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A Visit to Elephant Hill and Tasting 2018 Red Barrel Samples


26-Apr-2018
The rise of Hawke’s Bay winery Elephant Hill has been nothing short of remarkable. Established in 2003 by Roger and Reydan Weiss of Germany, they set up a vineyard, winery, cellar door and restaurant in the coastal district of Te Awanga, and had Steve Skinner, fresh from Trinity Hill to make the wines. The inaugural wines were made in 2007, and they have rapidly improved to the point that they can be regarded as among the leaders in the Hawke’s Bay region. The acquisition of fruit from a long-term leased Bridge Pa Triangle vineyard, and the purchase of an established vineyard in the Gimblett Gravels suddenly made Elephant Hill a producer of complete Hawke’s Bay wines, and there has been a considerable step up in the sophistication of the wines from the 2013 vintage.

Roger Weiss unexpectedly passed away last year, but son Andreas has moved with his family to become resident in Hawke’s Bay, and has assumed the C.E.O. role at Elephant Hill, so there is an even stronger Weiss family presence there now. Steve Skinner is the winemaker, supported by Alex Breen, and the very experienced Jon Peet is the viticulturist, and he is supported by Justin Linnell. The Elephant Hill restaurant is first-class fine dining, and has won many awards, and comes under the care of Ashley Jones. In my review work, I interact with Becky Lambert and Kalos Chan.

Although I have made brief calls into Elephant Hill over the years, I’ve never spent a full day there. So when Steve Skinner invited me to visit, it was an opportunity not to miss. I particularly wanted to see the three vineyards that make Elephant Hill the consummate Hawke’s Bay wine producer, and I wanted to taste some 2018 wines to get a feeling for the just completed current vintage. Steve was keen to show me some yet-to-be-released top-end wines, and host me for a meal at the restaurant, something that I had not yet done. An added bonus was that my partner Sue Davies was included in the visit. It looked to be a fantastic day, and it turned out that way. www.elephanthill.co.nz

Jill Nicholson, vineyard technician and Jon Peet, viticulturist
at the Elephant Hill Gimblett Gravels vineyard

Visiting the Vineyards
By having three vineyards in different locations, and with their different microclimates, geography and geology, Elephant Hill has the ability to minimise the risks of poor seasons, and possibly more importantly give enormous options in blending, as well as the opportunity of making single vineyard wines. Elephant Hill has followed all these options, and according to Steve Skinner, the three sites have resulted in a leap in quality of the wines since the 2013 vintage. Viticulturist Jon Peet took us on a tour of all three vineyards.

We first went to the Gimblett Gravels vineyard, which sits on the river side of S.H. 50, with Sacred Hill’s ‘Deerstalker’ vineyard as its immediate neighbour. This was originally the ‘Two Gates’ vineyard, established over 2002 and 2003 by Kingsley Tobin, and was certified organic. Elephant Hill purchased the site in 2012, and immediately revitalised the plants, taking the site off organic certification. The site is a tough one, and under organics, the vines were just not succeeding, and the change has seen a significant improvement in health. Only red varieties are planted in this 18 ha block, with Syrah accounting for approximately half of the plantings, then 30% to Merlot and the remainder to Malbec and small amounts of Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon, the latter two varieties to be increased.

Tempranillo vines, nets off, at Elephant Hill 'Triangle' vineyard

The Bridge Pa Triangle vineyard is also approx. 18 ha in size. Also known as Cottingham Estate, it is under long-term lease from its Australian-based owners, this arrangement starting from the end of 2011. Planted to Merlot and Malbec, two-thirds has been pulled out. Syrah accounts for the most plantings there now, followed by Malbec and Merlot with smaller amounts of Tempranillo and Chardonnay, the latter with new clones 1066, 809 and 548. It is reckoned the top soil of the Triangle site is responsible for the more aromatic fruit character especially when compared to the linear and more firm nature of the Gimblett fruit.

The home and original Elephant Hill is the 24 ha of vines planted in 2003 at Te Awanga. Originally planted to a mix of white and red varieties, the main varieties is now Sauvignon Blanc, followed by Chardonnay, then Viognier, which is being reduced, and Pinot Gris. Gewurztraminer has been removed, despite making very good wine, but it was difficult logistically. The Bordeaux-red varieties have also been taken out. The cooler coastal area is deemed particularly suitable for white varieties, and provides Syrah with enhanced florals and elegance. To get the best perspective of the Te Awanga site, one should go to the luxury Elephant Hill Lodge near Parkhill, overlooking the land to the sea.

Together, these three sites provide the average 250 tonnes of fruit per year for Steve Skinner to process. Steve reminisces about the 50 tonnes of the 2007 vintage, made at the Kemblefield facility at Mangatahi, and how much it has grown, as well as the state-of-the-art equipment he now has available to use.

View from Elephant Hill Lodge overlooking the Te Awanga vineyard
Elephant Hill winery complex on left, Cape Kidnappers centre

Tasting the New ‘Earth’ and ‘Icon’ Wines
In the afternoon, Steve Skinner introduced a selection of wines that are yet-to-be-released. These were two ‘Earth’ wines, a Tempranillo and Syrah, both from 2015 and from the Triangle vineyard, the name ‘Earth’ referring to the top soil layer of the site. There will be ‘Stones’ wines from the company’s Gimblett Gravels vineyard, and also ‘Sea’ wines from the Te Awanga vineyard. These are to be placed under the ‘Icon’ wines, but above the ‘Reserve’ range.
Steve also showed the newest ‘Icon’ wines, a ‘Salomé’ Chardonnay 2016, the first Chardonnay in this range, the ’Airavata’ Syrah 2014 and ’Hieronymus’ blended red from 2014. I have made full notes on these, and they can be seen in ‘Tasting Reviews’ by clicking here.

Alex Breen, assistant winemaker, Elephant Hill

Tasting Barrel Samples of 2018 Reds
Much has been said about the unique growing season in 2018. There are a number of commentators and plenty of opinions on it being a very poor season. The reality is that most seasons had varied success with different varieties. Steve Skinner and Jon Peet felt that 2018 gave them plenty of material to make a good quantity of ‘Icon’ level wine, very much as in 2017, where Elephant Hill may have the best quantity and quality of ‘Icon’ fruit to date.

The latter part of the afternoon was spent tasting 2018 reds from barrel. Most of these were destined for ‘Icon’ wine production, and the barrels tasted from were predominantly new. There is very high potential in what I tasted. Here are my impressions.

Syrah 2018: Block 1, Gimblett Gravels, destined for Airavata. Impenetrable purple black-red. Very firm and tight with black fruit aromas, blackberries and boysenberries, earth, minerals and a touch of varietal reduction. Rich and succulent, very fine and vibrant, silky smooth, hints of blackberry and boysenberry ripeness, the complex iron-earth already showing. Seamless stuff!

Cabernet Franc 2018: Gimblett Gravels. Saturated black-purple colour. Very fine aromatics with an amalgam of violet florals, black and red currants and fresh herbs. Sweet and succulent on palate with very fine tannin extraction already, this has power. Lovely acid freshness and carries to a blackcurrant finish. Lovely fragrances. Possibly the best Cabernet Franc to date.

Syrah 2018: Gimblett Gravels, Block 13, no whole bunch, aimed for ‘Stones’ range. Very dark, black-purple colour. This is very refined, tightly bound with fresh and pure black fruit and violet florals on nose. Very rich and succulent, vibrant and energetic, luscious and juicy. Spices and ripe black fruits, florals all show. Very fine and firm tannins.

Syrah 2018: Clone 877, Bridge Pa fruit, 40% whole bunch. Purple-black colour, saturated. The nose has very fresh aromas with herbs and florals, lovely aromatics. Very elegant ant tightly bound, some smoke and whole bunch stalk. On palate rich and plush, quite fulsome, with delicious sweetness, not quite the structure. Will add flesh as a blend.

Syrah 2018: Gimblett Gravels, Block 2, with Viognier, no whole bunch. Impenetrable purple-black colour. Very fine floral fragrance with some reduction and iron-earth, tightly bound on nose. Very taut on palate, deep and dense, lovely concentration and fine-grained tannins and fresh acidity. Slight reduction. Overall, an elegant wine.

Cabernet Sauvignon 2018: Gimblett Gravels, Block 10, clone 15. Impenetrable black-purple colour. Beautiful blackcurrant and cassis purity, with fragrance. Features freshness and cut, and moderate tannin extraction. The acidity provides real vitality.

Cabernet Sauvignon 2018: Gimblett Gravels, Block 4, clone 10. Saturated black-purple colour. This is tight and dense, yet rounded. Layers of complexing iron-earth and minerals to the blackcurrant and blackberry fruit. On palate, deep and densely packed, solid and concentrated with intense black fruits and minerals. Great power and extraction, yet with balance.

Steve Skinner, winemaker, Elephant Hill
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