Gimblett Gravels Annual Vintage Selection From Hawke’s Bay, New Zealand: Wine Highlights And Scores

One of the highlights of the wine world every year is the release of the Gimblett Gravels’ winegrowers’ association Annual Vintage Selection – this year from the 2016 vintage.

This Selection, which has been going since the 2008 vintage, is a rather novel and excellent idea. Great way to show the best of a region, though my experience suggests that there would be plenty of better-known regions that would struggle to get the sufficient level of cooperation between wineries for this to work. So, kudos to the Kiwis for not only coming up with the concept but for continuing it so successfully.

Entering Gimblett Gravels

New Zealand and Australian wine lovers will be aware of the quality of the reds from this tiny region, part of Hawke’s Bay on the east coast of the north island of New Zealand, but it is such a small and new region that many in the Northern Hemisphere may not be as familiar.

The region is only around 800 hectares in total. And it only exists thanks to nature’s fury: the region suffered a severe earthquake in 1863 and then severe floods in 1867. The floods redirected the course of the Ngaruroro River and left uncovered a large gravelly piece of land, previously effectively submerged.

The Gimblett Gravels wine-growing district

And thus the region that would become the Gimblett Gravels was born. But not for some time. It is also worth mentioning that this region is subject to very serious earthquake activity and there is always the chance that the “terroir” could be massively altered at any time. Meanwhile, make the most of some stunning reds.

There was an even tougher battle ahead before the vineyards could be established. In 1982, Alan Limmer established the first vineyard called Stonecroft. The land was nearly worthless (oh, how things have changed) as it was stony and basically infertile. Fortunately for wine lovers, Limmer was a soil scientist.

Gimblett Gravels gravel

The Stonecroft vineyard had a few neighbors – a quarry, an army rifle range, a rubbish dump, and a drag-racing strip. Before Limmer could build a winery, he needed council permission, which was denied, and so began a long and intricate saga of appeals and litigation.

The initial decision against the winery was overturned, and Limmer then sought to have the entire, albeit small, region zoned for viticulture. The quarry had other ideas, and off to court everybody went. It was not until 1992 that Limmer finally prevailed. Until then, no one else had joined the charge to plant vines, but as soon as victory was achieved wine became the focus, land prices soared, and I doubt that there is space to stick a single extra vine in the ground today.

Map of the Gimblett Gravels wine-growing district, Hawke’s Bay, New Zealand

Without the efforts of Limmer and a few others, this beautiful region of great reds would be a hole in the ground. Worth noting that Stonecroft’s first vintage was 1987 and it produced New Zealand’s first Syrah of recent times in 1989.

Stonecroft thus has the oldest Syrah vines in New Zealand, planted in 1984. These vines came from research stations believed to be imported from Australia around 1900.

My first visit must have been just after Limmer had saved the region. I remember Steve Smith, one of the founders of Craggy Range (although Craggy has vineyards all over New Zealand, this is its home and the site of two of its wineries, including the visitors’ winery plus restaurant), showing me around the region.

At that stage there was little more than bare soil, but some vines had been planted. Smith showed me a wine from barrel, a Syrah (the Kiwis do not like being mistaken for Aussies – something that is definitely mutual – and so changed the name of Shiraz to Syrah, understandably as competing against the incredibly popular blockbusters and elegant cool-climate Shiraz from various regions of Australia would have made things very tough in the early days) that was 15 percent in alcohol and yet still beautifully balanced, fragrant, and exploding with exuberance.

Most of the new wineries would initially plant Cabernet with Merlot and a tiny amount of Syrah, but over time the Syrah has proved so compelling that plantings have increased.

It wasn’t long before I was back for the official opening of Craggy Range’s superb winery, now surrounded by vines. January is supposed to be smack in the middle of summer, but the opening night was bitter cold. No matter. The event was truly memorable and there was more than enough wine to warm the coldest heart.

Held outdoors, the crowd was enthralled by Kiwi soprano Dame Kiri te Kanawa and then, with the backing of the full Auckland Symphony Orchestra, which had flown in for the evening, Sir Edmund Hillary told the story of the last part of his climb up Mount Everest on stage. I doubt there was a dry eye.

Gimblett Gravels’ Annual Vintage Selection concept

The concept of the Annual Selection is to present 12 of the very best reds from the vintage. They can be any variety or blend, and wineries may be represented by more than one wine. The dozen is selected by Andrew Caillard MW, a Sydney-based wine auctioneer, presenter, writer, and more.

He was the man behind the impressive Red Obsession film, which did so well around the world, and he is justifiably recognized for a superb palate. Caillard works his way through the various wines submitted to come up with the final dozen. His word is final.

Gimblett Gravels’ 2016 began with a cool spring followed by dry weather, allowing for moderate crops. A cool December and then warm to hot weather for the next few months meant a vintage that required plenty of care and attention, but for those who were careful, the results are seriously impressive. For me, in general terms, the wines are fresher and more elegant than most vintages from Gimblett Gravels. They will age well, provide excellent early drinking as well, but they are not the oozing exuberant bundles of joy sometimes encountered.

What is interesting is that for a country that has nearly 100 percent use of screwcaps to seal their wines, seven of these are sealed with cork. Make of that what you will.

If you are not familiar with the wonderful reds of Gimblett Gravels, this is a brilliant way to become acquainted. And if you are familiar, then you will no doubt be keen to renew that acquaintance.

Notes on the 2016 vintage wines from the latest Gimblett Gravels Selection

Babich Irongate, Hawke’s Bay 2016

A blend of 54% Cabernet, 40% Merlot and 6% Cabernet Franc, 14 months in oak, 40% of which was new, this is a pleasing mix of dark and red fruits with toasty oak.

My score: 90

Babich The Patriarch, Hawke’s Bay 2016

A second Babich wine, the blend this time Merlot 40%, Malbec 33%, Cabernet 27%, with slightly longer in oak, more of it new. Finely crafted with dark berries, cherries, black fruits. Plenty of tannins.

My score: 93

Craggy Range Sophia, Hawke’s Bay, New Zealand

Craggy Range Sophia, Hawke’s Bay 2016

Craggy also has two wines in the Selection. This one is a blend of Cabernet 41%, Cabernet Franc 33%, and Merlot 26%, which spent 18 months in French oak, 45% new. It is all class, seamless, with excellent length.

My score: 96

Mission Jewelstone Antoine, Hawke’s Bay 2016

This wine is an identical blend to the Sophia and also had 18 months in oak, but 50% was new. Nicely fragrant, more moderate than some. Plenty of tannins.

My score: 92

Sacred Hill Helmsman, Hawke’s Bay, New Zealand

Sacred Hill Helmsman, Hawke’s Bay 2016

A Cabernet-dominant wine with 17 months in French oak, half new. Wonderfully complex with cassis, cloves and black olives. Seamless and very long.

My score: 95

Saint Clair Premium, Hawke’s Bay 2016

Another Cabernet-dominant wine from a single vineyard, it offers lovely dark plush notes.

My score: 90

Stonecroft, Hawke’s Bay 2016

Given the contribution of this winery to the region’s history, great to see one of its wines here. 100% Cabernet, it offers black cherries, excellent length, and fine satiny tannins.

My score: 94

Vidal Legacy, Hawke’s Bay 2016

An 80/20 Cabernet Merlot that spent 20 months French oak, 60% new. Chocolate, warm fleshy notes and some oak.

My score: 91

Craggy Range Vineyard, Hawke’s Bay 2016

Finely balanced Syrah with dark fruits, forest floor, and tobacco leaf notes. Seamless and supple.

My score: 93

Esk Valley Winemakers Reserve, Hawke’s Bay 2016

Only 150 cases made, this Syrah is more earthy than bold berries, though some blueberry notes sneak in.

My score: 92

Sacred Hill Deerstalkers, Hawke’s Bay 2016

Another winery with two in the Selection, this Syrah has that lovely Gimblett Gravels opulence, while remaining bright and fresh.

My score: 93

Vidal Legacy Syrah, Hawke's Bay, New Zealand

Vidal Legacy syrah, Hawke’s Bay, New Zealand

Vidal Legacy, Hawke’s Bay 2016

A classic Gimblett Gravels red Syrah with that amazing plushness. Black cherries, spices, mocha. Love it.

My score: 94

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