A wine region’s ability to emulate a famous appellation isn’t the primary reason to study it, but it’s a compelling feature, nonetheless.
Several years ago, famous author Oz Clarke published a book entitled Bordeaux. In it, he listed the few regions of the world boasting similar enough growing conditions to the French appellation to be considered “lookalikes” of the Medoc. Hawke’s Bay made the cut. While this area on the North Island produces stunning red Bordeaux blends, it also produces fine imitations of Syrah from the Northern Rhône Valley. A twofer, if you will, and a departure from New Zealand’s more famous red, Pinot Noir.
While nobody would scoff at the comparison, winemakers aren’t trying to replace Pauillac, either. Hawke’s Bay wines have their own signature, one largely influenced by New Zealand’s unique climate and soils.
Situated midway along the east coast, vineyards are planted not far from the beach in ancient dry riverbeds. Hawke’s Bay soils carry significant diversity of composition, but two types are considered the most clearly delineated and deserving of recognition: the Gimblett Gravels and Bridge Pa Triangle.
Because of the unique terroir, in 2001, wine producers and winegrowers with land in the Gimblett Gravels formed a Winegrowers Association to collectively promote their wines. The flat gravel field undoubtedly echoes the landscape of the Left Bank.
Grapes grown in the small Gimblett Gravels area (about 2000 acres) translate into wines of elegance with firm structure, complemented by good fruit concentration due to the low-vigor, well-drained soils, and sunny growing conditions. The first Bordeaux varieties were planted in 1981.
The Bridge Pa Triangle, on the other hand, is more than double the size of the gravels and has the largest concentration of vineyards in Hawke’s Bay. Soil composition includes clay loam and sandy loam over alluvial gravel. This mix contributes to the plumper, sensual style of the wines. It’s no surprise that Merlot performs well, and a comparison between the Bridge Pa to the Right Bank wouldn’t be unfounded.
As mentioned, it’s not all about Bordeaux-style wines. Syrah grows beautifully in the Gimblett Gravels, first planted in 1982. The wines feature ripe tannins, and brim with black and blue fruit dusted in cacao and laced with violet and smoky bacon. Sounds like the Northern Rhône, no?
The only downside to drinking wine from Hawke’s Bay is finding them. They don’t enjoy the heavy export demand that New Zealand Pinot does, and they’re made in small quantities, to boot. Wines to find, however, include Trinity Hill, Mission Estate, Mills Reef, Church Road, and Esk Valley. If you don’t see these brands, just ask your local retailer if they stock any reds from Hawke’s Bay, and if they don’t — would they. Please.