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: Hawke's Bay region

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Hawkes Bay Winemakers: www.winehawkesbay.co.nz

Hawke's Bay region

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A view of the Gimblett Gravels from the La Collina hill (photo courtesy: Bilancia)

Hawke's Bay, located around Napier and Hastings on the central east coast of the North Island, is the country's second biggest wine region and the most consistent producer of late ripening red varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and Merlot.

The wide coastal bay and the shelter from the prevailing westerly winds provided by the nearby Rauhine and Kaweka Ranges offered promising conditions. The chief viticultural hazards are severe late spring frosts and the rare cyclonic flood in summer.

It is also the location of New Zealand's oldest wine operation still under the same ownership structure. The Mission Vineyards was established in 1851 by Catholic priests to make sacramental wine, and survives today at Greenmeadows outside of Napier. Other local pre-world war two wineries that continue today include: Te Mata (established 1892), Vidal (1905), Brookfields (1937) and Glenvale Cellars (now called Esk Valley, 1933).

During the early part of the 20th century Hawke's Bay was responsible for up to 30% of national wine production and was using the classic French table wine varieties. Later these were displaced by inferior hybrids and high yielding fortified wine varieties such as Palomino.

The revival of quality table wine making in the 1960s came from a veteran local vigneron Tom McDonald, and also via Australian investment, from NSW's company McWilliams. Tom McDonald kept alive the traditions of quality Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay he had learnt in his youth through his own McDonald Winery, and later through McWilliams's substantial New Zealand operations.

Serious wine planting resumed in the 1970s and the mid eighties saw massive investment from Auckland's wine corporations to buy up the new regional vineyards. There was also a substantial growth in the number of local boutique wineries. Currently there are over 50 local wineries.

The soil types vary substantially, notwithstanding that almost all of the vineyards are established on old alluvial and glacial plains. It took a while for growers to come to grips with the erratic soils. The Cabernets, Malbecs and Merlots in the 1990s often had an excessive vegetal and herbal character. It was only by keeping tight control with the poorest soils capable of achieving full ripeness that really good Bordeaux reds could be achieved.

Two spots have so far been discovered that have the right sort of soil. In the Ngatarawa Triangle the soil consists of well-drained, infertile sandy loams that need drip irrigation because of their low water-holding capacity.

At Gimblett Gravels the key is deep shingly soil. As Hawkes Bay expands, the existing vineyards have taken up the prime soil locations so new players are being pushed further inland along the river valleys. Time will tell how well the new players will fare in their quest to find the next Gimblett Gravels.

Hawke's Bay is also starting to carve out a reputation for its European take on Syrah (Shiraz) with the iconic Trinity Hill Homage Syrah, Bilancia La Collina Syrah and Stonecroft Syrah sometimes matching the best from the Northern Rhone Valley.

Despite the emphasis on reds the Chardonnay is the most planted variety in the region and often comes in a rich, opulent style. The ubiquitous Sauvignon Blanc is also widespread but is usually done better elsewhere in New Zealand.

Opulent styles of Viognier seem to do well here with Te Mata and Alpha Domus winning deserved plaudits. Stonecroft make a satifsyingly varietal Old Vine Gewurztraminer (apparently 1983 classifies as old vine in this part of the world.)

Well away from the gravelly soils Lime Rock are having success with Pinot Noir on limestone soils about 40 km south-west of Hastings.

In July the Hawke's Bay wineries embark on a road trip to Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch, Melbourne and Sydney to show their wines (analogous to the Coonawarra winery road trip around Australia's major cities). top

Brookfields label

Brookfields standout Pinot Gris shows that the region is not just about red wine

Tin Pot Hut showing their rather good Syrah at Hot Red Hawke's Bay

Bilancia are well known for their Northern Rhone style Syrah

The CJ Pask Declaration is a strong example of the region's Bordeaux blend style