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Gimblett Gravels: The boys from the Bay

A dry, stony bit of Hawke’s Bay, once a speedway and a quarry, now produces full-bodied red wines the equal of thousand-bucks-a-bottle Bordeaux. What’s the secret? Anya Kussler discovers what lurks in the once-unwanted soils of Gimblett Gravels. Plus beau Bordeaux and the top six.

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Bay boys: from left, Warren Gibson, John O’Connor, Rod Easthope and Geoff Wilson. Photographs by Richard Wood

A dry, stony bit of Hawke’s Bay, once a speedway and a quarry, now produces full-bodied red wines the equal of thousand-bucks-a-bottle Bordeaux. What’s the secret? discovers what lurks in the once-unwanted soils of Gimblett Gravels

London, February 2009: fifty British wine tasters, critics, buyers, journalists and sommeliers gather in the penthouse suite at New Zealand House. Their pleasant task is to taste six wines from their beloved Bordeaux and six from faraway Hawke’s Bay, to rank them, and note which are French and which from New Zealand.

Daily Telegraph wine scribe Jonathan Ray thinks he’ll do okay. “I was in Hawke’s Bay only weeks ago and reckon that I'll be able to differentiate between the two countries. As it turns out, I don't do badly, getting nine out of 12 correct … I am struck, though, by how alike the wines are. The rest of the room is similarly uncertain.”

Which suggests the Hawke’s Bay reds will do well in the rankings, and when the results are tallied two of the top six wines are from down under. Ray reports “ripples of applause”. It’s a credible showing for the Kiwis—but then the identity of the wines is revealed, and “the sound of jaws crashing to the floor echoes around Pall Mall”.

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The French wines are celebrated heavyweights of Bordeaux: top spot goes to a 2005 Château Lafite-Rothschild, which sells for £975 a bottle in Blighty, followed by the 2005 Château Mouton-Rothschild and 2005 Château Angélus. The 2005 Château Haut-Brion, which fetches £700, is beaten into fourth place by the 2006 Sacred Hill ‘The Helmsman’—a Kiwi upstart that sells in British stores for £18. The sixth-placed 2006 Newton Forrest Cornerstone is just £15.

There’s no way these New Zealand wines should be able to match the great Bordeaux. The French wines come from vines aged from 30 to 50 years; the Hawke’s Bay vines are no older than 13 and as young as seven. The French chateaus have been working on their signature wines for centuries; the Kiwi reds, all from the Gimblett Gravels winegrowing region near Hastings, are from vineyards established in the past 28 years.

And before that? The dry, stony land at Gimblett Gravels was considered so agriculturally useless that it was used as a tip, a quarry and even a dragstrip. So how did a bunch of creative Kiwi entrepreneurs turn an unwanted riverbed into celebrated vineyards making wine so good that it threatens the best of mighty Bordeaux?

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It starts, naturally, with the grape. Ironically, it’s the Gravels’ apparent shortfalls that make the area perfect for growing full-bodied wines in the Bordeaux style. New Zealand is known for its Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir, which are suited to cooler climates. But the narrow, arrow-shaped Gravels strip is a marginal hot spot with rocky but naturally free-draining thin, silty soil.

John O’Connor of Matariki Vineyard explains that a vine left to grow in fertile soil with a lot of moisture will grow and produce large fruit. But when the plant concentrates more on growth, it ‘forgets’ to ripen its seeds and produces the unripe, green, Sauvignon-type flavours.

To grow a grape that produces softer, less acidic and full-bodied flavours—the Bordeaux style—the vine needs to produce smaller berries. That way it can focus on ripening its seeds and producing a higher sugar content (‘brix’ in viticultural speak), which then gives the tannins a better colour, structure and complexity. To achieve this, the vine has to grow in less fertile soil and with good irrigation to deprive it of water—which is where the rocky, free-draining, slightly sandy Gravels soil comes into play. “You also have to pluck the leaves to give the plant a fight,” says O’Connor. “It has to struggle, but in a good kind of way.”

Location and climate are a good start, but the grapes require continuous effort and study. No textbook is available to grow the perfect grape but this, says Trinity Hill winemaker Warren Gibson, is what winemaking is all about: “You can’t make a bad wine from a good grape.”

The second factor in the success of Gimblett Gravels is the strong commitment among the 30-odd Gravels winegrowers to work together to produce good-quality stock, and solve the many challenges associated with winemaking.

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The first to see the potential was Chris Pask. The pilot and part-time grape grower bought 40 hectares at the end of Gimblett Road after spotting it from his plane. He started off experimenting with Merlot and Chardonnay and, excited about the wonderful flavours they produced, planted the region’s first Cabernet Sauvignon grapes in 1981.

His mates thought he was mad—and they weren’t alone. Banks refused to lend money for purchasing ‘wasteland’, and the local council fretted at the loss of quarry land.

But there were clues that he was on to something. For example, Chenin Blanc and Müller-Thurgau grapes that were planted on quarry land in Mere Road in the late 70s ripened earlier and at higher sugar levels, delivering the full, well-rounded flavour pivotal to good-quality reds.

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Chris Pask planted the first Cabernet Sauvignon grapes in 1981. His mates thought he was mad, Banks refused to lend money for purchasing ‘wasteland’ and the local council fretted at the loss of quarry land. But there were clues that he was on to something

Another bunch of ‘mad’ local characters (David Irving, Gavin Yortt, John Kenderdine and soil chemist Dr Alan Lemmer) soon followed suit, all planting Cab Sauv as well as other varieties. Matariki’s O’Connor was a drainage worker with an interest in soil structure that led him to become a wine-maker. He used his Mercedes as down payment for 64 hectares of Gravels land and began planting vines.

Fuelled by the good results the Gravels delivered in such a short space of time, it was Pask who showed the way again when he made the Gravels’ first Bordeaux-style wine in 1985. This drop won multiple national accolades in 1986, putting the Gravels region on the map as a bit of a gem of a wine-growing region—and an end to the locals’ reputation as a bunch of mad hatters.

The real Gravels tipping point came in the 1990s when companies like Villa Maria and Babich cottoned on, developing vineyards in the stoniest soils of the region. Apart from 30 hectares reserved for mining, all of this stony land is now owned by various wine growers in the district. Together, they’ve formed the Gimblett Gravels Winegrowers Association, chaired by O’Connor.

Trial and error, says Trinity Hill’s Gibson, has been standard operating procedure for the Gravel crew over the years, but everyone has benefited. “We learned from our mistakes and have made huge improvements. We got a lot of the plantings wrong in the early stages, for example. We found we get better results when we plant the vines north to south instead of east to west.”

And they’ve worked together on the third, crucial factor in their success: marketing. The London tasting, for example, was organised by Geoff Wilson, the GGWA’s executive officer. And if the London event seemed like a stunt, it was absolutely serious in its execution. The tastings were conducted under a double-blind system, and the votes of those involved in organising it were not counted in the tallies. The judging panel included Bordeaux specialists like well-known Master of Wine Jancis Robinson and Michael Schuster, an advisor to the Bordeaux Index.

Could the results have embarrassed the Kiwis? It’s quite possible they could have fared poorly against such stellar opposition, but Wilson had reason to be optimistic. Last year he organised a blind tasting of Gimblett 2005 Bordeaux-style vintages and French Bordeaux styles in Taupo. Judged by renowned independent wine critics James Halliday from Australia and Elin McCoy from the US. The outcome: four of the top six wines were from Gimblett.

What is the potential impact of these tastings, both on New Zealand and in terms of how we are seen by the overseas market? Says Gibson: “The London tasting was a big breakthrough because it shows that we are able to produce good-quality full-bodied reds that are closer to warm-climate styles like Bordeaux than, say, Aussie or Californian styles.

“Our reds are structurally more elegant, savoury and age-worthy—they make you think and evolve.”

The fact that big wine writers couldn’t tell the two apart is evidence of that, and it also takes away the bias that New Zealand can only produce Pinot Noirs and Sauvignon Blancs. It also disproves the theory, somewhat, that you have to have centuries-old vines to produce a top-notch drop.

As for the global perception of the Gravels, one hopes that influential people like the London wine judges might spread the word. Another outsider is David Duckhorn, principal of Via Pacifica Selections, a US wine distributor with a penchant for Kiwi drops including Trinity Hill. “Your warm-climate reds are definitely demonstrating the best quality over a number of other producers,” he says. “Prospects to tap into the US market are looking good.”

As for the future of the Gravels, there’s plenty still to do. As Gibson puts it: “We have a young planting history, yet we already produce good-quality wines and are constantly improving. We also have the advantage that we are small and can’t be reproduced so it stays unique.” But, he says, “we need to get to a stage where we produce consistent, high-quality full-bodied reds, build up a heritage and create ageability over the next 15 to 20 years.” After all, the Gravels winemakers aren’t merely attempting to slavishly imitate the best of Bordeaux. They’re developing a heritage and an international brand all their own, while consciously building upon the legacy of centuries of Old World winemaking.

What helps the progress along, too, is that since its humble beginnings, the Gravels have acquired a whole new generation of young and keen winemakers, like Craggy Range’s Rod Easthope, who have joined forces with the Gravels ‘old boys’.

Matariki’s O’Connor is equally excited about the future of his beloved rocky riverbed. The best thing about the New World, he says, is that we’re free to innovate: we don’t have the boundaries and regulations of the Old World where you can’t change the harvest or the wood you choose for your barrels. “It just doesn’t give you the opportunity to explore and experiment like we do. We can be a lot more creative and so continue to define ourselves.”

Top six

Results of a double-blind tasting in London, February 2009
RankWineRegionVine ageUK price
12005 Château Lafite-RothschildBordeaux40 years£975 (about $2,500)
22005 Château Mouton-RothschildBordeaux48 years£675 (about $1,725)
32005 Château AngélusBordeaux30 years£295 (about $750)
42006 Sacred Hill ‘The Helmsman’Hawke’s Bay7 years£18 (about $45)
52005 Château Haut-BrionBordeaux30 years£700 (about $1,800)
62006 Newton Forrest CornerstoneHawke’s Bay12 years£15 (about $40)