When I first visited New Zealand, it was 2002 and I knew nearly nothing about wine. However, as I had travelled to the opposite side of the planet, I wanted to bring back a nice bottle to enjoy at home in London. I enquired at a wine merchant in Auckland for their best New Zealand wine, and was presented with a bottle of The Terraces from Esk Valley. I opened it with friends and enjoyed it on November 11th, 2006 after attending the official dedication of the New Zealand War Memorial at Hyde Park Corner. Tonight it’s another wine from the same producer, the Esk Valley Winemakers Gimblett Gravels Syrah 2007.
While I was not a student of wine at that point, that bottle was special to me because I went to some trouble to procure it and transport it around the world. (It was also a bit dear.) Drinking it was made all the more special because I enjoyed it with friends on a memorable occasion, and one related to New Zealand at that, and the result of those factors means that despite not having a particularly good memory, I can recall those details clearly to this day. The obvious question is why am I not writing about a bottle of The Terraces, which is one of the great wines of New Zealand? Well, one of the people with whom I shared that bottle is now my wife, and she has given up drinking for the time being as she is pregnant. So while I have purchased more of The Terraces since my first trip, I’m resigned to letting certain bottles stay in the cellar for another year rather than drinking them without her.
So New Zealand. I’ve written about Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc and Central Otago Pinot Noir, but Hawkes Bay is well worth some exploration, particularly as I’ve been there for a visit (which is when I picked up this bottle). Located on the east coast of the North Island, the region spreads out north, south and west from Napier on the coast toward a range of hills. The climate for the region as a whole is maritime. The hills provide shelter from most weather, making Hawkes Bay one of the warmest areas in New Zealand with a corresponding high number of sunlight days and low amount of rainfall.
It’s also a region where finding the right patch of a certain soil type is key, as opposed to some places where aspect or other factors are more critical. It has a very complex geology, influenced by ancient glaciers and four rivers which wandered before cutting out terraces and the valleys they now inhabit. As a result, there are areas of high fertility and water retention in close proximity to free draining soil with poor fertility.
Within Hawkes Bay, this wine is from the Gimblett Gravels area, which is considered to have the least fertile soil of the region. Formed when the Ngaruroro River changed course after a flood in 1867, the area has a thin layer of sand and loam topsoil over alternating layers of deep shingle and more sand which provide efficient drainage. While Hawkes Bay is the country’s oldest wine region, with the first plantings dating back to the 19th century, Gimblett Gravels emerged in the late 1990s as producers came to better understand the soils of the region. A highly sought after terroir for the production of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, it sparked a rush for acreage and the majority of the area is now under vine. More recently, Syrah has also carved out a niche.
Esk Valley is both the name of this producer and the name of another subregion in which they are based in the north area of Hawkes Bay along the coast. What is now Esk Valley was founded in 1933 by Robert Bird as Glenvale Winery, and the concrete fermenters in use date back to the original construction. The company produced fortified wines for over 40 years until the late 1970s when the focus was shifted to premium table wines and the Esk Valley brand was born. Unfortunately the company was a victim of price wars a few years later and was subsequently purchased by George Fistonich of the massive Villa Maria Estates. After investment and renovation, Esk Valley is now run as an independent, boutique winery.
The company produces two ranges of wine, with the classic range largely made up of varietal wines from Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Pinot Gris, Riesling, Verdelho, Pinot Noir, Syrah, and Chenin Blanc grown or sourced from within Hawkes Bay or Marlborough. They also produce a red Bordeaux-style blend and a Merlot / Malbec blend rosé in that range. Their Winemakers Reserve range includes a Chardonnay, a red Bordeaux-style blend and this Syrah which are almost exclusively made from Gimblett Gravels fruit – the Chardonnay can have some Hawkes Bay fruit as well. Their flagship wine is The Terraces, a co-fermented field blend of Malbec, Merlot and Cabernet Franc sourced from a 1HA vineyard. I highly recommend it if you have a particularly special occasion.
As to this wine, in the glass it is clear and bright with medium plus ruby colour and tinted slow legs. On the nose it’s clean and developing, with medium plus intensity and notes of strawberry, blueberry, sweet spice, liquorice, and some black pepper. On the palate it’s dry with medium acidity, medium plus flavour intensity, medium minus fine tannins, medium body, medium plus alcohol, and medium plus length. The palate compliments the nose, in that there are notes of liquorice, blueberry, a hint of red meat, and some pencil lead on the finish.
This is a very good wine, It has strong typicity for a cool climate Syrah, it has a complex array of flavours, it’s intense on the nose and palate, and has good length. The tannins and acidity are a bit of a let down relative to the other, more prominent aspects of the wine, but its generosity of fruit and flavour balance out those factors.
Finally, punctuation. In terms of top level local governance, New Zealand is broken into 16 regions, and they seem to my mind to be roughly equivalent to states in the USA or Australia. Hawke’s Bay is one of those regions, spelled with an apostrophe, and all the geography I’ve mentioned is located within it. However, throughout this post I’ve been referring to Hawkes Bay, without an apostrophe. I believe that is how the region is commonly named with respect to wine, and how Esk Valley spells it on their bottle and website.