Hawke’s Bay, New Zealand

One of our neighbours across the ditch’s oldest wine regions, Hawke’s Bay is also known as one of the highest quality regions in the New Zealand wine industry. Hidden away just under the heel of NZ’s boot in the very north-east of the country in the protected and serene bay of the same name, let’s dig deeper into Hawke’s Bay.

As mentioned above, Hawke’s bay has a long history of viticulture, which is honestly rather unusual for New Zealand. The two best-known Kiwi regions, Marlborough and Central Otago, can only really trace their vinous lineage back around 40 years, but here in Hawke’s Bay, vines have been planted since 1851. Like in a lot of New World regions like Santiago in Chile, California and the Eden Valley, it was Catholicism that introduced the vine to Hawke’s Bay. They needed wine for the sacrament, and realised pretty quickly that the grapevine not only grew fairly well, but made some pretty good wines to boot! The first commercial vintage was 1870, and come 1920 there was a bustling industry that provided wines to the major towns of Wellington to the south-west and Auckland to the north-west. Several of the wineries that trace their lineage back to this time pay homage to their Christian vigneron ancestors in their names, such as Church Road, Trinity Hill and Mission Estate.


What differentiates Hawke’s Bay from many of the other regions in New Zealand is the wide variety of grapes that succeed here, including some that many would consider ‘warm climate’ varieties! While the majority of regions in this country tend to specialise in a small handful of cool-climate wine varieties and styles (think Marlborough with grassy, dry Sauvignon Blanc, Gisborne with lean and mineral Chardonnay and Central Otago with its deeply coloured and sweet fruited Pinot Noirs), Hawke’s Bay has really spread the field, and a diverse selection of grape varieties have gained both national and international success with their critical acclaim. For whites, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Gris are the most-grown, making up around 30-35% of annual crush, though white grapes originating all across the globe are made in Hawkes Bay, such as Marsanne/Roussane blends, Semillon/Sauvignon Blancs and Viognier all make very interesting wines. For reds the most popular styles are Bordeaux Blends, with Cabernet Sauvignon making up the lion’s share of vineyard space. Syrah, which has a distinctive white pepper and blueberry aroma from this region, is growing swiftly in popularity due to several years of critical acclaim, as well as the fact that it is some of the only Syrah grown in the country, and that it goes down exceptionally well with lamb in the winter! An even more diverse range of alternate red varieties can be found here, such as Montepulciano, Gamay, Tempranillo and even some Touriga Nacional just to name a few!


What this diversity reflects is that within Hawke’s Bay is a varied assortment of microclimates. Depending on where in the region a vineyard is planted plays an important role in day-to-day temperatures. Down by the bay on the flatlands near Napier town is very warm, while up by the central spine of mountains, which protect the region from rainfall, it is much cooler. One thing is common through the majority of the region however- sunshine! Hawke’s Bay, in most vintages, records the most sunshine hours of any New Zealand wine region. This sunshine, combined with cooler or warmer microclimates and a long, even autumn allows balanced ripening and flavour composition in so many different grapes!


Within Hawke’s Bay is an even smaller and higher-quality sub-region just west of the town of Hastings, known as Gimblett Gravels. This sub-region is unique due to its soils and sheltered, cool climate, all of which assists in the production of deliciously complex wines, with Syrah, not really grown anywhere else in New Zealand, quickly becoming the most famous variety here. The soils are made up of, well, gravels- no shock there really! These gravels consist mainly of greywacke, washed down from the mountainous spine of New Zealand by the Ngaruroro River, which changed its course after a flood in 1867, just as the wine industry was getting established.


Greywacke is hard, often darkly coloured sedimentary sandstone, which consists of both mineral and rock fragments, and usually contains a bit of quartz and feldspar. This soil is believed to make the wines more blue-fruited than red or black when compared to Shiraz from Australia, as well as impart smoky and mineral flavours in the wines from this unique corner of Hawke’s Bay. Whilst New Zealand does not have a European-styled Appellation system in place, the Gimblett Gravels sub-region has come pretty close, but using a very different method. The name Gimblett Gravels is actually a legally registered brand! In order to be able to use this ‘brand name’, 95% of the wine in the bottle must come from this section, and- in a very interesting twist- 95% of the soils in the vineyard where the wine comes from must conform to the soil types defined in the designation of the district- the aforementioned greywacke gravels! This ‘trademark’ on soils is actually stricter than anything in appellation guidelines in France- not even in Châteauneuf-du-Pape do they legally have to have Galetstones, nor in Champagne do vines legally have to be planted on limestone!


Mark Faber
Buyer and Seller of the Bottles