There’s a hill in Hawke’s Bay that is divided in half by two names. It pushes high into the sky and looks out over the Gimblett Gravels and Bridge Pa Triangle, two of Hawke’s Bay’s most famous winegrowing sub-regions. Just over 30 years ago, this whole area was a literal wasteland. A speedway track, an army rifle range, and a rubbish dump were the only features of an otherwise featureless landscape. But, unlike T.S. Elliot’s, The Wasteland, where he proclaimed April to be the cruelest month, Hawke’s Bay in April, nowadays, is actually rather nice. Especially if you’re lucky enough to be standing on top of this divided hill looking out over row upon row of golden, green, orange and red leaves that lightly cling to woody grape vines for as far as the eye can see.
Yet this hill stands alone. Stateless, homeless, a part of neither the Gimblett Gravels or the Bridge Pa Triangle. On one side is a winery called Trinity Hill, and on the other is a terraced vineyard planted with Syrah, called La Collina.
“We started planting La Collina in 1998, starting at the top of the hill,” says Lorraine Leheny, one half of Bilancia (‘bill-larn-cha’, Italian for ‘the hill’), a small wine label from Hawke’s Bay, New Zealand. “We slowly worked our way down the hill to the bottom, over about three years,” continues Lorraine. “Warren always says that if we’d started on the flats first, we’d probably never have bothered with the hill.”
Warren Gibson is Lorraine’s husband. He is also the winemaker for Trinity Hill, located on the other side of La Collina, and makes the wine for his and Lorraine’s own label, Bilancia.
“Warren was making wine in Margaret River,” explains Lorraine, “and when we moved back to New Zealand we started our own company, Bilancia, while Warren worked at Trinity Hill. La Collina is the name of the vineyard and the wine we make is from Syrah on the hill.”
The hill faces north west, protecting the vines from the winds that roar up from the south. Lorraine and Warren planted a line of trees at the top of the hill to increase the potential for this natural wind break to protect the vines on this hillside slope. The vineyard looks out over the Gimblett Gravels, but there’s not a single gravel to be found on, or in, the clay and sandstone over limestone soils that make up La Collina’s earthen profile. Like most examples of this varietal, the Syrah that grows on this isolated slope flourishes like a Triffid.
“The terraces are probably not the straightest or most beautiful, but it works,” says Lorraine. “It’s warm most of the time, and if we do get rain it drains freely down the hill, and the prevailing winds quickly dry it out… There’s lots of limestone amongst the clay, so it’s fairly free draining soil, and down on the flats, where we have Chardonnay and some Viognier, lies an old aquifer, which the vineyards around here tend to source water from.”
Despite being planted in the Gimblett Gravels, the Chardonnay and Viognier can’t be classified under the Gimblett Gravels sub-region, because Bilancia is not yet a member of the association that represents it.
“Chardonnay is a bit of a work in progress for us,” says Lorraine. “We used to make it from contract fruit up until 2002 when we just stopped making it. Then, in 2010 we made a small amount from our vineyard at the bottom of the hill, and I think we’ve fallen in love with Chardonnay, again.”
The Bilancia and La Collina vineyards are slowly being converted over to an organic regime. Bilancia is already a member of SWNZ, New Zealand’s world leading sustainable winegrowing program, and it was this that led Lorraine and Warren to consider organics as a viable winegrowing tool.
“It’s been a work in progress,” explains Lorraine, “converting the site to organics, because the terraces make it hard to run a mower to get rid of the weeds. But, we’ve never had an issue with insects or disease pressure because of the hill’s aspect and the wind helps keep these problems at bay…
“When you spray for weeds,” continues Lorraine, “you soon find out that the only things that grow back are more weeds, so we’ve just stopped spraying and eventually the grass comes back and now we just mow it whenever we can… Organics and sustainability are certainly the direction we should be heading in, but I don’t think it’s the main reason why you should be selling your wine. I think the wine needs to be good first.”
Good? Bloody hell, these wines are great! Under the Bilancia label, the 2013 Pinot Gris is as dry as any joke by Frankie Boyle, the ’13 Chardonnay is more balanced than Lady Justice, and the Syrah… well, if you’re talking about La Collina 2009, 2010, and the as yet, unreleased, 2013… these three wines are for the perfume addicts of the world. You don’t possess these wines. They possess you.
La Collina is not made every year. It’s one of those wines that makes you learn and appreciate where wine comes from. A vineyard. A time. A place. It wasn’t made in 2011 and 2012 because Lorraine and Warren deemed the fruit not good enough. It was still harvested and fermented into wine, but, instead it went into the Bilancia Syrah from both of those years.
“Bilancia Syrah has always had a bit of La Collina in it,” explains Lorraine, “but it rained so much in 2011, and 2012 was such a cool year that we decided not to make La Collina at all, in both of those years.”
Luckily for us, and for Lorraine and Warren, the 2013 vintage in Hawke’s Bay was “brilliant” and La Collina was born again.
“For us, with Syrah, as time has gone on and our understanding of the vineyard has improved, we’ve stepped back more and more to allow the wine to be whatever it wants to be,” says Lorraine. “For the 2010 and 2013 vintages, nothing really happened to the wine after it was pressed. It had nothing added to it at all until bottling, when we added a little bit of sulphur…
“We’re creating heritage with this wine,” Lorraine continues. “Over the years we’ve been able to see the evolution of the vineyard and the wines that come from it.”
D// – The Wine Idealist
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