Lunch with the winemaker

Elephant Hill, New Zealand

Katalin Kiszel-Kohari - July 2, 2020

I happened to be quite lucky again a few month ago, when I was invited to have a wine tasting lunch with the winemaker of Elephant Hill Winery, Steve Skinner at Shill’s in Cocermouth.

As it happens quite often in the wine business, Steve graduated with an economics degree before pursuing wine education and moving to Hawke’s Bay to make wine. He refined his skills in France, California and Canada, then went back to New Zealand.

Established in 2003 by Reydan and Roger Weiss, Elephant Hill is located on the Te Awanga coast of Hawke’s Bay, on New Zealand’s North Island. Lots of sunshine and low rainfall make this place an ideal spot for grape growing. They hand-pick, hand select their grapes to ensure fruit quality. They own three vineyards in Hawke’s Bay: Te Awanga Vineyard on the coast, the inland Gimblett Vineyard in the Gimblett Gravels District and The Triangle Vineyard in the Bridge Pa Triangle region. The different sites provide various soils and microclimates to produce distinctive, nuanced wines from a wide array of grape varieties, like the mandatory Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Viognier, Pinot Gris, Pinot Noir, Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Tempranillo, Malbec.

Steve explained, although their winemaking style is led by tradition, they maintain minimal interference where possible and heavy yield control, they try incorporating innovation to bring out the best in their wine, while reflecting on the place of origin. They ferment and vinify their grapes in small, separate batches and produce different ranges, like Icon, Reserves and Estate.

We have tried Estate Series Sauvignon Blanc 2016, Reserve Chardonnay 2015, Salome Chardonnay 2016, Element Series Earth Tempranillo 2015, Element Series Earth Syrah 2015, Element Series Stone Syrah 2015, Hieronymus 2015.

The traditional, yet modern, approach showed quite well even on the Sauvignon Blanc. While they used stainless-steel for fermentation, the yeast was indigenous, and it was aged on fine lees for 9 months. Not necessarily the bog-standard Kiwi approach. It was not so pungent and fruity as you would expect, yet it had a bit of weight to it. As much the Sauvignon Blanc was different, the absolute star grape for me was the Chardonnay. The Reserve and Salome were outstanding. Very Burgundian in style, with delicate French oak, fruit and restrained dairy goodness. It really reminded me to different levels of Chassagne-Montrachet. The Reserve was slightly fresher and the Salome mellower. Really fabulous!

The two Syrah were excellent as well. While the Earth Syrah was elegant, fruity, but much tighter, then the Stone Syrah, which was more approachable in spite the plentiful tannins. The Stone Syrah, coming from Gimblett Gravels, has 1% Viognier in the blend, but no press wine or filtration. Seriously rich, thick, and concentrated wine that will improve over a decade.

Another impressive wine at the end was Hieronymus. It is a Bordeaux-style red with Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Tempranillo, and Malbec. Steve said that the yields are exceptionally low. So much so, that yield is 900g of grape per vine which produces approximately 600ml wine. It is a glass short of a bottle. After fermentation, the grapes are not pressed, or filtered, but aged 26 months in 50% new oak. It is deep, powerful, and lush, and has a long life ahead.

Photographs by The Tannin Addict.