Hawke’s High: The lowland and coastal hills of New Zealand’s second largest wine region offer Bordeaux-style pleasures

Located on the east coast of New Zealand’s North Island, Hawke’s Bay has garnered a world-class reputation for the quality of its wines.

Famed for its fruity, earthy reds and full- bodied Chardonnays, Hawke’s Bay is one of New Zealand’s oldest wine-producing regions and its second-largest.

Viticulture vitality

“Summers are typically dry and warm and are followed by long autumns and relatively mild winters. This results in lengthy and consistent growing seasons, which are vital to viticultural excellence,” says Daniel Cheung, a freelance consultant in the food & beverage industry.

This benign weather system underscored by numerous geologically-young soil types enriched by centuries of volcanic activity contributes to one of the wine world’s most versatile areas. “The region makes an impressive array of wines, most notably Rhône- and Bordeaux-style reds that have good ageing potential,” notes Cheung.

Top draws

Cheung finds Hawke’s Bay particularly intriguing as it offers something different aside from the “star export of crisp, flinty Sauvignon Blanc”.

Powerful, aromatic expressions of Syrah, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon are particularly highly regarded. “Equally remarkable are full-bodied and robust Chardonnays that have lots of ageing potential, says Cheung.”

Cheung has become fascinated by how Hawke’s Bay’s vignerons make the most out of a region underpinned by a coastal influence, while also dealing with the complex mesoclimates of a varied topography.

“They’ve always had a focus on quality and diversity, along with a rich history of winemaking innovations. Producers there know the importance of employing sustainable viticultural practices,” he says, also noting the region’s world-class aspirations.

Great Gravels

He believes the wines have a unique spirit to them that is uplifting. “A perfect example would be the incredible tale of the subregion known as Gimblett Gravels – 600 hectares in size, with a soil structure that is stony, with a distinctive minerality and a fine, dusty character,” he says.

“Though the area wasn’t used for growing vines until the early 1990s – it was saved by the rejection of a mining application – it has since quickly risen to prominence for producing rich yet elegantly structured red wines that rank among the finest in the world.”

Superior Syrah

Cheung has a particular fondness for two wines emanating from the region. First up is Le Sol 2019 from Craggy Range, which was awarded New Zealand’s Winery of the Year 2023 by the prestigious The Real Review. “This is a top- notch 100% Syrah that’s now an icon wine of the Gimblett Gravels subregion,” he says.

Describing the tastes and aromas of one of his favourite tipples, he identifies its “dark, fruity nose with a good amount of focus and peppery warmth. Rounded and generous on the palate with a great long finish, this is a seductive Syrah.”

Crisp Chardonnay

Produced by the pioneering Brajkovich family, Kumeu River’s Rays Road Chardonnay 2020 is another Hawke’s Bay favourite of Cheung. He enthuses of this cellar-worthy wine: “Crisp and mineral-forward, this single vineyard Chardonnay is crafted in a Burgundian style. The citrusy bouquet complements its refined linear character, all of which culminate in a reverberant finish.”

Vine Glorious: Bordeaux producers bank Left and Right on their ability to craft complex collectable wines

Bordeaux is considered a benchmark in the world of fine wine. Located in southwest France, the region is known for its exceptional terroir that is home to more than 7,000 wine-producing châteaux. Talented winemakers craft compelling wines within the red, white and sweet categories.

Michelle Chan, Christie’s Head of Wine in Asia Pacific, identifies Bordeaux’s unique geographical location situated between the Atlantic Ocean and the Gironde estuary and its diversity of soils as key factors behind its acclaimed output. She adds that the region’s long history of winemaking expertise has resulted in the development of specific winemaking techniques, such as blending multiple grape varieties to create complex and balanced wines.

Divide and conquer

bordeaux wine

Bordeaux is positioned at the centre of the confluence of the Dordogne and Garonne rivers, which flow into the Gironde, and Chan stresses that understanding the difference between the ‘Left Bank’ and ‘Right Bank’ of Bordeaux is essential in grasping the region’s varied wine offerings. The area to the west, on the left bank of the Garonne, and between the Garonne and the Dordogne, “is famous for its powerful and structured red wines, predominantly made from Cabernet Sauvignon. Notable appellations include Médoc, Graves and Pessac-Léognan. These wines are full-bodied with firm tannins, ideal for long-term ageing,” she says.

bordeaux wine

East of the Dordogne is the Right Bank “renowned for its Merlot-based blends, which are typically more approachable and supple when young. The most prominent appellations are Saint-Émilion and Pomerol, producing rich, opulent wines with velvety tannins and exceptional balance.”

Chan also notes that the region produces outstanding white wines and is hailed for its sweet wines.

Pick of the best

bordeaux wine

Such is the quality of wines the region has to offer, Chan finds it difficult to choose a favourite.

First on her list is Château Latour à Pomerol 1961. “This opulent and refined Merlot-based wine from Pomerol has enticing aromas of black cherries, truffles and hints of tobacco. The palate displays a velvety texture with well-integrated tannins and flavours of ripe dark fruits, earth and sweet spices.”

Next is Château Mouton Rothschild 1945 of which she says: “This iconic vintage features a complex and captivating bouquet of cassis, pencil shavings and cedarwood. The rich and full-bodied palate showcases layers of dark fruit, leather and tobacco, complemented by a firm tannic structure and exceptional balance.”

bordeaux wine

She also adores large-format Bordeaux wines and highlights the magnums of Le Pin 1982 – expressions of lush, seductive character and incredible depth – auctioned by Christie’s in Hong Kong in May. For sweet wines, she plumps for Château d’Yquem 1967. “This golden-hued sweet wine, made from a blend of Sémillon, Sauvignon Blanc and Muscadelle grapes, has an incredibly complex nose with aromas of honey, apricots, candied orange peel and botrytis spice.”

Collectors’ tips

For those beginning a Bordeaux wine collection, Chan stresses it is essential to educate oneself on the various appellations, châteaux and vintages. Her recommended vintages are 1945, 1947, 1949, 1959, 1961, 1982, 1989, 1990, 1996, 2000, 2005, 2009, 2010 and 2015.

Also Read: The Best Food and Wine Pairings: Which wine goes well with which dish?

Hailing The Cab: The big, bold style of Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon has gripped the wine world

Cabernet is the variety that put California on the international wine map. It is also the single most widely planted wine grape in Napa Valley and, indeed, around the world. There are more than 450 wineries in Napa, a valley that is 30 miles (48km) long and five miles (8km) across at its widest point.

But Cab is also a team player. It is the lead grape in nearly all Bordeaux-style blends from Napa. And as long as 75% of the grapes in the bottle are Cabernet Sauvignon the wine label may read Cabernet, although many Napa vintners prefer to label a Bordeaux blend as a ‘Meritage’ or a red blend. At last month’s Collective Napa Valley Together Again Weekend, an auction that raised US$3.8 million (HK$29.8 million) for local charities, I visited one of Napa’s noted wineries, Alpha Omega, for an al-fresco lunch hosted by owners Robin and Michelle Baggett.

Alpha Omega appetite

The scenic winery is located in the prime Rutherford sub-appellation of the larger Napa AVA (American Viticultural Area) and was founded by the Baggetts in 2006.

Highlighting Alpha Omega’s barrel during fermentation program, winemaker Matt Brain during lunch uncorked the 2018 ERA Barrel Select Reserve, a limited production of 900 cases. We also savoured the 2012 AOX Barrel Select, another limited-production wine available through the winery’s allocation list. “These are barrels that speak to me,” notes Brain. Expressing remarkable texture and density, the AOX was a delicious pairing with the dessert of rich, dense chocolate block cake.Alpha Omega has made its mark with Cabernets that reflect Napa’s powerful, full-fruit style. Brain is bringing his own touch, though. “Definitely I want to continue the fantastic wines that put us on the map, but the difference is to subtly start to layer in my own personal beliefs, to bring in a little bit more balance, more complexity of the vineyard,” he says.

To that extent, he brings what he calls multiple picks and intentionally assigned cooperage. “I’ve actually been going to vineyards and doing two picks [of grapes] – one smaller, just a little bit earlier in season, and blending it back for a little bit of herb, spices and terroir expression to the wine.” He works closely with individual coopers for custom-made French oak barrels to help enhance the wine’s flavour profile. “If you play in the playground of ripe Napa Cabs, you run the risk of losing individuality,” he opines.

Brain is a big proponent of barrel fermentation in a warm room. “It speeds up the fermentation process and we get really good concentration,” he says.

Winemakers for a day

Before lunch, Brain led a blending session in the winery for a small group, offering the barrel samples of 2022 Cabernets from four different vineyards: two wines with tension and complexity, and two that were hedonistic and rich. While a few of the novice winemakers gravitated towards the leaner wines, most went for the riper, richer rewards reaped from Tench vineyard on Atlas Peak. Brain also offered Malbec and Petit Verdot for blending “to see how blenders shaped the Cabernet”.

As for the Omega Alpha 2022 Cabernet, which made the top 10 list of lots at the weekend’s barrel auction, Brain states: “It’s a great vintage – approachable and lighter in tannins.”