Hawke’s Bay battles image problem

Hawke’s Bay has a vital role to play in supporting New Zealand’s export ambitions, but the region is struggling to create a clear identity for itself.

Photo credit: Craggy Range Vineyards

Photo credit: Craggy Range Vineyards

With major producers including Delegat, Villa Maria and Yealands Wine Group all buying into New Zealand’s second largest region in recent years, and as Marlborough nears maximum capacity, Hawke’s Bay is an obvious candidate for helping New Zealand Winegrowers to reach its target of NZ$2 billion (£841 million) by 2020.

“Hawke’s Bay is extremely important to the continuing development of New Zealand’s international premium wine image and as a result its export growth,” Michael Henley, CEO of Trinity Hill and chairman of the Hawke’s Bay Winegrowers Association, told the drinks business.

“As demand for premium New Zealand wine continues to increase on the international stage Hawke’s Bay has the ability to provide the quantity and quality that is required.”

Despite this potential, the region is sending out mixed messages about where its focus lies. Although most producers pick out red blends or Syrah as the strongest calling card for Hawke’s Bay, the latter accounted for just 4% of the region’s grape tonnage in 2014, while 64% of the harvest was accounted for by white grapes, according to the Hawke’s Bay Winegrowers Association.

As for the white wines, for all the praise attracted by Hawke’s Bay Chardonnay, commercial pressures mean that many producers prioritise Sauvignon Blanc.

Fresh from a trip to Hawke’s Bay, The Wine Society’s New Zealand buyer Sarah Knowles told db: “Only about two producers I saw don’t have Sauvignon Blanc as their biggest seller. It’s bankrolling everything else.”

Despite a positive report about the overall quality of wines emerging from this corner of New Zealand, Knowles also suggested that its most famous sub-region, Gimblett Gravels, was aggravating the challenge of creating a cohesive identity for Hawke’s Bay.

“Consumers are generally a bit confused about where Gimblett Gravels and Hawke’s Bay sit,” she remarked. “Is it one region? Two regions? Gimblett Gravels can’t grow any more so maybe now’s the time to focus on Hawke’s Bay.”

With little sign of Syrah plantings expanding, Knowles highlighted Merlot as a particular strength of this region with enough scale to make a meaningful commercial impact.

“It ripens best, needs the least adjustment, doesn’t get diseased and the wines are looking great,” she said of the variety’s performance here. What’s more, Knowles noted, “Merlot can make decent wine at both high and lower price points.”

Simon Kelly, European sales director for Yealands Wine Group, suggested that now was the perfect moment to raise awareness of this region and its red wines I particular. He told db: “With the 2013 vintage being one of the vintages of a lifetime in Hawke’s Bay, this is a time when we should be really banging the drum about our reds.”

The full version of this in-depth look at Hawke’s Bay appears in August’s issue of the drinks business.

One Response to “Hawke’s Bay battles image problem”

  1. Dear Gabriel,
    I wish to comment on the above article about Hawke’s Bay with information to put the region into some context. I notice that the article in the magazine is a little more comprehensive and explanatory than this brief synopsis.

    1.For many years now the “calling card” for Hawke’s Bay has been Chardonnay as the leading white wine and fuller bodied reds – Merlot Cabernet blends and Syrah – as the leading red wines. This position is the result of history, acclaim and the production that has ensued. The history of these varieties goes back more than fifty years in Hawke’s Bay, they are the varieties that continue to gain the greatest acclaim for the region – both internationally and nationally – and they make up approximately 60% of the vineyard area in Hawkes Bay. In addition Hawke’s Bay produces more than 30% of the Chardonnay and 80% of the fuller bodied red wines of New Zealand. As such we do not believe that we have any image problem or struggle to determine our identity.
    2. We totally accept that Syrah makes up a small portion of our plantings and, because of that, it cannot stand alone as our hero variety. However it is an emerging variety that is very distinctive to the region and one that the media and tastemakers are interested in at this time. We have no desire to concentrate solely on this variety as we would not be willing to give up many years of effort in the production of New Zealand’s finest red blends. We are the warmest grape growing region of New Zealand and this is why our image is linked to the production of premium fuller bodied red wines. Our three most recent vintages have been great, and this will further assist in building the reputation of these signature wines from Hawke’s Bay.
    3. For commercial reasons, individual brand owners or the trade may wish to focus on other varieties grown in the region. With your article making particular reference to Sauvignon Blanc and other white varieties, it is important to remember the larger volume of these wines is not from greater investment in vineyard area, but rather to the higher yields for those varieties.
    4. Gimblett Gravels is a trademark and not a recognised GI. The trademark may only be used by the 22 trademark owners on wines they have produced from the clearly delineated Gimblett Gravels soils. Gimblett Gravels has played an important role in raising the profile not only of the wines from this special part of the region, but also the wines from the whole of Hawkes Bay. Gimblett Gravels is a compelling story that is consistent with and supports what we have been saying about Hawke’s Bay in general. But it is only one story and Hawke’s Bay will continue to tell the many stories from all of its sub regions.
    Michael Henley
    Chairman, Hawke’d Bay Winegrowers

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