Peter Ranscombe continues trekking through his 12 wines of Christmas with bottles from the Gimblett Gravels in New Zealand.
LORD of the Rings has a lot to answer for.
Watching Frodo gurn his way across Middle Earth could lead filmgoers to conclude that New Zealand has a uniform cool climate of snow-capped mountains and turf-roofed hovels.
Yet Scotland’s Antipodean twin stretches between the 35th and 45th parallels, covering a broad range of climates, and bringing with it the right conditions to grow a wide variety of grapes.
While New Zealand’s cooler climes suit aromatic varieties like sauvignon blanc, the country also produces everything from chardonay to pinot noir, as I was reminded while covering a series of online seminars over the summer organised by trade body New Zealand Winegrowers.
Latitude isn’t the only deciding factor – distance from the coast also has an important influence.
Hawke’s Bay, on the North Island, sits on the 39th parallel, giving it similar temperatures and number of growing days to Bordeaux in France.
Drive 20 minutes inland and you’ll reach Gimblett Gravels, which – as the name suggests – is a wine-growing region with gravel soils.
The gravels in question were exposed in the 1860s after the Ngaruroro River that flows through the area changed course following a flood.
The first vines were planted in 1981 and local farmers and winemakers formed the Gimblett Gravels Winegrowers’ Association (GGWA) in 2001 to market the region.
Interestingly, “Gimblett Gravels” isn’t a formally-recognised geographical indicator – unlike “Arbroath smokie”, “Scotch whisky” or “Stornoway black pudding”.
Instead, it’s a registered trademark, demonstrating the pride the winemakers take in their distinctive soil.
That 20-minute drive from the coast leads to the average temperature being two or three degrees warmer on a sunny day, while the gravel acts like the pudding stones at Châteauneuf-du-Pape in France’s Rhone valley, absorbing heat during the day and releasing it at night, keeping the vines warmer.
Those warming factors allow a broader range of grapes to be grown in the gravels, with the north-west side of the main road producing more cabernet sauvignon and cabernet franc, while the south-east side favours syrah and merlot.
Hot summer, cooler autumn
Each year, the GGWA hosts a tasting to show off its latest vintage, with the 2020 event – like everything else – taking place online.
The 12 wines sent to participants this year were selected by master of wine Andrew Caillard, with the online tasting earlier this month led by fellow master of wine Rebecca Gibb and winemaker Warren Gibson.
Gibson highlighted high summer temperatures during 2018, followed by a cooler March and April, which benefited both cabernet sauvignon and syrah.
A mixture of previous vintages of these wines – centred around 2015 and 2016 – are currently on the shelves in Scotland, with these 2018s starting to make their way to our shores next years.
Bottles to seek out include:
Smith & Sheth Cru Heretaunga Syrah 2018 (RRP £30; 2017: £29.95, Wine Direct)
A very fresh style, with red apple notes in amongst the blackcurrant and sweeter blackcurrant jam on the nose. Juicy blackberry and blackcurrant on the palate, with milk chocolate, ripe tannins and a kick of fresh acidity. Look out for its bigger sibling, the Smith & Sheth Cru Omahu Syrah 2018 (RRP £40), with more assertive tannins that demand food or further ageing, but which delivers more floral violet aromas and chocolatey flavours to balance its enhanced structure.
Elephant Hill Stone Syrah 2018 (RRP £44)
Bright blackcurrant, violet, and vanilla aromas lead into dominant tannins that then give way to sweeter blackberry and blackcurrant flavours. Even just a 1% drop of viognier manages to add a peachy flavour to the finish. In the meantime, check out the Syrah Elephant Hill 2016 (£21.95, Corney & Barrow) and Elephant Hill’s whites.
Trinity Hill The Gimblett 2018 (RRP: £24.99)
Made from a 50:50 blend of cabernets sauvignon and franc, The Gimblett demonstrates great potential, especially at this price point. While the tannins are currently too assertive to be enjoyed without food, once they’re given time to knit together then the concentrated flavours of blackberry, cassis, vanilla, and pencil lead will be given more elbow room to shine. If you can’t wait then the current vintage is available from Lockett Bros in North Berwick and The Fine Wine Company in Portobello.
Mission Estate Jewelstone Antoine (RRP £34)
One for the Medoc fans – complex aromas of damp earth, wet leaf, cassis, pencil lead, and raspberry lead into grainy but ripe tannins and a fresh dose of acidity. A left bank-like blend of 84% cabernet sauvignon, 10% cabernet franc, and 6% merlot, aged for 12 months in oak, 50% of which were new French casks.
Tomorrow: the 12 wines of Christmas continue with organic examples from Sicily.