Joelle Thomson

Wine writer and award winning wine author

What I am drinking, reading and savouring each week


Hawke's Bay's impressive 2020s and 2021s

Posted on 4 October 2023

Hawke’s Bay has had an impressive number of devastating natural disasters, of which Cyclone Gabrielle earlier this year is the tip of the iceberg. The 1931 earthquake flattened much of Napier city, ensuring the rebuild created one of the world’s leading art deco cities, and there is regular rainfall and, surprisingly, even frost conditions in this diverse wine region. The 2023 vintage is far from ready for bottling yet but while we wait, there are wines from the outstanding 2020 and 2021 harvests, which are a set of stellar vintages, possibly the best yet, in modern New Zealand wine history, from this region. There is a reason that Hawke’s Bay is often, colloquially, referred to as one of the fruit bowls of New Zealand and this top bunch of new releases from Elephant Hill prove the point. The whites are 2021 while the reds set a new high bar for this winery and the region, especially for the Syrahs and the Merlot dominant red, the 2020 Elephant Hill Stone Merlot Cabernet Sauvignon Cabernet Franc RRP $65. If that seems like a high price tag, taste the wine.

Here are my reviews of Elephant Hill's top drops. The winery is based in Te Awanga on the dramatic stony coastline south of Napier but the winery’s owners have vineyard holdings there as well as on the revered Gimblett Gravels Winegrowing District and the much under rated Bridge Pa Triangle wine sub region, which has long been home to exceptional wines. 


2021 Elephant Hill Sea Chardonnay RRP $65

Bold flavours of ripe citrus give way to smooth creamy nuances and a full body with bright acidity giving this wine great length of flavour. Its flavours are text book cool climate thanks to the coastal breeze from the Sea Vineyard on the coast Te Awanga, south of Napier. All grapes were hand picked, whole bunch pressed to barrel where they went through a natural ferment with no added commercial yeasts. Balance here is beautiful due to the influence of malolactic fermentation during 12 months maturation in oak barrels, 57% new.


2021 Elephant Hill Earth Chardonnay RRP $65

Winemaker Hugh Crichton’s passion for and experience with making great Chardonnays shines through in this full bodied, superbly savoury expression of the world’s favourite white wine. The grapes in this wine are mostly from Elephant Hill’s Earth vineyard at Bridge Pa with 4% from the Sea Vineyard. Whole bunches were pressed to barrel with a natural primary ferment which lifts the savoury flavour notes and is followed by a smooth, long and textural finish. 


2021 Elephant Hill Salomé RRP $95

This is an exceptional Chardonnay from Hawke’s Bay and has all the complexity and character of a great Chablis. Complex layers of savoury, creamy, citrusy notes add  character to this rich, creamy, full bodied wine. Its elevated acidity adds a tangy taste to every sip and is beautifully balanced by its full body. Salomé is a blend of grapes grown at the  Sea Vineyard at Te Awanga for 80% with the balance from Earth Vineyard at Bridge Pa); all hand picked and whole bunch pressed with natural fermentation (no added yeasts).  


2020 Elephant Hill Sea Syrah $65.99

The 2020 Sea Syrah is a silky wine with spicy baked plum flavours and complex layers of flavour with cinnamon, nutmeg and even a hint of cardomon all adding exotic depths of flavour. It is made mostly from grapes grown at the Sea Vineyard in Te Awanga, Hawke’s Bay, with 1% of grapes each from Bridge Pa and Gimblett Gravels, which both add weight and depth. This is a lighter take on a warm, spicy style of Syrah, supported by 18 months ageing in oak barrels, 20% of which flatter the wine, allowing its delicate fruit flavours to lead the palate. 


2020 Elephant Hill Earth Syrah RRP $65 

Juicy, dark, baked spiced black plum aromas are layered over a beautifully structured framework of ripe fruit and  complex spice, flattered by aromas of youthful oak. Layers fresh sandalwood, cedar and fresh cinnamon, nutmeg and cardamon are all held together in a tight framework which suggests this wine has a long life ahead. It spent 24 months ageing in barrel, 50% new; a hefty portion that adds great structure to this commanding red. It can be enjoyed now but will reward at least three to five years’ of ageing. The blend here is the reverse of Sea Syrah with 99% of grapes from Bridge Pa and 1% from the Sea Vineyard at Te Awanga. 


2020 Elephant Hill Stone Syrah RRP $65 

 Extremely impressive Syrah from its deep and vibrant red-purple colour through to its warming plums baked in spice like aromas. This wine is made 100% from Elephant Hill’s Stone Vineyard on the Gimblett Gravels in Hawke’s Bay, from which red wines have been universally outstanding from the 2020 vintage. All grapes in this wine were hand picked and 10% whole cluster fermented with natural yeasts. The wine spent 24 months ageing in oak barrels, of which 42% were new; a high portions that is easily absorbed into this commanding Syrah. 


2020 Elephant Hill Stone Merlot Cabernet Sauvignon Cabernet Franc RRP $65

This impressive deep ruby hued red is one of the best Merlots that I have ever tasted. It is made with grapes 100% from Gimblett Gravels Winegrowing District and while Merlot constitutes 53% of the blend, it is complemented by 24% of Cabernet Sauvignon, which adds  deep blackberry scented aromas alongside the lifted fragrance of 23% Cabernet Franc. All grapes were hand picked and wild yeast fermented with the wine aged for two years in barrels, which sounds like a long time but with a judicious 23% of new oak used, this wine shows outstanding approachability and balance; drinking superbly well right now with the ability to age further for five to six years and longer. 


2020 Airavata RRP $125

This wine pays tribute to the great reds of the Northern Rhone Valley in France with 99% Syrah complemented by 1% of Viognier. The grapes were co fermented to add soft fleshy textures and a peachy note to the dark spicy fruit of ripe Syrah, which is a blend of grapes grown on the Gimblett Gravels, Bridge Pa and 1% from Te Awanga. This judicious, clever blending followed by 24 months of ageing in oak barrels (40% new) all adds an impressively structured framework to the wine while also allowing its savoury taste to lead the flavours here. This tastes youthful now and can age for at least a decade. 


2020 Hieronymus RRP $125

Bordeaux lovers will adore this commanding Cabernet Sauvignon with its powerful aromas of blackcurrant leaf, a hint of green pepper and savoury spice are fleshed out with Merlot adding body and a softness in the mid palate (38% of the blend) and dark red berry flavour notes coming from 23% Cabernet Franc. Natural yeast fermentation (no commercial yeasts added) was followed by 24 months of ageing in barrel, a chunky 54% new oak, which sits comfortably in this impressive ripe red wine. This is deliciously, succulently drinkable now but has structure that begs to be aged and matured for up to a decade and beyond.