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Hawke’s Bay 2011 Vintage Better Than You May Think

By June 2, 2011No Comments

The wines from the rain-affected harvest of Hawke’s Bay this year have already been written off in many people’s minds. The thoughts of the catastrophic floods over Anzac weekend at the end of picking seem to have sealed the fate of the reputation of the vintage, but the truth is that like every vintage, there is variation, with some excellent wine and some not so good.

The warm and favourable weather over the summer months provided the heat units, ripeness and underlying strength of the fruit. However, rain events in harvest resulted in disease pressure, firstly with downy mildew followed by botrytis. How the fruit was affected was dependant on the state of maturity of the fruit, and ultimately vineyard siting, but it was essentially Chardonnay as the variety that was affected most. Growers reported a rapid overnight degradation of the fruit as never seen before. Earlier ripening varieties, such as Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Gris were generally harvested in excellent condition before the rain, and the thicker skin red varieties withstood disease to be picked in fine weather after. A portion of Chardonnay, from precocious sites, or very late sites escaped the damage, but it appears the variety was generally in the wrong stage of development at the wrong time…

With juice safely and soundly converted to wine, and stored in tank and barrel, one could make an initial appraisal of the wines. A more definitive assessment can only be made a half year down the track, but the indications are that good and satisfying wines have been made, though the yields are lower than expected, and the very top-end wines will be available in much reduced quantities. Overall, the wines may veer towards the more elegant weighted styles, but there is ripeness and more than sufficient depth and richness in all varieties, bar Chardonnay. The Chardonnays that are successful appear to have proper flavour ripeness at lower sugar accumulation, producing wines with less alcohol – a desirable outcome in today’s trends.

One unfortunate result of the rain was the pressure that rapid harvesting put on tank space in wineries. Some reds were given insufficient time on skins, as they were vacated from vats to allow the intake of newly picked fruit arriving. Another was that a considerable amount of fruit was left unpicked, as the costs to sort and select for healthy grapes would have made labour costs prohibitive in the making of the wines from such fruit. These issues of management have not had to be dealt with in the last decade of vintages in Hawke’s Bay, as the weather has over that period has been so good. It seems that experienced hands at the helm were needed to come through this challenging vintage. In 2011, it may be best to follow the wineries that have had a long and strong track record.

Following are my impressions from visits to a number of key producers in Hawke’s Bay over the period of 30 May to 1 June:

Based in the Redmetal/Triangle region, south-west of Hastings, Sileni Estates has grown to processing 7000 tonnes of fruit, making them a ‘large’ category producer, a far cry from the 64 tonnes first harvested in 1998. The majority of that production is Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc, exported. Back at home in Hawke’s Bay, the vintage provided variable quality, Chardonnay reduced in quantity and lighter in style. Ironically, Grant Edmonds, Rachel Garnham and Cairn Coghill saw some of the best Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Gris to date. Tasting through 2011 barrel samples, the Sauvignon had ripe stonefruit, near Chardonnay character! The Chardonnay, while lighter was balanced and attractive. Some of the Pinot Noir was particularly robust, and Merlot looked clean, with good ripeness and vibrant.
A similar story was told by Alwyn Corban and Peter Gough at Ngatarawa. Experience was a key factor in handling to rapidly changing conditions brought on by the weather. All their blocks of fruit required vigilance in monitoring the developments, to ensure the best options in handling, and quality wines are to be expected. A significant move for the company is to look after its own domestic distribution, starting in October, to have a more direct interface with the consumer.
Gimblett Gravels
The Gimblett Gravels wines have a distinctiveness which comes through in all vintages. Mission Estate has been steadily and quietly growing in size and stature and is becoming a force to be reckoned with. Red wine made up 40% of its 1100 tonne crush, and the Gimblett Gravels sites form the core of the quality with Syrah and the Bordeaux varietals. Intensive vine mapping, management and selection is seeing a leap in quality, yet Mission uncannily keep their prices low, making the wines immense value. The company is now taking a significant amount of white fruit from the Kemblefield vineyards. As 70% of the sales are in New Zealand, wine lovers are set to see more of Mission. Paul Mooney showed 2011 tank and barrel samples of Chardonnay, Pinot Gris and Sauvignon Blanc which looked very positive, and a small lot of Cabernet Sauvignon especially startling in quality. The top-end 2010 Syrahs and Merlots will be special.
Trinity Hill is one of the most noticeable flag-bearers for the Gimblett Gravels, with John Hancock making an ever-increasing number of promotional trips overseas. I was lucky to catch him with Warren Gibson deciding to show an extensive range of 2011 tank and barrel samples across all varieties to show that the vintage was not deficient in any way! Gimblett Gravels Chardonnay tends to be picked early, to its favour in the 2011 conditions. Warren is an admirer of the more complex, almost funky, flinty, minerally Chardonnays with elegance, and the 2011 vintage may enable this style to show well. Also shown were the superb 2010 Syrahs, the ‘White Label’ already bottled. The ‘Homage’ 2010 is spectacular, possibly Trinity’s finest, and will be worth waiting for!
With 75% of its production coming from Marlborough, Sacred Hill experienced a happy vintage, the excellent conditions there more than compensating for the weather pressures seen in the company’s Gimblett Gravels sites. Lower yields and strict management and selection has seen sufficiently high quality for a ‘Helmsman’ to be made this year. Tony Bish is also keen to look at the more elegant styles of Chardonnay, with a super-premium Chablis-style in mind. I tasted the 2010 ‘Wine Thief’, just-released, and still-to-come ‘Riflemans’ Chardonnays. Simply wonderful, the latter a super-star in the wings. Tony has the magic touch with this variety.
Two contrasting wine producers in size, both Te Mata Estate and Black Barn make the Havelock region a treat to visit. Dave McKee is sole charge at Black Barn, and 50 tonnes of fruit can essentially be a one man operation. His fastidiousness with the fruit and juice has ensured very high quality. Joining the Chardonnay exploration brigade, Dave also found positives with the Chardonnay fruit from 2011, enabling the making of the flinty, less alcohol and oak-influenced style to be investigated. Some 2011 Syrah tasted from barrel impressed with its concentration and richness, showing we can expect small parcels of top wine.
Talking to Peter Cowley, Phil Brodie and Larry Morgan, the Te Mata Estate engine room, the challenge of 2011 was discussed freely. Site placement was an important factor which allowed excellent fruit to be harvested. With three decades of experience, Peter placed 2007 and 2009 as the outstanding vintages over the last 10 years. 2008 and 2010 will be highly rated, similar in some respects of style, but from different harvest profiles. The inference was that 2011 sat after these, but to make a call so early is difficult. Whatever the ranking, Te Mata Estate, and Hawke’s Bay has experienced a wonderful run of vintages for over 10 consecutive years.
Te Awanga/Haumoana
Every sub-region experiences different conditions. The images of destruction from the rain and flooding on the coastal areas of Hawke’s Bay are graphic. But Clearview Estate escaped that. Tim Turvey, Charles Gear and Barry Riwai also described the harvest as “challenging”, and the 105 tonnes harvested was a little down on the expected 130 tonnes. Sauvignon here too was very good, as was the early-picked Chardonnay. The effects of mildew and botrytis were very specific to ripeness and site, and their home block was spared. It is possible that Clearview’s red will be better this year than the 2010s. Tim says “expect exceptional sweet wines!”
Tim Turvey recommended I visit his neighbour Elephant Hill. This very impressive, modern winery has only the best, and is to serve as the venue for this year’s Hawke’s Bay Charity Wine Auction. This year’s harvest saw around 200 tonnes crushed, their new vineyard in Te Awanga affected by the weather. But the operation will no doubt grow to fill its 400 tonne capacity. Steve Skinner has already produced a number of award winning wines, and this is set to continue.

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