If Chardonnay in New Zealand is surprising, Cabernet must be simply shocking. The success of Cabernet-based wines, once the domain of the cool-climate region of Bordeaux, has been built over the years in places that revel in their warm climates. In fact, many might argue that Cabernet’s success is predicated on the rich, fully fruited, smooth and supple style that cradles of warmth like the Napa Valley are ideally suited to providing.
So, what is Cabernet doing in New Zealand, a cool-climate nation, and are they really any good? Well, there is something special going on in New Zealand, and to be honest in a very small slice of New Zealand at that -- but what is going on is both exciting and freaking delicious, if sometimes difficult to come by. So, what the heck am I talking about?
I’m talking about Hawkes Bay, of course: New Zealand’s only region of any scale that is particularly well suited for the cultivation of Bordeaux varieties. In fact, Cabernet and Merlot have been in Hawkes Bay for more than 100 years, so the history would seem to dictate that there is something special here. Interestingly though, what is truly special in Hawkes Bay was still significantly under running water 100 years ago!
The Gimblett Gravels is that region. Under water 100 years ago, and used for dumps, drag-racing and go-cart tracks much more recently, this is land that was considered to be nearly worthless only 30 or so years ago. This preeminent region for Bordeaux varieties was thought of as barren and fruitless, selling for a scant $150 an acre in the day but, as is generally the case, there were some believers. A small group of pioneers established vineyards among the gravelly soils here and the result speak for themselves. In fact, the region is now essentially completely planted over to vines, following a boom that lasted from the late 1980’s through to about the year 2000.
A group of about 25 producers set up in 2001 what we think of as the appellation of Gimblett Gravels. In reality, what has been established is a trademark of sorts, named after the soils found here and precisely defined to only include lands that are rich with these gravels. This trademark is so useful, and so well defined, that it has become a de facto appellation, and is more effective than many actual appellations.
So, what are these gravels and why are the wines so special? They are the remains of river beds, pure gravels in many places, metres deep and laced with layers of clay and silt every 2 metres (6.5 ft) or so. All that gravel retains the heat of the day, allowing this relatively cool region to support warmer climate vines. In fact, these vines thrive here.
In the early days, irrigation was a true challenge. With vineyards now maturing, those bands of clay and silt have been discovered, and their usefulness illuminated. As the vines' roots reach these dense, water-retentive bands of soil, the issue of irrigation has lessened. In fact, irrigation in the region has been reduced some 50% in the past three years alone.
The warming effect of the gravels and sufficient levels of water resources has allowed the mature vines of the Gimblett Gravels to find their equilibrium. The trademark cool nights of New Zealand allow for the producers here to take full advantage of these resources. Many producers allow their grapes to begin to dimple due to the level of maturity, but the relatively low temperatures prevent the grapes from raisining and the wines from showing and roasted flavors.
In general, there is a movement among the producers of these wines towards lower fermentation temperatures, which used to be regulated at around 30-32C (86-90F) for the duration of the fermentation. Today, the temperature is reduced after the first 5% or so of alcohol is achieved. This has resulted in wines with softer tannins and has introduced a velvety texture to many of the wines. The wines are naturally endowed with vibrant acids and wonderful mineral undertones that keep the richness from becoming cloying and always provide textural counterpoints to the smooth texture that prevents them from becoming detail-less.
Of the recent string of vintages, 2009 and 2010 hold the greatest promise. 2007 was generally plagued with poor flowering so, while wines tend to be very concentrated, some may lack freshness or finesse. In 2008, the opposite was true: it was a vintage of big bunches with lots of potential yield, forcing producers to actively control their yields. 2009 and 2010 were simply great, balanced vintages virtually nation-wide.