40 Years of Gimblett Gravels in New Zealand
A misty morning in the Gimblett Gravels vineyards
© photo provided
2021 Marks the 40th Year of Viticulture
New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir are ubiquitous – deservedly so. But Aotearoa, the land of the long white cloud, as the Maori call these two pristine islands on the other side of the world, has more to offer: expressive Bordeaux Blends and bold Syrahs from one subregion that celebrates its 40th birthday in 2021. Falstaff tasted the top red wines from the 2018 vintage.
Despite being forever cooled by the briskness of the South Pacific, New Zealand’s North Island also boasts some warmer regions that allow varieties like Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Malbec and Cabernet Franc to thrive.
One of these is Hawke’s Bay on the east coast. Vines had been planted here as early as 1851 by missionaries from Le Havre – the sunny climate boded well. To this day the area is full of peach and apple orchards and vines. One area – the Gimblett Gravels – stands out. The first vines were not planted until 1981 – exactly 40 years ago. Before that, the Gravels languished: sheep farmers needed vast tracts of land to feed their flock on the poor, infertile and well-drained soils of this former riverbed, created by the Ngaruroro River changing its course in 1867. Arable farming was out of the question. A local businessman Chris Pask, specialised in aerial crop spraying and owner of far more fertile vineyards elsewhere, had been flying “over this dry, barren wasteland every day.” In 1981 he decided to risk it and planted the first Cabernet Sauvignon vines in these poor soils. This is when the former disadvantage turned into a boon. The deep gravels warm up quickly and allow these red grape varieties to ripen in New Zealand’s brilliant sunshine – while cool nights guarantee freshness.
Pask was not alone in his endeavour, soon others also planted these sun-worshipping red grapes: David Irving, Gavin Yortt and John Kenderdine also planted Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Merlot in 1981. Famously, in 1982, Dr Alan Limmer planted the first row of Syrah. In the forty years since these expert farmers followed their hunch, Gimblett Gravels have turned into one of the best wine subregions of New Zealand. The wines are compelling and age-worthy. Happy 40th birthday, Gimblett Gravels!