Corney & Barrow takes on NZ’s Elephant Hill

19th September, 2017 by Lauren Eads

New Zealand’s Elephant Hill, in Hawke’s Bay, has signed on with wine merchant Corney & Barrow in the UK, as it looks to strengthen its footing in the UK by targeting the on-trade.

Elephant Hill in Hawke’s Bay

Elephant Hill was founded in 2003 by the late German businessman Roger Weiss and his wife Reydan, who both fell in love with Hawke’s Bay, on the north island, when they came to collect a British Racing Green Jaguar which had been custom-built for Roger. The couple left New Zealand with one new car and a plot of land in Te Awanga, then used to farm venison, where he later built the Elephant Hill winery, placing head winemaker Steve Skinner (previously of Trinity Hill), at its helm, who remains with the family today, releasing its first vintage in 2007.

Today, Elephant Hill owns 27ha at its original Te Awanga vineyard, 17ha in Gimblett Gravels, and leases an 18.7ha vineyard in Bridge Pa, billing itself as a specialist of Chardonnay and Syrah, led by its icon wines; Airavata, Hieronymus and Rania. Its reserve range includes a Sauvignon Blanc, Syrah, Chardonnay and Merlot, while underneath that sits its estate range, which includes a Tempranillo Rosé, Viognier, Pinot Gris and its Le Phant Blanc – a blend of Pinot Gris, Viognier, Chardonnay and Gewürztraminer.

Rebecca Palmer, buyer and associate director at Corney & Barrow, said it had been scouring Hawke’s Bay for some time looking for the “right” producer to fill an opening in its portfolio, eventually settling upon Elephant Hill.

“Elephant Hill may be a young winery, but it is in the hands of an experienced and passionate team, and its wines already show the sense of place and quiet self-assurance of a true classic,” she said. “We are excited to bring this bright new exclusivity into the Corney & Barrow fold and look forward to bringing the wines to our customers across the UK.”

Roger Weiss, who founded Elephant Hill with his wife Reydan in 2003, died suddenly last year.

FAMILY TIES

Andreas Weiss, the son of Roger and a former banker, joined the family business in September 2015, stepping up as CEO following his father’s passing in September 2016.

“I never wanted to work for my family, but with my family,” said Weiss, on what had been the biggest challenge in taking on leadership of his family’s business. “His unexpected death robbed me of my most important sparring partner.”

Prior to joining the family business, Andreas studied economics and engineering in Berlin, going on to have a successful 20-year career in the banking industry before setting up his own consultancy.

“Running a wine business is not that different to any infrastructure finance project: you have to evaluate all the risks and opportunities.  You need to have a realistic view on opex and capex – forget quarterly or yearly reports, and instead concentrate on the long-term plan… if you can afford it.”

For Elephant Hill, this has meant resisting the potential to expand and remaining small scale, prioritising quantity over quality, says Weiss.

“I made a financial model for the winery in 2014 factoring in the winery and a tasting room and a new restaurant and everything. I made a 10-year plan for the winery, just looking at the numbers, telling my father we have these levers and triggers and this is the result.

“I told my father that Elephant Hill could be sustainable, but it has to be based on quality, rather than quantity. It was never made for large production, because the capacity is limited in the winery. We can work with 360 tonnes. If we work with more than that the quality suffers.”

MARLBOROUGH SAUVIGNON

Andreas is also wary of what the future might hold for Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc, noting that while the appetite for Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc continues to grow, the interest from the trade, and some sommeliers, is at risk of waning. The fact that the region is now “100% planted”, he says, also means that “10 years from now the brand will be ‘New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc’, because they have no option to plant anywhere else.”

“There will still be great small batch producers,” says Weiss. “You can already take 15% of grapes from another region and still call it Marlborough. But one day the area will be fully planted and the hunger for it is just enormous.”

While Elephant Hill does make a Sauvignon Blanc, Andreas says it is “completely different” from those made in Marlborough, grown a stone’s throw from the sea and bone dry with a relatively low 12.5% abv. Instead, his focus os on Chardonnay and Syrah.

“I think there is incredible potential to lift Hawke’s Bay as a brand,” he says. “We are well suited to Chardonnay and Syrah, and Bordeaux varieties. We have the oldest winery here with Mission Hill and the big producers like Villa Maria.”

It should be noted that Hawke’s Bay accounts for just 10% of New Zealand’s total production with vineyards spanning 4,641 hectares in 2016, comprising Gimblett Gravels and the Bridge Pa triangle.

Giles James, Elephant Hill sales manager for the UK, Europe, USA, Canada, said it is about “moving the conversation on” from New Zealand’s success stories of Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir, targeting the on-trade with a different offer.

“For us it is about the on-trade,” said James. “Sommeliers need to have a Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc, but they don’t always want one. What we have might engage them in a different conversation.”

 

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