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Hawke’s Bay Boutique Winemakers Make a Difference

By August 14, 2011No Comments

have banded together to promote themselves separately from the larger Hawke’s Bay collective. Such ‘breakaway’ groups have made their move before, both in Hawke’s Bay and in other regions. There is the view that splintering breaks down the unity and cohesiveness of the image of a winemaking vignoble, and that sub-divisions confuse the general public and consumer and can undermine the co-operation between the parties involved. Yet self-promotion is taking your destiny in your own hands, an action that is commendable. I believe there is a place for both co-operating as a larger group as well as concentrating on individuality. The Gimblett Gravels winegrowers support the promotion of their distinctive growing soils, but also recognise and the quality and styles of the other areas in Hawkes Bay. As do the ‘Unique and Boutique’ Winemakers of Martinborough in stating the major players in the district bring the benefits of world-wide attention to the area. The reality is that there is a symbiosis between large and small producers of any winegrowing region, and that they are complementary to each other.

So it was very pleasing to see nine of the Hawke’s Bay Boutique Winemakers show their wares in the recently refurbished Khandallah Town Hall in Wellington. The venue is certainly a well-finished and comfortable one with all the amenities to ensure a demand for its usage, such as a stage, full kitchen facilities and family room. Situated in the heart of the Khandallah village shops, it is an easily accessed location for a wide catchment area of wine loving consumers. It wasn’t surprising to see a good turn-out of people tasting (and purchasing) wines.

For all the attendees as well as myself, it was an excellent opportunity of seeing many wines from producers that are not widely represented in the market place. I was more than pleasantly surprised by the quality and difference in style from the more ‘mainstream’ and readily available wines from Hawke’s Bay. Such boutique producers are so important for the diversity and interest in any winegrowing region. There was plenty of time to hear the owners (who were invariably also the winemakers) tell their stories. Here are some of my impression of the wines tasted:

With 12 ha of vines planted a decade ago, Douglas and Julie Haynes decided to release their own wines under the Hawkes Ridge label with the 2008 vintage after supplying fruit for a number of well-known wineries. The grapes are grown at altitude, on Kereru Road off SH 50 west of Hastings, and processed at their own winery. The style is one where they are not afraid of innovation, nor working with oak to build in mouthfeel and interest. The Pinot Gris 2009 is a big textural and warm wine at 14.9% alc. A Semillon 2009 was 30% barrel-fermented, which suited the well-ripened fruit. The reds show distinctive spiciness from the oaking, the Pinot Noir 2009 and Tempranillo 2009, the latter put forward as their calling-card, showing plenty of matching varietal character. Also worthy of attention is the Late Harvest Viognier 2009 at 14.0% alc. and 115 g/L rs, combining richness and Viognier exoticism. An example of pushing the boundaries is the about-to-be released Rosé 2010, a 60/40 co-fermented blend of Tempranillo and Viognier. This sounds intriguing indeed. I look forward to tasting it…

I had the chance to see Dermot McCollum, who purchased Stonecroft from Alan Limmer in June 2010. Alan consults and has ensured a good transition. The Sauvignon Blanc 2010 was tightly bound with pungent and lively fruit. Similar in tight structure was the Gewurztraminer 2010, quite dry, with 13.5% alc. and 12 g/L rs. Nevertheless truly varietal. A step up into stratospheric stuff is the ‘Old Vine’ Gewurztraminer 2009, at 13.5% alc. but 25 g/L rs and showing some botrytis influence. Rich and hedonistic, this will give god Alsace a run for its money. The Chardonnay 2010 is an elegant, crisp, fruit-showcase style which will be very food-friendly. Then some older reds. A ‘Ruhanui’ Merlot/Cabernet/Syrah 2003 gentle, cedary, but with good acid freshness. The acidity was the commonality with the ‘Ruhanui’ Merlot/Cabernet 2008, elegant, fresh and very classical in the claret style.

The Lime Rock vineyard is situated on limestone specific soils, and combined with its cooler microclimate, very elegant, knife-edge wines are being made by Rosie Butler and Roger Tynan. I think they have steadily worked their way towards the consistent expression of fineness with nervosity which must certainly be their terroir. Their Pinot Gris 2010 is a sleek and flinty Pinot Grigio style and the Sauvignon Blanc 2009 is remarkably fresh, not too dissimilar to a delicate Awatere style with its nettles, herbs and mineral notes. The Gruner Veltliner 2011 is their first. Made from 600 plants established in 2009, yielding only 200 litres, thus bottled in 375 ml to ensure it gets around. Still a baby, it had the archetype pepper and herb personality with good textures, even though it had just been bottled three days earlier! Their Pinot Noir 2007, elegantly structured with mushroomy interest, and the layered, more primary, but lighter Pinot Noir 2008 are examples of delicacy and ethereal nature.

Friendliness, accessibility and value are the key features of the Salvare wines of Steve and Bev Nathan, made by Elise Montgomery. The white wines have become more weighty and expressive over the six month when I saw them last. The Viognier 2009 showing a bold nose and robust body. The Chardonnay 2009 was particularly impressive, with richness, ripe fruit aromatics and clear-cut stonefruit flavours. Salvare has done well with the slightler cooler 2008 vintage, the Merlot 2008 full and open, yet light on its feet. Ripe black pepper and rounded textures are evident in the Syrah 2008. But it was the ‘Salvation’ 2009, a 94% Merlot, 2% Cabernet and 4% Syrah blend from a highly lauded vintage that took my fancy with its fine, firm structure, supple tannins and palate with line and length giving potential. Despite its youth, this and all the reds were eminently drinkable now.

The very experienced Jenny Dobson is consultant winemaker for Philip and Terry Horn at Unison Vineyard in the heart of the Gimblett Gravels. A very full range was offered and there were some real and very pleasant surprises. Made from Triangle-sourced fruit, the Sauvignon Blanc 2010 was vibrant with herb, netty and gooseberry flavours. From Gimblett Gravels fruit, the Chardonnay 2010 was crisp with attractive citrus and mealy flavours and subtle, but definite oaking. There’s certainly more than meets the eye with this one. Punching way above its weight was the ‘Recovery Red’ 2009, made from Syrah, Merlot and Cabernet. Meant as a value, accessible wine, the Syrah fruit shone with its luscious spice and ease of drinking. Its purpose is to aid in the much anticipated ‘economic recovery’, whether by is affordability and/or deliciousness! The Bordeaux-varietal based reds are Unison’s strength and there was a noticeable progression from the spicy-leafy and aromatic ‘Reserve’ Merlot 2008 to the ‘Classic Blend’ 2008 with its greater depth, oaking and spicy opulence, to the rich, dense, complex and layered ‘Selection’ 2007. Another must in the Unison range is the Syrah 2008, a wine that has beauty from elegance, perfume and style, showing the strength of the variety in that vintage.

A new label for me is Ash Ridge, the owners being Chris and Sonya Wilcock who made the move from corporate city living to the big outdoors a decade ago. They source their fruit from two sites in the Triangle region, their own site on SH 50 being 8 ha planted to Syrah, Chardonnay and Sauvignon, the Bordeaux varieties from a site off Ngatarawa Road. The production is tiny at 1000 cases, but Ash Ridge has performed at wine shows already. A highlight is the Sauvignon Blanc 2010, fully barrel-fermented with sympathetic balance and luscious fruit. The Chardonnay 2009 is a crisp, citrus and stonefruit expressive style with modern elegance. I enjoyed the Syrah 2009 for its meatiness, richness and ripe fruit and excellent structure. The Merlot/Cabernet 2009, a blend of 43% Merlot, 33% Cabernet, the remainder Malbec and Franc, is marked by an attractive liquorice and spicy oak finish that blossoms.

Also new to me is the Monowai operation of Kiwi winemaker Emma Lowe and Chilean vineyard manager Marcelo Nunez, who planted 22 ha in the cool, high altitude ‘Crownthorpe’ area in the far reaches of the Ngaruroro River Valley. Their first vintage was in 2005, and their wines capture the essential characteristics of the microclimate with their purity and cut. I found the whites especially noteworthy, the Sauvignon Blanc 2010 at 12.5% alc. possessing rich, sweetness of fruit and elegance. Of similar proportions was the Pinot Gris 2011 at 12.5% alc. and 6.7 g/L rs, a benchmark bottling of the variety with such clarity. The Chardonnay 2010 harnessed the steely fruit and pitched it with some crowd-pleasing wood treatment. A Chablis-style wine might be more ‘natural’, but would it be any more popular with the buyers? The reds were well-handled too, the Pinot Noir 2009 showing complex dried herb secondary-style flavours with subtlety, and the cool-fruited Merlot 2008 still showing sweetness, allied to the finest-grained tannins.

Chris Harrison of Beach House was one of the driving forces behind the setting up of the Hawke’s Bay Boutique Winemakers group. Chris and his wife Jill are both qualified winemakers and being established in 1996, they have a wealth of experience which they readily share with newcomers to the industry in Hawke’s Bay. The wines are absolutely down the line and deliver far more than what are expected of them. A Riesling 2010 was beginning to show toasty interest filling out the dry, textural palate. Perfumes galore and exotic spices adorn the Gewurztraminer 2009. A Syrah 2009 rich, lush, lively and full of black fruits and black pepper along with Asian spices. The Cabernet Franc 2009 will be a wine for the cellar, based on its grip and structure. A specialty is the Italian varietal Montepulciano 2009, intensely concentrated, ripe and decadent with liquorice flavours showing the ripeness. And a sexy Late Harvest Riesling 2009 with minerals, limes, honey and talc botrytis flavours.

The last exhibitor I saw was Tony Prichard, who with his wife Kaye set up de la terre a little while after he left his position as winemaker at Church Road. Tony purchases his fruit, seeing there is an abundance of high quality grapes available. However it is his winemaking technique of not overly protecting his must and new wine from oxidation that has resulted in his house style of wines with texture and weight along with the ability to age well. The sacrifice is loss of overt fruitiness especially on bouquet, but the trade-off is more than desirable for Tony. The Sauvignon Blanc 2009 is still backwards, tight and confined, and it should become a white Bordeaux look-alike. The Chardonnay 2009 has a nutty, flinty, shy nose, but blossoms with seriously complex and powerful flavours that put it alongside top white burgundy. To demonstrate the differences of winemaking ideology, the Viognier 2009 is the style preferred by Tony. Restrained on nose, but rich and opulent with framing palate textures. At 14.9% alc., this is warm, but not overly hot. The Viognier 2010 is more fruit-forward with burnished caramel flavours and a racy, slippery palate that flashes past the taste buds. It’s certainly more ‘conventional’. The de la terre reds are rugged and earthy, the Merlot/Cabernet 2006 with near-rustic, secondary development that demands food. Likewise the Syrah 2007, drier, reliant on structure, but still refined; best with a meal.

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