Over the years Hawkes Bay has forged a reputation as New Zealand's leading region for the production of fine wines made from Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon grapes, the two grape varieties that provide the dominant components of the great red wines from Bordeaux. Hawkes Bay accounts for 70% of the country's Cabernet Sauvignon and 67% of Merlot and although there has been the occasional gold medal winning Merlot or Cabernet from Auckland, Martinborough, Marlborough, Canterbury and even Central Otago, no other region comes even close for consistency from a variety of vineyard sites from year to year.
With its setting at latitude 39.4 degrees south, Hawkes Bay on the east coast of the North Island, is one of the hottest and sunniest areas of New Zealand. As well as grapes, horticultural crops also flourish in the maritime climate.
Viticulture has a long history in Hawkes Bay compared to most other New Zealand wine regions and the earliest vineyards were planted on the coast and close to the towns of Napier, Hastings and Havelock North. Now vineyards cover about 4700 hectares of land* and extend across the flat areas and up the river tributaries, from the Esk River in the north to the Tukituki River south of Te Mata Peak, with the Tutaekuri and Ngaruroro Rivers in between leading to higher altitude sites.
The well-marketed 'Gimblett Gravels' subregion is an area demarcated by gravelly soils that were once part of an old riverbed. But this is just one small part of this expansive wine region that has at least 25 different soil types, and gravelly soils occur elsewhere along with red metals, sandstone, limestone, clays and loam. Now subregions are now being defined by their own unique attributes and climatic features as well as location. 'The Triangle' is one of the new buzzwords, for example.
The development and recognition of these subregions along with significant advancements in viticulture and winemaking has resulted in a wide range of Hawkes Bay Bordeaux-styled wines that are gaining recognition for their concentration and power.
The prestige and profile of wines from Bordeaux is well established and consumers are willing to pay high prices for premium labels or those that have being adorned with a high profile wine critic's favourable review. However the Hawkes Bay winemakers firmly believe that are capable of and are already producing alternate Bordeaux-styled blends that have as much individual merit and offer a consistency of quality and value that earns these wines avaluable niche position in the world of wine.
The wines in this tasting were selected to typify attributes the winemakers associate with the region. It was not about a direct comparison to the Bordeaux wines that were included. However as the wines were tasted blind without notes to indicate the regional source, my tasting notes do not reflect regional differences, they reflect how I saw them in the flight on this particular day. Winemakers technical data was added where supplied in the accompanying notes that were reviewed later.
Trinity Hill Gimblett Road Hawkes Bay Cabernet Sauvignon Merlot 2001
13.2% alc. 6.1 TA gL, 3.55 pH
66% Cabernet Sauvignon, 21% Merlot and 13% Cabernet Franc from five adjacent vineyards.
Deep red with youthful pinks hues. Tarry aromas and tarry in the palate too. Very savoury, quite earthy at first, then juicy plums and blackcurrants emerge to take over. Deep, rich and concentrated with lovely mouthfeel and texture on the long clean finish. Quite youthful. 18/20. Approx. NZ$30.
CJ Pask Reserve Declaration Cabernet/Merlot/Malbec 2002
13.8% alc. 6.2 TA gL, 3.66 pH
Youthful purple, deep and rich. Berry fruit mingles amongst cedary vanillin oak on the nose. It's a big wine in the mouth with gripping tannins and a slightly tarry complexity, underlying juicy fruit and a powerfully long finish. A long-term wine with opulence plus. 18.5/20. Approx. NZ$45.
Vidal Estate Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon 2000
13.5% alc. 5.99 TA gL, 3.65 pH
Dense, youthful looking inky reddish black. Deep and vinous on the nose, the aromas are quite savoury and a touch dusty with smoky oak and spice. Rich, intense and meaty with a slightly minty nuance, it shows impeccable balance of concentrated berry fruit and savoury oak, mocha richness and a suggestion of savoury herbs on the finish. Tight and focussed. Plenty of life ahead of it. 18.5+/20. Approx. NZ$45.
Craggy Range The Quarry Cabernet Sauvignon Merlot 2001
14% alc. 5.66 TA gL, 3.71 pH
71% Cabernet Sauvignon, 24% Merlot, 4% Cabernet Franc, 1% Malbec
Inky purple in colour, this has a distracting level of Brettanomyces on the nose exhibited by earthy leather, barnyard and bandaid aromas. In the palate it is almost overpoweringly tannic which dries it out somewhat and the earthy, barnyard flavours almost totally hide the rich, ripe blackcurrant fruit that was fighting to show its presence. It has a liquorice complexity and a smoky herb nuance while marmite flavours linger on the finish. Approx. NZ$60.
While I could not get past the 'Brett' character and others also found it distracting, some said they could tolerate it and expected this character in Bordeaux. At least one person voted this their favourite of the flight.
Chateau Magdelaine, St Emilion 1er Grand Cru Classe, 1999
Brick red in colour and thinner in density than the preceding wines, it's quite savoury and vinous on the nose, vinous rather than fruity, a trait which carries through to the palate. It tastes older too with hints of barnyard and leather and is nicely developed with a fine tannin structure, a rustic character and a long savoury finish. An 'okay' wine but doesn’t have the complexity to compete in this line up. 16.5/20.
Gunn Estate Woolshed Merlot Cabernet Malbec 2002
66% Merlot, 17% Cabernet Sauvignon, 17% Malbec
13.5% alc. 6.5 TA gL, 3.5 pH
Youthful, purple pink, inky and rich. Appealing nose, juicy and succulent, hints of liquorice and vanillin oak. A big juicy wine with plums, leather, tar, smoke, liquorice and lots of tannins though nicely melded and well balanced to the succulent fruit. I can taste the Malbec with its earthy, plummy, purple fruit character and it adds richness and complexity to the wine as a whole. One I'd like to drink. 18-18.5/20. Approx. NZ$30.
Mondot, St Emilion Grand Cru Classe, 2000
This Merlot predominant wine shows some development to its colour, though not as much as the previous Bordeaux. It's earthy on the nose and smells slightly oxidised, which makes the upfront juicy purple fruit flavours quite a surprise. Smoky and savoury with a medicinal character intruding mid-palate, there's a metallic bite to the finish, raisin and currant flavours linger. So different to the others, easy to pick as Bordeaux, but not a startling example. 16/20.
Alpha Domus The Aviator 2000
Triangle sub region
Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Malbec
Youthful, deep, purple magenta coloured. Bright berry fruit on the nose combines with opulent vanillin oak. Big and rich with loads of concentrated plum and berry fruit flavours, it is also savoury and salty with smoky charcoal, currants and rosemary. Rich and sweet with a firm tannin backbone and a long rich concentrated berry/cassis finish, this is intriguing and mouth filling with lovely mouth feel, weight and focus. Top wine of the flight. 19/20. Approx. NZ$60.
Esk Valley The Terraces Malbec Merlot Cabernet France 2002
Bayview sub region
Youthful inky purple black. Savoury oak, concentrated fruit, very dense, concentrated and perfumed. Blackcurrants, rich cassis, very concentrated and powerful, sweet fruit and oak, almost Aussie like in its opulence, wonderfully succulent, liquorice, spice, cloves. An impressive wine with beautiful definition of fruit. 19/20. Approx. NZ$100.
Chateau Lascombes, Margaux 2eme Cru Classe, 2000
55% Cabernet Sauvignon, 40% Merlot, 5% Petit Verdot
60% new French oak
Earthy, a little more developed, slightly bretty and a dusty oak (which made me sneeze). Lovely palate weight and smooth in texture, it seems older with little primary fruit at all, lovely vinosity and power, a hint of spice, though lean on finish where tannins dominate. Needs time.
Ngatarawa Alwyn Reserve Merlot Cabernet Sauvignon 2000
13.5% alc. 5.1 TA gL, 3.45 pH
Quite intense in its colour, almost inky, magenta pinks. Concentrated berry fruit and peppermint on the nose. Peppermint, slightly earthy, metallic in palate, a lighter wine with an overpowering mintiness but there is a good cassis character throughout. 16.5/20. Approx. NZ$45.
Chateau Grand-Puy-Lacoste, Pauillac 5eme Cru Classe, 2000
70% Cabernet Sauvignon, 25% Merlot, 5% Cabernet Franc
Starting to develop brick hues on the edge, otherwise quite black and dense. Rich and savoury on the nose with raisin bread and a liquorice complexity, it shows very appealing balanced aromas. In the palate it's quite earthy with chocolatey oak and good secondary characters starting to emerge, mocha, currants, very long. Overall quite savoury. A food wine. The best of the four Bordeaux wines presented. 17.5+/20.
Alpha Domus The Navigator 2000
Triangle sub region
58% Merlot, 26% Cabernet Sauvignon, 12% Cabernet Franc, 4% Malbec
13.5% alc. 6.1 TA gL, 3.59 pH
55% new oak (70% French)
Good colour. Earthy, slightly herbaceous, vinous aromas. Metallic, hints of blackberries with an earthy, bretty backbone, savoury, vinous, rounded tannins. Not quite at the level of the others. Approx. NZ$30.
Vidal Estate Reserve Merlot Cabernet Sauvignon 2000
14% alc. 5.66 TA gL, 3.562 pH
Metallic, rustic smelling, slightly peppery and spicy. Violets and cigar, liquorice in the palate, good depth and concentration, earthy, savoury, a touch of marmite but ripe, round, rich and concentrated, developing nicely. 17.5/20. Approx. NZ$40.
Villa Maria Reserve Merlot Cabernet Sauvignon 2000
13.5% alc. 5.66 TA gL, 3.62 pH
Developed character to the nose, slightly leathery, a little rustic. Tannic in this line-up. Concentrated fruit, biscuity oak, berry backbone, savoury finish and lingering tea tannins. 16.5/20. Approx. NZ$40.
Sacred Hill Brokenstone Merlot 2002
14% alc. 6.0 TA gL, 3.6 pH
Matured in new French oak, this inky red black wine is perfumed and floral with red fruits, violets, sweet oak and tobacco providing a sensuous allure. It is sweet-fruited with rich velvety tannins and an intense mid-palate leading to an immensely long berry filled finish and lingering flavours of cigar-box, tobacco and chocolate covered nuts. A beautiful wine, very youthful in its presence, exceptional quality and has a long way to go. Bottled but not released when tasted, I look forward to tasting this again in the future. It can only improve, I think. Right now, 18.5/20. Aprox. NZ$40.
The New Zealand wines topped the tasting for me and I would rate probably eight of the Kiwis above my favourite Bordeaux, which was the Grand-Puy-Lacoste. Put it down to cellar palate or perhaps even preference of fruit component, richness of colour and depth of flavour.
When you look at these wines and the pricing structure of premium wines from Bordeaux, New Zealand has to be considered as a first world wine country producing some outstanding examples of Bordeaux-styled wines at third world country prices. Hawkes Bay reds are definitely hot.
Sue Courtney ©
* Figure obtained fron the BNZ Statistical Annual 2003 for vines in production in Hawkes Bay in 2006, which includes vines in the ground now but not yet producing.