines that were first exported in the early 1990s. The prevailing model of the time was a lower alcohol merlot-cabernet blend grown from vineyards closer to the coast. These wines were more herbaceous and greener than the prevailing style of wine coming from California. As wineries experimented with grapes coming from warmer inland sites, the resulting wines had riper fruit flavors and the American market began to see less of the more severe weediness in Hawkes Bay reds. Nevertheless, consumers and the trade remained under the impression that Hawkes Bay reds were of a herbal nature.

With the arrival of the warm 1998 vintage, the American market began to see the qualities that grapes from warmer subregions could add to the traditional Hawkes Bay style. The wines became less vegetative in aromas and purer fruit expressions began to emerge. They still maintained, however, the sense of elegance and restraint that makes these wines quite similar to Bordeaux. The best examples from Gimblett Gravels also added a strong mineral component derived from the gravelly nature of the soil.

Two other factors have also contributed to the increased quality of Hawkes Bay bordelais varieties. For one thing, the vines are getting more mature. As vines enter their adolescence of 10-14 years, the greener, herbal notes give way to more pure fruit flavors. In addition, thanks to a relaxation of quarantine regulations for imported grape cuttings by the New Zealand government, growers have secured cabernet and merlot clones from Bordeaux that are more appropriate for the climate in Hawkes Bay.

Recorked: Authenticating A Bottle Part I

Once a year, Penfolds Winery goes to the major cities of Australia and offers customers a free inspection and analysis of any Penfolds wine over 15 years of age. A team of Penfolds winemakers, including senior winemaker Peter Gago, perform this function and if necessary, will open, taste, top-up, recork and recapsule wines that might require a more detailed assessment because of low fill levels or leaking corks. A certifcate is attached to any bottle that passes these tests and is entered in a database to further guarantee the authenticity of the recorking process. There is no winery on the planet that performs this free service for their customers.

Peter and the senior winemaking staff of Penfolds recently visited San Francisco for the only recorking clinic in the US market. I have had the fortune to see many clinics in Australia but this clinic was extra special as I brought a 1959 Grange from one of JJ Buckley consignors to be assessed… and possibly rejected!! It was a nerve-racking experience as the wine was uncorked and then tasted.

You will find out what happened when you read my detailed blog on the Penfolds Recorking Clinic very soon!!

Penfolds Chief Winemaker, Peter Gago

Chief Winemaker Peter Gago explains the recorking process to the group at Cellar 360 in San Francisco.

From The Front: On Trophy Wines & Purple Teeth

The Australian wine industry is famous for its system of wine shows which hand out gold, silver, and bronze medals for top rated wines as well as trophies for those wines deemed to be the best of class or best of exposition. In many cases, winning a trophy can bring increased wine sales. But what really counts is the publicity for those winners and more importantly, the recognition from their peers in producing a top quality wine.

The wine show system is not without controversy. Critics claim that by tasting so many wines, only the big and bold styles are recognized. Conspiracy theorists say that wineries submit entries that are not actually the “official” bottling released to the general public. Others argue that there are simply too many wine shows. Be that as it may, the Australian show system isn’t going away.

I am currently judging at The Sydney International Wine Competition 2010 as one of 12 judges tasked with assessing almost 2000 wines. The panel includes five Masters of Wine, winemakers, journalists, and even a doctor. Over four days, we have sipped, slurped, and bemoaned the state of our purple teeth. Tonight after the judging is officially over, we all get dressed up for a formal thank you dinner and speeches- a tradition in the Australian wine industry. I’ll have more to say about the Sydney show as well as some comments about the show system in a later blog. Cheers!

One of the first of many, many flights...

But one of many flights...

Chuck’s Down Under Discoveries

Coming soon to the blogosphere: News & New Arrivals From Down Under by Chuck Hayward.

“Welcome to my new blog!! I’m looking forward to writing about one of may favorite subjects, the wines of Australia and New Zealand (with a little bit of south Africa added to the mix). These countries are producing some of the most exciting wines today, made by passionate winemakers and grapegrowers working in some of the most beautiful places in the world. I hope you’ll sign up to receive updates as they are posted and I look forward to reading your comments. Thanks for checking in!” – Chuck