A group of winegrowers in New Zealand's Hawkes Bay region ran into an unexpected roadblock when they wanted to designate 2,000 acres of vineyard land on distinctly stony soil as a subregion in the country's new appellation system. The regulations allow only roads and geographical features, such as hills and rivers, as boundaries; soil alone is not enough.
So they did an end run around the regulations and created their own designation separate from the official appellation system.
Gimblett Gravels (named after a road in the area) is not an actual appellation but rather a registered brand, owned by the members of the group, whose vineyards are on stony soil; the surrounding vineyards are not. The official appellation on wines from Gimblett Gravels is still Hawkes Bay, the district that comprises New Zealand's second-largest growing area, after Marlborough.
A gold sticker, about the same size as those ubiquitous indicators of awards won in competitions, will identify wines from Gimblett Gravels. Only members of the group who abide by the rules can use the designation on their bottles, as long as 95 percent of the grapes in the wine come from the area.
The group includes all but one of the wineries that use grapes from the Gimblett Gravels district. "It's people in the district who believe we have a special piece of land," Steve Smith, proprietor of Craggy Range Vineyards, told a gathering of wine writers from around the world in January. "We're mostly family companies, not the big guys. We don't want future generations to look back and wonder why we didn't do anything to protect it."
Gimblett Gravels does look like something special. The soil is deep gravel littered with stones left behind when the Ngaruroro River shifted course in 1840, after a major earthquake. Wines from early vineyards in this area, such as Babich's Irongate Vineyard and C.J. Pask's estate vineyards, have rated outstanding (90 to 94 points on Wine Spectator's 100-point scale), while Mills Reef and Trinity Hill have also come close. These bottlings demonstrate that Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon can get ripe enough here to make wines that are not dogged by the herbal, often vegetal, aromas and flavors that characterize so many Kiwi reds from these varieties.
The Gimblett Gravels group has taken a strong stand to keep the focus on vineyard and wine integrity. "No politics, no compromises," said Smith, who led the assembled group through a geographical introduction to the district, including a deep hole to demonstrate how far down the gravelly soil goes.
"We don't know how deep it is," he said. "It's gravel and silt as far as we can dig." Such soils provide little nutrition to the grapevines and drain water very quickly, which theoretically forces the vine to put more energy into ripening fruit instead of growing leaves. The gray stones also capture and reflect sunlight and heat, essential for getting fruit ripe in New Zealand's cool climate.
Chris Pask, who planted the first vineyard on the stones in 1985, said he did it as an experiment and became convinced that the extra work dealing with the tough ground was worth it. "The wine just tasted better than the ones we got off the heavy land," he said.
However, most of the vineyards in Gimblett Gravels have only been planted since the mid-1990s -- hardly long enough to make any lasting judgments about the 27 wines presented as examples in a morning tasting. Many of them were from the 1998 vintage, already one of the warmest in New Zealand's history. Many of the Merlots and Cabernets showed plenty of ripe berry and currant, avoiding that vegetal bell pepper character. There were also several Syrahs that had some of the press suggesting that maybe that grape would be even better than the Bordeaux varieties in the long run.
"It's really early in the game," Smith said later. "But we think we're onto something."
Standing on the sidelines during all this was Te Mata, the oldest winery in Hawkes Bay, which consistently makes many of the best reds from Bordeaux varieties in New Zealand. Te Mata's Cabernet-Merlot Hawkes Bay 1998 earned a 90-point rating from Wine Spectator recently, and its grapes came from vineyards several miles from the gravels.
When asked about that, Te Mata owner John Buck smiled. Without specifically mentioning gravels, he said, "We think the best wines come from the vineyards on the hillsides, which tilt north, toward the sun." Only time will tell which area, if either, is most consistent.
To learn more about New Zealand wines, read editor at large Harvey Steiman's annual tasting reports:
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