Hawke’s Bay spotlight

Hawke’s Bay has a pair of heroes: syrah and chardonnay. (Photo: Hawke’s Bay Wine)

To help measure the strength of Hawke’s Bay’s pulse I talked to Tony Bish, long-term winemaker for Sacred Hill, who has recently started his own winery, Tony Bish Wines, with a spectacular cellar door in the beautiful old (must visit) Rothmans building in Napier. Tony specialises in chardonnay, some of which is fermented in concrete and wooden eggs.

Bay vintages

Hawke’s Bay has experienced a roller-coaster ride in vintage conditions over the past decade. Low points were probably 2011 and 2012 with high points in 2013, 2014 and 2016. Tony conceded that the 2017 and 2018 vintages rank below the 2013, 2014 & 2015 years.

“Our 2018 chardonnays look pretty good, but we will have reduced volumes of Sacred Hill’s super-premium labels.”

Mood

The sale of Sileni Estates and scaling down of other companies, such as The Wine Portfolio, has caused a little nervousness in the Bay, but that has been balanced by the construction of ambitious new wineries by the Villa Maria group of companies and by Delegats – the latter believed to be the largest structure in Hawke’s Bay. Winemakers are in a state of “wait and see” according to Tony but the apparent success of high performers like Craggy Range and Te Mata add a little buoyancy to the mood of the region.

Italian and Spanish varieties are on the up and are contributing more diversity and complexity to the traditional fare from Hawke’s Bay.

Exports

Tony reports that sales of Sacred Hill wines are rocking in the US and that Australia continues to be a strong market with a growing thirst for chardonnay, while sauvignon blanc and pinot gris maintain their stellar status. China is a more challenging market but sales have been steady with 18% growth in the past year (from all regions).

The Heroes

Hawke’s Bay has a pair of heroes: syrah and chardonnay. Red wines made from the Bordeaux varieties can be very good indeed but are harder to sell.

“Hawke’s Bay Bordeaux blends can look a lot like true Bordeaux wines, but they don’t have a natural home apart from the tricky China market,” says Bish.

Trending Up

Tony believes that chardonnay sales will continue to grow but would like to see less reductive influence, which he believes masks terroir and fruit purity. Chardonnay may be tracking up, but the heavy-handed use of oak and sulphide characters may be tracking own, he suspects.

Italian and Spanish varieties are on the up and are contributing more diversity and complexity to the traditional fare from Hawke’s Bay.

It may be wishful thinking but Tony believes that cabernet franc offers good, if unexploited, potential. A lot of winemakers are enthusiastic about cabernet franc, which is one of the star performers in the Gimblett Gravels district, although Tony concedes that it could be a hard sell in the marketplace.

Trending Down

Cabernet sauvignon has been in decline for a while – acreage has halved in the last decade.

“If you can’t make bloody good cabernet you shouldn’t be making it at all,” says Tony.

I certainly agree with that sentiment.

“Te Mata is a good example of a producer that is getting the best out of cabernet.”

At a glance (2018)

Total vineyard area 4,681 ha (12% of national vineyard)
Tonnes crushed in 2018 41,061 tonnes (10% of national crush)
Yield 8.8 (tonnes/ha)
No. of wineries 91
No. of growers 62

Vineyard area (ha) by main varieties:

Chardonnay 1060
Merlot 1050
Sauvignon blanc 998
Pinot gris 485
Syrah 336
Pinot noir 261
Cabernet sauvignon 220

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