Wednesday, August 25, 2010

New Zealand - Not Just for Sauvignon Blanc Anymore

While the South Island of New Zealand has garnered all of the attention for many years with the Sauvignon Blancs from the Marlborough region and, more recently, the Pinot Noirs from Central Otago, more and more we are seeing quality Cabernet Sauvignons, Cabernet Francs, and Bordeaux blends coming from the North Island, particularly from Hawkes Bay on east side of the island (southwest of the town of Napier) and from the Waiheke Island area outside of Auckland.

Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc arrived “down under” through Australia with James Busby in 1832, and originated from cuttings and rootstock collected in France and Spain. Given the maritime climate in most of New Zealand, Cabernet Sauvignon tends to take on a lot of the flavor characteristics (floral, spice, herbal notes) typically associated with Cabernet Franc. Cabernet Franc was not widely planted until the 1990s, with only about 210 hectares (525 acres) planted as of 2006, compared to close to 1,700 acres of Cabernet Sauvignon. These are both relatively small plantings, when compared to the 42,000± acres planted to Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, and Pinot Noir.

Hawke’s Bay

Hawke’s Bay is New Zealand’s oldest (with recorded plantings in the Taradale and Meanee areas dating to 1851), and second largest (after Marlborough) wine producing region. Almost three-quarters of the Cabernet Sauvignon in New Zealand is planted in this region. The region is marked by two inland mountain ranges formed from a compressed sand referred to a greywacke rock. Through centuries of weathering and climatic forces, the rock was broken down and transported down the mountain slopes by one of the five rivers that flow east through the area to form alluvial deposits at the base of the slopes and in areas where the water slowed, similar to patterns seen in the Napa Valley. Soil types in the vineyards can range from coarse gravel (Gimblett’s gravel) to combinations of sand, silt, and clay. Another component in the soils is volcanic ash and loess (a mixture of fine particulates bound together by calcium carbonate).

Much of the plantings in the Hawke’s Bay region are focused around the alluvial fans left by the Ngaruroro River. The rivers were means of early transportation and settlements and towns formed along the rivers. The early vineyards were planted in iron-rich, gravelly soils and along rock terraces deposited by the moving waters as the river changed its course over several thousand years. The presence of the gravel and rock in the vineyards is one of the keys to the ripening of Hawke’s Bay Cabernet, in that the rock collects energy in the form of heat from the sun, and gradually releases the heat at night, modulating the often drastic variations in temperature. The gravel also encourages rapid infiltration and drainage of water through the soil, forcing the vines to send roots deep in search of moisture.

Although plantings date back to the 1890’s, recent plantings have focused on hillsides and terraced vineyard plantings on Te Mata Peak, at Bay View, and at Maraekakaho. These vineyards take advantage of favorable sun exposures and the ability to shed cool night air, and have become a popular location for Bordeaux grape varietal plantings.

Hawkes Bay producers of note include Craggy Range, Mills Reef, Te Mata Estate, Sacred Hill, Mission Estate, and Babich.

Waiheke Island

Situated in the Hauraki Gulf to the east of Auckland, Waiheke Island is sheltered from the prevailing colder/wetter west and southwest winds, making it both drier and warmer than the rest of the Auckland area. Until the early 1980s, Waiheke had been known more for its hippies and marijuana production than anything else. Some of the first vineyard plantings occurred in 1978 at what is now Goldwater Estate.

Being located in Hauraki Gulf, the breezes off the water act to keep the vineyards cooled in the heat of the summer, and tend to moderate the temperatures at night. The overall effect is that the island has average temperatures comparable to much warmer growing areas without any of the extremes, and these favorable conditions extend well into March and April (the southern hemisphere’s autumn). These extended conditions allow the wineries to allow the grapes more hang time, encouraging both physiologic and phenolic ripeness (getting both the right sugar content while also developing all of the desired flavor components).

Notable producers on Waiheke Island include Stonyridge Estate, Te Motu, Kennedy Point Vineyard, and the aforementioned Goldwater Estate.

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