Regional Spotlight: Hawkes Bay, New Zealand

by Chuck Hayward

Regional Spotlight: Hawkes Bay, New Zealand

Post by Chuck Hayward | April 13th,2010

“One forgets just how fine New Zealand’s Cabernet Sauvignon and Bordeaux blends can be, particularly in Hawke’s Bay” -Neal Martin, Writer for Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate, May 2008.

The relatively warm region of Hawkes Bay on New Zealand's North Island has become the premier growing region for merlot and cabernet, with almost 80% of the country's production for those grapes centered in the area. With a history of grape growing that goes back to late 19th century, it's been just recently that Hawkes Bay has begun to make a name for itself internationally following on from the popularity of Marlborough sauvignon blanc and pinot noir from Central Otago and Martinborough.

The region's first plantings were scattered along the coast where it is cooler and more exposed to weather from Hawkes Bay. Later on, plantings were focused on sites inland from the bay where the temperatures are warmer and become more conducive to varieties like cabernet and merlot. Although the Hawkes Bay region is somewhat compact, there can be a difference of five degrees Celsius between coastal and inland vineyard sites.

There are a number of subregions in Hawkes Bay that will become more defined in the near future and will become increasingly important as single site expressions of Bordeaux blends become more recognized. In the meantime, most Hawkes Bay designated Bordeaux blends will come from grapes throughout the appellation with an emphasis on areas that can ripen grapes on a consistent basis.

Esk River--North of Napier, the home of some historic wineries such as Glenvale (now Esk Valley).

Te Awanga--South of Napier, this coastal area is best suited to earlier ripening varieites becasue of the cool climate conditions.

Dartmoor Valley--A secluded valley north of the Hawkes Bay basin combined with calcareous, gravelly soils allows for more consistent growing conditions.

Havelock Hills--The north facing hills were among the first areas to be planted years ago and are home to famous wineries like Te Mata.

Gimblett Gravels--The most famous subregion of Hawkes Bay, gravelly soils left from an old river allow for exceptional drainage and slightly higher temperatures perfect for bordelais varieties as well as syrah and chardonnay.

Ngatarawa Triangle--Just west of the Gravels, this area makes reds that are slightly more elegant compared to what Gimblett can produce.

Hawkes Bay reds have been a consistent part of the US wine market for some time now but their success has been limited compared to other varietals like sauvignon blanc. Part of this is due to the style of wines that were first exported in the early 1990s. The prevailing model of the time was a lower alcohol merlot-cabernet blend grown from vineyards closer to the coast. These wines were more herbaceous and greener than the prevailing style of wine coming from California. As wineries experimented with grapes coming from warmer inland sites, the resulting wines had riper fruit flavors and the American market began to see less of the more severe weediness in Hawkes Bay reds. Nevertheless, consumers and the trade remained under the impression that Hawkes Bay reds were of a herbal nature.

With the arrival of the warm 1998 vintage, the American market began to see the qualities that grapes from warmer subregions could add to the traditional Hawkes Bay style. The wines became less vegetative in aromas and purer fruit expressions began to emerge. They still maintained, however, the sense of elegance and restraint that makes these wines quite similar to Bordeaux. The best examples from Gimblett Gravels also added a strong mineral component derived from the gravelly nature of the soil.

Two other factors have also contributed to the increased quality of Hawkes Bay bordelais varieties. For one thing, the vines are getting more mature. As vines enter their adolescence of 10-14 years, the greener, herbal notes give way to more pure fruit flavors. In addition, thanks to a relaxation of quarantine regulations for imported grape cuttings by the New Zealand government, growers have secured cabernet and merlot clones from Bordeaux that are more appropriate for the climate in Hawkes Bay.