by Rose Murray Brown MW     Published in The Scotsman 21 March 2015

“2013 was an unreal vintage here”, says Toby Buck of Hawkes Bay-based Te Mata winery.  We are standing under a hot drying January sun in the heat of the day in one of his family’s vineyards (pictured above) near Napier close to the famous Gimblett Gravels – an area making a name for itself for New Zealand’s red wines.

New Zealand red wines by Rose Murray Brown MWThis is not Pinot Noir country, but home to ‘warm climate’ red grapes like Syrah, Merlot, Malbec, Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon – and even Tempranillo, Touriga Nacional and Gamay.  As Hawkes Bay is New Zealand’s warmest region these red grapes ripen here better than anywhere else on North Island, apart from Waiheke Island off Auckland. 

These might be the two hottest Kiwi wine regions, but vintages can still be variable in Hawkes Bay and Waiheke.  Winemakers are excited about their new 2013 reds in the cellar:  “it was a drought hot year”, says Buck (pictured right).  It actually allowed growers to really ripen red grapes.  So the quality of New Zealand reds appearing on our shelves in the UK soon will be the best yet as vines have matured, they say even eclipsing 1998 and 2008 vintages which put Hawkes Bay reds on the map.

The first red I taste at Te Mata is a Gamay Noir.  The main grape of Beaujolais is not exactly revered anywhere in the world, but here in Hawkes Bay it makes a delicious light red.  Te Mata use a combination of Beaujolais’ carbonic maceration method followed by ageing in old Syrah barrels – and the result is an enchanting raspberry-toned, fresh complex version of rose.

Gordon Russell of Esk Valley Wines“Merlot is an easier grape to ripen than Cabernet Sauvignon here”, says Gordon Russell (pictured right in his cellar) just along the road at Esk Valley winery, north of Napier.  He makes an enchanting Merlot Rose (not available in UK), but his red Merlot/Cabernet Sauvignon/Malbec/Cab Franc blend is possibly the best value red quaffer in New Zealand.  Russell believes much of Kiwi Cabernet Sauvignon is overcropped, grown on the wrong soil and too difficult to ripen here.  “Cabernet Franc has a much better future here than Cabernet Sauvignon”, he says.

Up in Waiheke Island, winemaker Duncan McTavish agrees.  He finds Cabernet Franc works well: “it hangs until the end of the season and makes great wine here”, says McTavish.  He also loves Malbec.  His Man O War Warspite blend of Cabernet Franc/Merlot/Malbec is spicy and aromatic.  He plants his Malbec grapes on nearby Ponui Island where it gives lovely floral notes and high acidity.

Tony Forsyth New Zealand red wineTony Forsyth (pictured right) of the tiny boutique winery Te Whau at the other end of Waiheke Island also loves Malbec which he believes gives “elegance and balance”, but he finds Cabernet Sauvignon good in warm vintages like 2010 or 2013.  His flagship wine, The Point, named after the iconic site of his winery looking out across the sea towards Auckland harbour, is a Kiwi Bordeaux blend dominated by Cabernet Sauvignon made in the traditional Bordelais manner, with a proportion of Merlot, Malbec and Cabernet Franc.

Cabernet Sauvignon certainly needs hot vintages.  One of the best Bordeaux blends I tasted on my trip, made predominantly from Cabernet Sauvignon, was 2013 Te Mata Awatea in Hawkes Bay.  A superb soft textured Bordeaux blend with chocolate, cassis and tapenade notes and fine powdery tannins.

It is early days for Spanish grape Tempranillo on the Gimblett Gravels, although Trinity Hill’s Tempranillo has good potential with a tiny proportion of Portuguese grape Touriga Nacional added to the blend but still needs vine age: “it gives you a big hug, then disappears”, agrees Trinity Hill winemaker Damien Fisher.  Other wineries are experimenting with unusual grapes like Austrian grape Zweigelt currently on trial at Seifried in Nelson on South Island.

Most outstanding of all warm-climate red grapes in New Zealand is undoubtedly Syrah.  Popular on North Island since the 1990’s, this Rhone grape has really found a home in the new hot spots of Hawkes Bay and Waiheke. 

Waiheke Island red wine by Rose Murray Brown MW“Syrah here is like Pinot Noir on steroids”, jokes winemaker Duncan McTavish.  He produces some memorable examples at Man O War Vineyard.  Sitting at his tasting room in possibly the wine world’s most scenic spot near Man O War beach at the far end of Waiheke island, I tasted McTavish’s Dreadnough Syrah from steep, hot easterly slopes (pictured right) comparing it to his superb Cote Rotie-style Bellerophon Syrah (which has sadly sold out).  Also on Waiheke, I liked Te Whau’s vibrant young Syrah from Chave clones planted in Gobelet style on stakes. 

Fifteen wineries on Waiheke make a range of savoury powerful Syrahs, but in my opinion, the most elegant to date come from the host of Syrahs emerging from Hawkes Bay where 70% of Kiwi Syrah is planted.   Trinity Hill, who like many others add a tiny proportion of Viognier a la Cote Rotie, made a juicy spicy dark cherry well-priced Syrah in 2013.  Vidal and Craggy Range in Hawkes Bay also make interesting Syrahs, particularly Craggy Range’s single vineyard Le Sol.  The most enchanting of all Syrahs I find hails from my champion and long established Kiwi red winemakers, the Buck family of Te Mata, with their vibrant plummy brambly juicy-fruited Bullnose Syrah 2013.


Te Mata Gamay Noir New Zealand red wineGAMAY
Hawkes Bay: TE MATA GAMAY NOIR 2014 (£16-£17 Berry Bros & Rudd;;;

Hawkes Bay: ESK VALLEY MERLOT/CABERNET SAUVIGNON/MALBEC 2013 (£13.99  Star value buy

Hawkes Bay:  TRINITY HILL HAWKES BAY SYRAH 2013 (£13.50 The Wine Society; Cornelius Wines, Easter Rd, Edinburgh; Cave, Glasgow)  Star value buy

Hawkes Bay:  VIDAL RESERVE SYRAH 2013 (@£14;

Hawkes Bay:  CRAGGY RANGE GIMBLETT GRAVELS SYRAH 2011 (£17 The Wine Society)

Waiheke Island: DREADNOUGHT SYRAH 2010 (@£20 Oddbins;;

Hawkes Bay:  TE MATA BULLNOSE SYRAH 2013 (£33 Berry Bros & Rudd

Waiheke Island: MAN O WAR WARSPITE 2012 (£29

Waiheke Island: TE WHAU ‘THE POINT’ 2010 (£40

Hawkes Bay: TE MATA ‘AWATEA’ 2013 (£30 Marks & Spencer)

Hawkes Bay: TRINITY HILL ‘THE GIMBLETT’ 2013 (£17 – £19 Woodwinters, Edinburgh & Bridge of Allan;

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