By Rose Murray Brown MW Published in The Scotsman 23 January 2021
When we think of New Zealand, we think of Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir growing in relatively cool climates – but there are warmer parts of New Zealand where it is possible to ripen the difficult later-ripening red grapes like Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Syrah.
One of the most significant warmer wine zones, which has become famous for Bordeaux and Rhone red grapes, is ‘Gimblett Gravels’ - an inland area of New Zealand’s Hawkes Bay region about 15 km from Napier on the east coast of North Island.
“With 1,334 sunshine hours and average 16.3 degrees C, it has a very similar climate to Bordeaux – and is on the same latitude as Sardinia and Ibiza”, says New Zealand wine expert Rebecca Gibb MW.
This area got the name Gimblett Gravels from an Englishman from Devon who bought land here in 1904. The gravels had been caused by a natural phenomenon back in 1867 when the local river Ngaruroro had a huge flood and changed course leaving a significant gravel bed.
By the 1980s it was beginning to attract the attention of vinegrowers looking for areas to ripen red grapes. Englishman, Suffolk-born Chris Pask, who owned an aerial top dressing business and used to fly over the area, planted the first red grapes here in 1981. Pask had taken a punt and bought a 40 hectare block here where he planted Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc, whilst soil scientist Alan Limner of Stonecroft planted the first Syrah here in 1982.
They believed that as the gravels retain heat, in the same way that the large stones of Chateauneuf du Pape in France’s Rhone valley can do, this would help grape ripeness, particularly attractive for the later-ripening grapes.
However – vine growers were worried about investing here as it had also attracted the attention of mining companies who were surveying the gravel beds. One of the mining companies had bought up 20% of the gravels and applied for permission to use seven million tons of shingle from the area to make concrete and roads.
At that stage there were just 20 hectares of vineyards in the area – but when the mining appeal was rejected in 1992, the wine investors piled in. Vineyard plantings on Gimblett Gravels shot up to 200 hectares by 1998 and today there are 850 hectares - planted at low lying altitude of 30m above sea level.
90% of grapes planted on Gimblett Gravels today are red. Whilst the most popular is Merlot with 30%, this earlier ripening grape is now being planted less. Warren Gibson winemaker of Trinity Hill winery believes that Gimblett Gravels’ strength is in the Cabernet family and Syrah, so useful for adding structure to wines. He believes we will see an increase on the current plantings of Cabernet Sauvignon (15%), Cabernet Franc (4%) and Syrah (20%) in future.
There are also plantings of Malbec, Grenache, Montepulciano and Tempranillo here – and just 10% of the area is planted to white grapes: Chardonnay, Viognier, Gewurztraminer and Riesling.
According to Gibson it is a great time to buy Gimblett Gravels reds. “We have had three great warm ripening seasons in a row: 2018, 2019 and 2020 – with 2018 in particular a great year for Cabernet Sauvignon”, he says.
CABERNET & MERLOT
SAINT CLAIR PIONEER BLOCK CABERNET MERLOT 2018 (13.5%) ***STAR VALUE***
£17.99 / £19.99 Majestic Wine for 2019 vintage
Rich plummy Cabernet Sauvignon blend with a significant 41% of Merlot - and just a touch of Malbec - aged for 10 months in French oak (35% new). Vines are planted on land which had previously been owned by a strawberry farmer. Perfumed, cigar box, blackberry fruits with soft velvety richness – an affordable approachable blend for early drinking.
TRINITY HILL THE GIMBLETT 2018 (13.5%)
£23.99 NZ House of Wine
Warren Gibson’s youthful 50/50 blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc shows how good the Cabernets were in 2018. A big powerful wine for the price made with traditional Bordeaux winemaking, extended maceration with 100% new oak. Blackberry, cassis, quite savoury, firm fine-grained tannins and long length.
ELEPHANT HILL HIERONYMUS 2018 (13.9%) ***STAR BUY***
£51.75 Corney & Barrow
Elephant Hill bought land nearer the coast at Te Awanga in 2012, so their style is often cooler aromatic and refined. An excellent blend of 58% Caberbet Sauvignon, 22% Merlot with some Franc and Malbec – big bold wine with deep dark colour, soft lush tannins and lovely texture created from leaving it on its lees in barrel for a year without racking.
SACRED HILL RESERVE SYRAH 2016 (13%) ***STAR VALUE***
£13.50 Inverarity Morton; £15.50 Vinorium
This offers a great introduction to New Zealand Syrah. From Sacred Hill’s Deerstalker block in the Gimblett Gravels – this is spicy peppery with a lush soft succulent palate with restrained fruits, herby notes and good structure. Lovely freshness and vibrancy - and very approachable style.
SMITH & SHETH CRU HERETAUNGA SYRAH 2018 (12.5%)
£26.99 / £30.99 NZ House of Wine
Syrah blended from two different sites, one giving floral aromatic notes and the other more tannin and structure. This is a beautiful example of New Zealand Syrah with its raspberry and liquorice aromas, freshness, vibrancy and pretty open palate. With its dark berry fruit and peppery notes, it is quite Rhone-like. Made by Steve Smith MW and Warren Gibson.
ELEPHANT HILL STONE SYRAH 2018 (13.8%)
£44 Corney & Barrow
Another stunning wine from Elephant Hill from very low yields. This Syrah has 1% Viognier to lift its aromas. Violet, liquorice and spicy with a soft rounded lush palate and smooth tannins finishing with a lovely spiciness from 25% whole cluster fermentation - a useful winemaking technique particularly in riper warmer vintages like 2018. Elephant Hill also make a standard Syrah (£21.95 Corney & Barrow) which is also very impressive.
Join Rose’s ‘Meet the Italian Winemaker’ virtual wine tasting with Matteo Sega of Barbacan winery in Valtellina, Northern Italy in association with Raeburn Fine Wines on Friday 19 February 2021 www.rosemurraybrown.com