The ravelled relationship of Warren Gibson and Lorraine Leheny’s Bilancia with Trinity Hill and John Hancock is an interesting one to clarify. From the start, John Hancock had Warren Gibson as his right-hand winemaking man at Trinity Hill’s beginnings. Warren and his wife Lorraine, also a winemaker, were clear in also starting their own small ‘Bilancia’ label, which was seen as no conflict, and in fact has proven to be supportive and co-operative over time to both ventures.
Bilancia first appeared in 1998 with its first release of a classic Pinot Gris, made from fruit from the Huthlee site off Ngatarawa Road. Bilancia’s Pinot Gris then took top awards the following vintage and it has remained one of the leading examples of the variety in this country ever since. Following came Chardonnay, Viognier, Pinot Noir, wine from Bordeaux varieties and Syrah, all also well-received. The range has settled following trialling the different varieties and styles to bottlings of Pinot Gris, ‘Reserve’ Pinot Gris. Viognier and Syrah under the ‘Bilancia’ brand, and special releases of Viognier and Syrah based wines under the ‘La Collina’ label.
It is the ‘La Collina’ site that is close to Warren and Lorraine’s heart. Purchasing the north-west facing sloped site on Roy’s Hill, overlooking the Gimblett Gravels, they planted 3,700 MS clone Syrah vines on upper terraces, with 3,000 Viognier and 1,200 Chardonnay vines on the flatter land directly below the Syrah. The steepness of the site requires that all the work needs to be done by hand, and Warren often wonders if he was mad to do it. 4 tonnes of fruit may not seem much, but when managed manually… However, they are not alone on Roy’s Hill, with Trinity Hill and Cypress also planting on the hillside, with Stonecroft owning land on the hill, unplanted, but with Syrah on the flatter land next-door. This is Hawke’s Bay’s little Rhone enclave, and it bears more than a passing resemblance to the vineyards of Condrieu, Cote-Rotie and Hermitage!
On visiting, I expressed a desire to look at the ‘La Collina’ site, and Warren took me to various vantage points to see this rather unique vineyard. We ended up at the top, in warm sunshine, overlooking the Gimblett Gravels stretching northwards and to the east, and tasted the following wines. Was my tasting going to be impartial in such a setting with such a magnificent view?
First was the Bilancia Pinot Gris 2010, the largest volume wine made by Warren and Lorraine.. Since 2004, a site in Haumoana, cooler and more suited to the variety has provided the fruit. Excellent volume on the nose with stonefruits and pears, dry, subtly weighted and textured, this has plenty to reveal over the next 3-4 years. Only 70-80 cases of Viognier are usually released. The Bilancia Viognier 2010 has clearly defined exotic fruits that make the variety exciting. This vintage has power allied to cut, yet simultaneously shows slipperiness with creamy textures. It is a wine of intrigue too. Outstanding is the Bilancia Syrah 2010, trophy winner at the 2011 ANZWA. It is a blend of 70% Gimblett Gravels material with 30% from ‘La Collina’. Beautifully aromatic with perfumed spices, this is elegant and fine in textures, lively fresh and juicy with black fruits. Its suppleness is a feature enabling accessibility now.
La Collina Syrah has the reputation as one of the leading expressions of that variety, along with the likes of Trinity Hill ‘Homage’ and Craggy Range ‘Le Sol’. The first vintage was 2002, followed by releases every year from 2004 onwards. The La Collina Syrah 2009 is to be released soon and is the first to come sealed with screwcap. It is an altogether more serious wine than the Bilancia, with far greater depth and density, riper fruit, and with savoury, complex elements, as well as characters described by Warren as ‘red liquorice’. Yet again, the finesse of texture allows enjoyment now, but this will live more than a decade. The final wine tasted was a La Collina Viognier ‘Tardi’ 2010, sitting at 13.0% alc. and around 160 g/L rs, made with approx. 25% botrytised grapes. Soft and restrained, brooding to an extent. The varietal character of apricots is present, and well-complemented by the botrytis; the richness and flavours of both build in the glass. Another year in bottle will see it blossom. Dessert wines from Viognier are proving to be very interesting and this will be one to snap up on release due to its limited production. www.bilancia.co.nz