Firstly the Bordeaux variety blends. About as classic in the fine Bordeaux claret style you could ever get is the Babich Irongate 2010 (18.5+/20), fine-grained textures holding textbook blackcurrant fruit, with restrained richness and hints of oak spice. A different beast altogether is the Babich ‘The Patriarch’ 2010 (19.0-/20), an expression of luxury, great ripeness for such a cool vintage, and serious extract, but handled so finely. The Craggy Range ‘Sophia’ 2010 (19.0-/20), fine in structure, but with richness and all assembled with harmony. Even more elegant is the Esk Valley ‘Winemakers Reserve’ Merlot/Malbec/Cabernet 2010 (18.5-/20), tightly constructed and quite slender, with a firmness that will no doubt unfurl. The Mission ‘Jewelstone’ Merlot/Cabernet Franc 2010 (18.5+/20) is all about delight and fragrance in the red fruit spectrum, not the largest or strongest, but arguably the most supple and deliciously accessible. The Newton Forrest ‘Cornerstone’ 2010 (19.5/20) is a concentrated and driven beauty, surprisingly showing Cabernet Sauvignon blackcurrant and minerally graphite characters, though Merlot makes up 63% of its composition. The Sacred Hill ‘Brokenstone’ 2010(19.0-/20) is demonstrating more structure and grip with the fruit beautifully framed by the tannins, showing its potential even more so than a month or so ago. I love the Sacred Hill ‘Helmsman’ 2010 (19.5+/20). Its tannin structure is enormous, as its fruit depth. It’s a powerhouse of a wine that will become sublime over the next few years as it comes together. Backing myself, I have to rate the Villa Maria ‘Reserve’ Merlot 2010 (20.0/20) at the top level again. Its ripeness and sweetness just unfolds layers of flavour and the fruit is distinctly individual. It has an undefinable extra that strikes the soul (well, my one, anyway).
It was appropriate that the Gimblett Gravels Winegrowers Association showed their stellar wines off at Wellington’s Carter Observatory. Pun intended, for sure. 19 members put up 55 red wines and 6 whites for show, many of them gold medal and 5-star awarded wines as well as several trophy winners. The venue, the Carter Observatory in Kelburn was a superb venue, the staff putting on a presentation demonstrating the vastness of the universe, and each of the rooms and galleries with their unique theme and character, very much as how the wines were displayed. Instead of each winery exhibiting their particular wares, the wines were grouped to variety and style, making it easy for attendees to gain an overall perspective of each category.
The Gimblett Gravels wines are based on their geographical origin, from 800 ha of delimited land based on the gravelly soils deposited by the Ngaruroro river which became uncovered after a huge flood in the 1860s. The soils and microclimate have proven especially suitable for growing the Bordeaux red varieties as well as Syrah. In 2001, the Gimblett Gravels Winegrowers Association was formed to gather winegrowers together in this unique area for support and marketing objectives, as well as protecting the provenance, name and quality of the wines that come from vines grown there. This they have done remarkably well, and the name ‘Gimblett Gravels’ is becoming highly recognised and respected both in this country and overseas. www.gimblettgravels.com
Tasting the Wines
There was plenty of time available to taste all of the wines exhibited. Not enough to conduct ‘Feature Reviews’ as I would normally do for this website, but certainly sufficient to gain a good impression of each wine, and more so than most other showcase events. The number of wines offered was enough to get an excellent snapshot of the Gimblett Gravels’ output, and it was not too daunting or so many to hurt the palate. I offer my impressions of each class of wines, with comments (and ratings) on the best wines, listed alphabetically
Merlot and Merlot Dominant – 12 Wines Exhibited
This was arguably the weaker appearing class, which is surprising on the surface, as Merlot is the most widely planted variety in Hawke’s Bay and in the district. Merlot is, of course, more difficult to grow consistently successfully, due to flowering sensitivity. Ripeness has been problematical in 2010 and 2011, cooler vintages. Maybe Merlot is not particularly favoured in the Gimblett Gravels over other districts, as much as the other varieties? Merlot and Merlot-based wines have not performed well over the last decade, possibly due to producers trying too hard, with the resultant wines over-extracted and out of balance, or just plainly weak. The country’s focus on Pinot Noir and to a lesser extent Syrah may have meant less attention to the variety has been afforded it? The last few vintages have seen Merlot-based wines show correct ripeness, better balance and more supple textures.
The Esk Valley ‘Winemakers Reserve’ Merlot/Malbec/Cabernet 2009 (18.5/20) shows the generosity of this vintage with is full, even mouthfeel and ripe plumpness. For the cooler year, the Mills Reef ‘Elspeth’ Merlot 2010 (18.5/20) has classic fruit-cake aromas and flavours, again plummy in mouthfeel, but with an acid line through the palate. Continuing in the same elegant mould as earlier vintages, the Trinity Hill ‘The Gimblett’ 2010 (18.5-/20) is medium-weighted, still tightly boud and shy, revealing layers of interest and spicy characters. Another elegantly sized wine, the Unison ‘Classic’ 2008 (18.0+/20) has richness combined with texture, but sports good acid freshness and a little lift to the aromatics.
Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Predominant – 8 Wines Exhibited
This was a surprisingly strong group of wines, none really disappointing, and my inclusion or exclusion really only based on scores on the 5-star dividing line. It has been long-said that Cabernet Sauvignon performs exceptionally well on The Gravels, and it appears to be a success in more challenging vintages such as 2010 where full ripening occurred very late in the season. If the Gimblett Gravels can show well in 2010, it demonstrates a very desirable consistency. Those stones in the soil must retain daytime heat, releasing it in the evening, as suggested by the members of the association!
The Coopers Creek ‘Select Vineyards’ Cabernet/Merlot 2010 (18.5+/20) is a classically proportioned Cabernet-based wine with sweet blackcurrant fruit and very good length. The Kidnapper Cliffs Cabernet Sauvignon 2010 (19.0-) is looking better than the finished tank sample I saw earlier this year. Beautifully pure, and great finesse of texture, revealing tobacco and cedar complexities. The Mills Reef ‘Elspeth’ ‘Trust Vineyard’ Cabernet Sauvignon 2010 (18.5-/20) is a soft textured, gently broad and open wine, with enticingly sweet oak. I was impressed with the Newton Forrest ‘Cornerstone’ 2009 (18.5+/20), showing a mix of pure Cabernet graphite and pencil lead flavours and the hallmark black, iron-earth character I associate with the Gimblett Gravels. Equally impressive was the Unison ‘Selection’ 2009 (19.0/20), plush, fleshy, densely rich and layered, and strong in oak, showing more of the winemaker’s signature. The Vidal ‘Legacy Series’ Cabernet/Merlot 2009 (18.5-/20) is one of the more complex wines combining aromatic perfumes with meat and game interest on a good, dryly constituted palate. And never putting a foot wrong, Villa Maria ‘Reserve’ Cabernet/Merlot 2009 (19.0-/20), classical Cabernet Sauvignon blackcurrant expression, silky-smooth but with a serious core and plenty of extraction. Showing promise and improving in the bottle is the William Murdoch Cabernet/Merlot 2009 (18.5-/20), firm and robust, not quite rustic, with oak and earthy detail, this has real individuality.
Other Red Varietals – 3 Wines Exhibited
This will be a fascinating category to follow. Already some of the new varietal wines are making their mark. As well as the other Bordeaux grapes, Rhone, Italy and Spain are all in the mix.
The Trinity Hill Tempranillo 2009 (18.5/20) is showing more completeness since I saw it last, with deliciously sweet red berry fruit and satisfying mouthfeel, without being over the top in any way. However, other the top in a sensational way is the Villa Maria ‘Reserve’ Malbec 2009 (19.0+/20), a powerhouse of a wine with masses of dark berry fruits and smooth, seamless lusciousness.
Syrah – 14 Wines Exhibited
This is the wonder story for the Gimblett Gravels, Hawke’s Bay and New Zealand. The variety produces a full range of styles that is pleasing no matter which end of the ripeness spectrum they sit in, and whether they are serious or easy-drinking. Wine show judges have started to become more critical, rewarding wines right down the middle of the style track, but I believe they could be a little more forgiving because of their appealing nature, no matter where they fit in. The consumer uptake is growing, but at this stage the excitement is greater than the demand. The small area of plantings may be just right for the current balance of the domestic market and export requirements, but that could change dramatically in a short space of time if the international scene recognises what is being made from Syrah in this country. The Gimblett Gravels has produced a very high proportion of the best examples.
Cooler vintages can bring out the aromatics in Syrah, and this is what has happened with the Craggy Range ‘Gimblett Gravels’ Syrah 2010 (18.5/20), elegant, peppery and spicy with fine structure and lacy acidity. A slender beauty compared to others. The Esk Valley ‘Winemakers Reserve’ Syrah 2010 (18.5+/20) is also bright in acidity with a sinewy texture that is quite substantial, showing black minerals and spices. The Matariki ‘Reserve’ Syrah 2009 (19.0-/20) has spent 30 months in new oak, and is still not released. Seamless and with a complex amalgam of smoke and spices that works superbly. The Mission ‘Jewlstone’ Syrah 2009 (18.5-/20) is initially shy, but slowing builds with great depth and intensity. It has a lot more that what meets the eye on first taste. An elegant style, the Newton Forrest Syrah 2009 (18.5+/20) has a very fine core and structure, lifted by the clever use of sweeter American oak. I’ve already tasted the Sacred Hill ‘Deerstalkers’ Syrah 2010 (19.0-/20) before, and it lived up to its bold and rich nature I saw last month. This is the best under this label to date. My pick of the Syrahs, the Stonecroft ‘Reserve’ Syrah 2010 (19.5/20) is a classy Rhone look-alike, with striking fruits and pepper, spices and layers of earth, all with a restrained richness. Simply a standout wine. In the house style that seems prevalent across the wines, the Unison Syrah 2009 (19.0-/20) is a rich, soft, fleshy wine with masses of spice work, oak and ripeness featuring. This still has great grip and structure underneath. Villa Maria ‘Reserve’ Syrah 2009 (19.0-/20) has the density this ripe vintage has endowed the wines, and the dark fruit flavours and spice notes are just beginning to reveal earthy complexities. Distinctive, spicy, high-toned oak marks the William Murdoch Syrah 2009 (18.5-/20), it robust and powerful, and a statement wine that could polarise people, but there’s plenty in it.
Vintage (Not Current Release) Wines – 6 Exhibited
The Hawke’s Bay wine industry prides itself on the ability of its wines to age well. The Hawke’s Bay A&P Wine Show has a ‘Museum’ class in its schedule, and many showcase events includes wines with bottle age to demonstrate longevity. This Gimblett Gravels showcase had six on show.
All the wines in this group were in very good condition, and surprisingly youthful, without undue development. The Kidnapper Cliffs ‘Ariki’ 2008 (18.5-/20) more refined and together than when I tried it last, with a fine structure. Likewise, the Matariki ‘Quintology’ 2007 (18.5+/20), layered with unfolding flavours, sweetly robust, but with a charming settled mouthfeel and balance. The star was actually the youngest wine, the Mission ‘Jewelstone’ Cabernet/Merlot 2009 (19.5-/20), beautifully expressing ripe blackcurrant essence and plump dark plums, luscious and powerful with an iron core. And structure with building intensity were the hallmarks of the Sacred Hill ‘Helmsman’ 2006 (18.5+/20), another star in its own right.
2010 Annual Vintage Selection
This is an annual selection of 12 wines by Andrew Caillard MW who chooses his top dozen wines from those submitted in a special tasting for the purposes of highlighting the best of the Gimblett Gravels. The selection is invaluable as it is done by an impartial commentator. Click here to see my earlier article on the 2010 Annual Vintage Selection. I must admit when I first saw that these wines were available for tasting, I went to taste them first out of all the categories. I’ve reviewed seven of the dozen for my website already (these are highlighted and linked to my reviews), so it was gratifying to re-taste these again, and see the others I had not reviewed.
The 2010 Syrah wines were more elegant and aromatic than last year’s selection which were 2009s, this being an expression of the late-to-ripen vintage. The fruitiest, most up-front was the Crossroads ‘Winemakers Collection’ Syrah 2010 (18.5+/20), a bold wine, with plenty of spicing and underlying framework. Some florals and minerally reduction also showing. The Mills Reef ‘Elspeth’ Syrah 2010 (18.5+/20) is soft, evenly flowing across the palate, and a wine with accessible poise and detail. And the Trinity Hill ‘Homage’ Syrah 2010 (19.0/20), again not the biggest wine they’ve made, but possibly the most linear, iron-cored and liveliest in fruit detail and precision. This has freshness and cut, balancing the exotic fruit nature superbly.