Posted on 14.02.18 #35

My Kiwi wine journey 3) Syrah’s the star of the Bay

Next stop on my wine journey is Hawke’s Bay on New Zealand’s east coast …

Hawke’s Bay is New Zealand’s ‘bread basket’, producing a vast amount of what Kiwis eat, but as you drive in, from the Esk Valley, it smells more like the country’s fruit bowl. The air is scented with strawberries, roadside stalls offer freshly picked corn that generates wafts of succulent sweetness, and amateur gardeners sell beautiful scented stocks from honesty boxes nailed to the gatepost.

High on the fragrant fumes of summer, I arrive at Craggy Range, a state-of-the-art winery-cum-restaurant that symbolises the ambition – and the cash – that’s driven the expansion of the country’s wine industry. Opened, amidst much fanfare, by Kiri Te Kanawa and Sir Edmund Hillary, it’s owned by the businessman Terry Peabody, who has created a thousand year trust to ensure it stays in the the family.

Standing in the shadow of Te Mata Peak, Craggy Range is named after the steep hill opposite, which appears to have been gnawed along its top. According to Maori legend, this was the work of a lovelorn giant, who was eating his way through the mountain, but sadly choked nearby.

The ‘cellar door’ store feels more like an outpost of ‘Soho House’ …

The winery building is spectacular, with the level of investment very evident. Refurbished a few months ago, the ‘cellar door’ store feels more like an outpost of Soho House than a wine shop. A visit is a must for anyone thinking about how to create an experience that feels completely in harmony with the wines that potential customers are coming to taste.

Chief Winemaker Matt Stafford talks passionately, as so many oenologists do, about making wines that speak of their place. In this case, that place isn’t just Hawke’s Bay; the company also have vines further south at Te Muna in Martinborough, from which they produce attractive, relatively restrained, sauvignon blanc, riesling and pinot noir.

Closer to Craggy Range itself, there is a gently-oaked, elegant, slightly saline chardonnay, a range of the ‘Bordeaux blends’ – cabernet sauvignon, merlot, cabernet franc and malbec – which are finessed into a well-priced ‘Te Kahu’ and a premium, critically well received, ‘Sophia’, which is still grippy, but is clearly going to evolve into a very classy wine when those tannins soften a little.

Then there’s the grape which is evidently Matt’s favourite child: syrah (he didn’t tell me this, by the way, it’s just a hunch). It turns out I’ll be hearing an awful lot about the Gimblett Gravels, around half an hour’s drive away. It’s generating a viticultural Gold Rush, as winemakers realise how well syrah reflects its terroir here, and in other areas of Hawke’s Bay like Bridge Pa and the Esk Valley.

Matt and his team produce syrah at a range of price points and, surprise, surprise, my favourite is the most expensive, Le Sol, which is a smooth and seductive feast of foraged blackberries, violet petals and sandalwood. Le Sol is one of the more expensive wines produced in the region, but it would compare favourably with any wine from the Northern Rhone and would look like a relative bargain.

If you don’t mind being gently doused by garden sprinklers, then Craggy Range is also a lovely place for lunch; a new chef is focusing on food with a local provenance, which makes sense when the wines also speak so fondly of their place. So is the restaurant a money spinner? Not exactly. “It’s about creating an experience that builds brand loyalty and resonance”, Matt tells me.

sauvignon blanc appears to be stalking me …

I’m still quite a way from Marlborough – I’m not even on the relevant island yet – but that region’s distinctive, and often wackingly pungent, sauvignon blanc appears to be stalking me everywhere.

Sileni Estates is one of Hawke’s Bay’s titans, producing in excess of 650,000 cases. It sits in the Bridge Pa Triangle, which is the Bay’s biggest subregion, but doesn’t yet have quite the international profile of the Gimblett Gravels. Sileni’s Chief Winemaker Grant Edmunds has an impressive portfolio of different wines and clearly loves his Syrah too. His ‘Peak’ estate selection 2014 Syrah boasts exquisitely smooth tannins, to complement lifted aromas of violet and ripe plum. He’s been working on developing tannin structure for years and will apparently even sing to the maturing wine “if it helps”. Pinot noir is also a star for Sileni, accounting for around ten per cent of output. It could be higher, but yields are very carefully controlled to deliver quality fruit. There’s a juicy, reasonably complex, merlot too – a nod to Hawke’s Bay’s historic connection with the Bordeaux grapes.

So what’s Sileni’s most important wine? You guessed it: Marlborough sauvignon blanc. It accounts for 68% of the winery’s production and an even higher proportion of its exports, with Australia a huge market. Sileni’s ‘Straits Selection’ is a savvy Sauv: it’s elegant, relatively subtle, and focused on lightly perfumed pears and gooseberry, rather than all that grass that can so often get in the way.

My search for syrah takes me on to two of the producers defining new territory with that variety – Trinity Hill and Elephant Hill.

The former is located on the Gimlett Gravels and was founded by John Hancock, an Australian, who worked the harvest with Gerard Jaboulet in the Rhône more than twenty years ago. A friendship resulted and Jaboulet’s vines ended up making the journey to the other side of the world. The Frenchman died some years ago, so John named his top wine ‘Homage’ in his honour. It’s some epitaph; a wonderful floral nose gives a nod to the 25% whole bunch fermentation, followed by very pure expressions of bramble, black and red cherry, liquorice, white pepper and subtle spice, all wrapped together warmly, with a long finish. It’s little wonder that the doyen of the critical world, the likes of Robert Parker and James Suckling, heap praise on Trinity’s finest wine.

In these heady days for Hawke’s Bay, wine years are like dog years …

One of Hancock’s protégées flew the nest a decade ago, and ended up down the road, by the sea, at Elephant Hill. He is Steve Skinner and his wines have much in common with those at Trinity, in terms of precision. The winery only got going a decade ago, but in these heady days for Hawke’s Bay, wine years are like dog years, and Elephant Hill feels well established.

This is a destination winery, with stunning terrace views of the Pacific and food to match. Before I touched a drop, I felt slightly intoxicated by the buzz of the place. Andreas Weiss is now the family patriarch, having moved with his family from their native Germany a couple of years ago, to take on the role of CEO. Interestingly, both Andreas and Steve, the winemaker, share a background in finance. Happily, none of this is in evidence when it comes to the conversation, or the wines, which project a finesse and quality that wouldn’t come from watching the bottom line too assiduously.

Elephant Hill is relatively small, at around 20-thousand cases per year, has a clear focus on the premium end of the market, and has just struck a distribution deal with London’s venerable Corney and Barrow, which is good news for those of us in the UK.

Twins, but not identical ones …

There’s a sizeable selection of wines including an attractive Provence-esque rosé from the tempranillo grape, and a concentrated, weighty, chardonnay that has benefitted from extended time on its lees.

Elephant Hill owns three sites around Hawke’s Bay – on the Gimlett Gravels, the Bridge Pa Triangle and Te Awanga – and the excellent Syrah that’s available in the UK blends all three. Steve’s latest project has been to single out two of those sites, to launch the ‘Element Series’, with Earth representing the Triangle and Stone the Gravels. The differences are certainly subtle, but still distinct. I likened them to twins, but not identical ones. Both are delicious but Andreas asked me to choose a favourite and the Stone edged it: just a touch more savoury, with a bit more tension, the slightly higher acidity providing a firm spine for all that crunchy bilberry, blackberry fruit and velvety texture.

The restaurant is emphatically fine dining and I’d highly recommend a visit for lunch or dinner. Head chef Ashley Jones takes locally-sourced food, orchestrating stylish dishes, like Wagyu beef fillet, with symphonic wine matches.

The modern architecture at the likes of Elephant Hill and Craggy Range could have given the impression that the Hawke’s Bay’s wine scene is all new and shiny. My final stops gives the lie to that, with a bit of history, and then something distinctly ‘boutique’.

Te Mata was founded well over a hundred years ago and its land was the first in New Zealand to be given protected status, meaning it must be farmed for vines, rather than allowing development. In Maori, Te Mata means ‘the face’ (of the aforementioned lovelorn giant) and the estate is proud of its relationship with nearby tribal elders.

The family’s approach is one of low intervention and good old fashioned graft …

It has been owned the Buck family for more than forty years, and is now run by three brothers, including Toby, who showed me around. In Europe, we’re fairly familiar with old vines, but walking around plots that were first planted in 1892 is something of a novelty here. Te Mata was the first producer in New Zealand to be certified sustainable for both its vineyards and winery and the family’s approach is one of low intervention and good old-fashioned graft, with everything hand-harvested. Toby tells me they like “total control” over production, so they have their own bottling line – a rarity around here. Te Mata also boasts the oldest wine-making room in the country.

So what about the wines? Around half of Te Mata’s production is exported, meaning there’s pretty good availability in the UK, and there’s more than a nod to Bordeaux. There are two restrained Hawke’s Bay Sauvignons, one made in stainless steel, the other barrel fermented; a duo of impressive chardonnays, including the smooth and creamy ‘Elston’; a couple of Syrahs, with the premium ‘Bullnose’ a dead ringer for the Northern Rhône; a fabulous, juicy, toffee-apple gamay noir; and the flagship ‘Coleraine’, so named to reflect the Buck family’s Northern Irish roots, an award-winning blend of cabernet sauvignon, merlot and cabernet franc, which is an elegantly poised mix of black cherry, violets, cedar and nutmeg. It felt almost criminal to be drinking the ’15 so young.

Driving the State Highway south from Hawke’s Bay, the vines start to vanish, giving way to pastures that reflect the region’s role before the wine boom. Close to the cattle town of Waipawa, down a long and winding road, there’s a hut, surrounded by a small, steep vineyard. This is Lime Rock – a boutique-style vineyard run by a charming husband and wife team: Rodger Tynan, a no-nonsense Australian viticulturist, and Rosie Butler, one of New Zealand’s pioneering winemakers in Marlborough during the 1970s.

As the name suggests, the site – a former paddock – is on limestone that actually formed the sea bed three million years ago. The couple’s approach is passionately non-interventionist. Weeds are allowed to grow, encouraging a diverse habitat, with the aim that good insects will eat bad ones.

Some terrifying tractor rides …

I love a Grüner Veltliner, so I’m delighted to find what Roger and Rosie refer to as “Groovy Jetliner”: part barrel-fermented, the 2017 is zesty, slightly peppery, with a real sense of minerality. There’s a distinctive cabernet franc too, with a savoury streak of tomato leaf complementing the ripe red fruits, but pinot noir is clearly top dog at Lime Rock: ‘White Knuckle’ is the flagship wine, named after the gradient of the vineyard, which apparently inspires some terrifying tractor rides but affords perfect ripening conditions. 100% barrel-aged, with 30% new French oak, the wine has a Burgundian perfume, with ripe red cherry and plums, and an enchanting herbaceous quality that reminds me of fennel fronds.

Alongside the top wine, there’s the more immediately accessible ‘Kota’, which is fresh and fragrant with well-balanced acidity and comforting, concentrated red fruit. It’s also a relative bargain, for the quality on show. I’m delighted to bag a bottle of the 2010, before I head down to Martinborough, for another style of Pinot …

UK stockists: see my suggestions after the last article in the series

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