This story first appeared in New Zealand Winegrower magazine, August 2016.

Let’s play a word game: a winemaker says cool climate, active limestone and early ripening black grape variety. You say a black grape that fits the bill, which consumers know, like and want to buy.

If Pinot Noir springs to your lips, Hawke’s Bay probably doesn’t spring to mind because it has historically been considered this country’s most suitable region for mid to late ripening grapes, such as Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah.

The region’s winemakers are now keen to add another string to their red winemaking bow and they are increasingly experimenting with earlier ripening black grapes than traditional wisdom dictated.

Enter Pinot Noir and Gamay.

The two can stand on their own two feet and can also, literally, be thrown together to make Bourgogne Passetoutgrains, whose French name means all thrown together. This wine comes from Burgundy and must contain at least 30 percent Pinot Noir. It is described as a red thirst quencher in the new Oxford Companion to Wine and, while very little leaves France, a significant amount is produced there; almost two thirds the amount of Bourgogne Rouge.

The concept was inadvertently used by Grant Edmonds, head winemaker at Sileni Estates in Hawke’s Bay, where the winemaking team are sourcing Pinot Noir from vineyards in cooler areas in the Bay than where their Merlot and later ripening grapes grow.

They have also blended a smidgeon of Gamay into one of the winery’s accessibly priced Pinot Noirs, with good success. The amount was well below the threshold of 14.9% – it was in fact less than 5% – so did not need to be and was not named on the label.

“We get a little bit of Gamay from a grower and we find it works well as part of the blend. It has good colour, which is always handy to have with Pinot Noir,” Edmonds says.

Pinot Noir is the second most planted grape variety at Sileni Estates and is gaining importance for the winery, which is one of the biggest producers in Hawke’s Bay.

Edmonds and his winemaking team are sourcing Pinot Noir from two relatively cool climate vineyards.

The first of these is at Te Awanga, where the growing season is shortened by the cool coastal winds and the second is inland at Mangatahi, on the south side of the Ngaruroro River. The vineyard there is 120 metres above sea level, which instantly knocks one degree Celcius off its ripening temperatures.

The winds that sweep along this exposed hillside vineyard (planted at 150 metres above sea level) also cools down the temperatures there.

In viticultural terms, Edmonds suggests that the grapes ripening on this vineyard are ready to pick approximately seven to 10 days later than the other grapes that he sources from the plains.

“This is the difference between Bordeaux and Burgundy in terms of temperature. When we look at where the potential is to expand vineyards for Pinot Noir, we are looking beyond here to areas, such as the old river beds in Central Hawke’s Bay, mainly Waipawa and Waipukurau across to Highway 50 and beyond.”

Edmonds is not alone in seeing Pinot Noir’s positive potential in the Bay but because Sileni Estates’ wine production is relatively large, he can see it having a significant impact on the volume of Pinot from the Bay. He is therefore keen to shape a positive profile for Pinot Noir there.

Winemaker Rod Easthope from Easthope Winegrowers is likeminded.

“I have always thought Pinot Noir should and would work in Hawke’s Bay and I’m talking about greater Hawke’s Bay, not just pockets of it. In terms of calling us warm – as many do in a New Zealand context – we are still a cool climate by world standards. Therefore I don’t think our climate precludes us from producing good Pinot Noir at all.”

Easthope sees the biggest issues for Hawke’s Bay Pinot Noir as being the sometimes relatively high humidity and the rainfall, which is spread throughout the year. These factors produce big bunches, large berries and naturally high vigour. For this reason, he suggests that naturally high yields are the biggest issue, in terms of making high quality Pinot Noir in the Bay.

“I think it takes a bit more discipline to get the Pinot down to low numbers compared to what we are used to in the Bay. The results are there – Emma (Easthope – his winemaking partner in life and in business) and I did all the viticulture on it – one bunch per shoot and it works, in terms of quality. That’s why I come back to the commitment to really doing the business in the vineyard, which will give the results for high quality.”

While Easthope acknowledges that Syrah has been a success story for the Bay, its production remains relatively small – and, interestingly, barely more than Pinot Noir, in terms of plantings.

Cool, rainy vintages and lack of consumer knowledge also mean that Syrah has yet not gained the traction that many accolades suggest it could.

“Syrah’s volume is capped not by quality but rather because the consumer does not understand Syrah particularly strongly, whereas they instantly get what Shiraz is. That lack of consumer understanding of what Syrah is – coupled with Pinot Noir’s current global popularity and the odds are that mid ripening, medium bodied red wines are safer to bank on in this region,” says Easthope.

To date, the best known Hawke’s Bay’s Pinot Noirs have come from Lime Rock Wines in Central Hawke’s Bay, an area that Edmonds from Sileni is keen to explore.

“A lot of us in the Bay have talked about the potential for years but the distance has been off putting to us. Now, given the popularity of Pinot Noir, the time is right to consider it more strongly.”

Back in the Bay, Easthope’s punt is on Gamay, the traditional Beaujolais grape and also an ingredient in Burgundy’s Passetoutgrains, as mentioned in this story.

“I think Gamay is better suited to us for making a mid weight elegant red, which is the wine style that suits the way the world seems to be going. I’ve got a grower planting some for me and we’re managing a small parcel from Lucknow Estate at Maraekakaho, which is slightly inland, has plenty of daytime heat and slightly cooler nights than the Gimblett Gravels.”

While Easthope concedes that Gamay’s image has been somewhat tarnished by the Beaujolais Nouveau movement, he is keen to emphasise the high quality potential of Gamay grapes and the best Beaujolais, such as the villages and cru wines.

“I had a 1929 Morgon six or seven years ago, which was an incredible wine at a cru level (the top quality tier in Beaujolais). That was from an incredible vintage right across France but it also proved to have the ability to age in the long term,” says Easthope.

“I think Gamay could be our thing because it’s pretty much only New Zealanders who drink our own Bordeaux style reds and they’re expensive, so I think our future is on pretty, soft floral wines with serious structure, such as Gamays, perhaps Pinot Noir and also Syrah.”

The first Easthope Family Estates Gamay will be released in August this year from the 2015 vintage.

 

Fast facts: Grapes in Hawke’s Bay

The latest statistics show the three most planted grapes in Hawke’s Bay today as: Merlot (1080 hectares), Chardonnay (1006 hectares) and Sauvignon Blanc (937 hectares) followed by Pinot Gris with 439; Syrah with 332 and Pinot Noir with 331. Cabernet Sauvignon has declined from over 600 hectares in 2004 to 249 hectares today.