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New Zealand: Home to wine and elephants….

March 26, 2019

New Zealand: Home to wine and elephants….

The story of Elephant Hill

Elephant Hill winery is located on the Te Awanga coast, a stunning stretch of Pacific coastline in the heart of the Hawke’s Bay. Flanked by the clean lines of never-ending vines, its spare structure sits serenely above the ocean, as if it has somehow owned this part of the Hawke’s Bay forever.

Yet Elephant Hill is a young venture, one that in just 15 years has already made a name for itself as a pioneering force, champion of experiment and quality, a leading light in this small, and increasingly prestigious viticultural enclave.  

The first chapter in the story of Elephant Hill starts in 2001, and not with an elephant – though a love of elephants inspired the name – but with a jaguar, of the motoring kind.  German businessman Roger Weiss, vintage car fanatic, was the proud owner of a smart British Racing Green Jaguar that had developed a rare fault.  The ‘nearest’ mechanic with the particular expertise to restore it to full health, turned out to be in Hawke’s Bay, admittedly a little further afield than Roger – based in Dusseldorf! – had quite anticipated. Unabashed, Roger duly shipped the precious animal south and once it had been restored to full health, decided – why not? – to fly to New Zealand with his wife Reydan, to collect the beloved in person.

A few days in Hawke’s Bay proved life-changing for Roger and Reydan. Spellbound by the raw beauty of this place, its wines, and the warmth of the local people, they resolved to buy a modest plot of land for the seaside holiday home they had always dreamed of, just big enough for a pied-a-terre. Or so they thought. The story goes that a ‘slight slip-up’ involving a decimal point or two had netted them a rather more sizeable acreage. Barely had their ‘miscalculation’ come to light, than Roger and Reydan had conceived of a plan for the land they had inadvertently acquired.  ‘Ambition is a dream with a V8 engine’, said the King of Pop, somehow rather apt in context: by all accounts, the Weiss household is rarely short of ambition, dreams or the energy to drive them. So: why not start their own wine operation, plant their own vineyards, build a state-of-the-art winery, and produce their own wines in the Hawke’s Bay? Carpe diem clearly translates pretty well into German. Just two years later, Elephant Hill was born, and was named in homage to the animal, beloved of the Weiss family, who have long been involved in philanthropic initiatives supporting their survival.

Fast forward 16 years, and the winery operation is thriving. Andreas Weiss, Roger and Reydan’s son, is now at the helm of the business, working with a small, tight-knit team including chief winemaker Steve Skinner and viticulturalist Jon Peet, both leading talents in their respective fields. While Roger sadly died in 2016, Elephant Hill today is testament to his pioneering spirit and determined work ethic. 

A modern winery known in the industry for pushing boundaries, there is also a deep sense of tradition here, rooted in a respect for the land and its produce, and a belief in responsible stewardship. Tread lightly – preserve the land- leave it in a better state for future generations. For the team at Elephant Hill, quality and sustainability are inextricable. To create world-class wines of elegance and balance, champions of their land and by extension the Hawke’s Bay, they must manage their vineyards with care.

Fast-track to Terroir

While Elephant Hill’s winery is located in Te Awanga, its vineyard holdings are located in three markedly different sub-regions of Hawke’s Bay: the Te Awanga vineyard on the coast, the Gimblett vineyard in the Gimblett Gravels district further inland, and the Triangle Vineyard in the Bridge Pa Triangle region; three very distinct areas, differing in prevailing climate and soil types; three budding ‘terroirs’.

From the outset it was clear to the team at Elephant Hill, that all three sub-regions had the potential to yield wines of high quality with different characters.

The challenge they faced as a new winery barely out of swaddling clothes, and from a relatively fledgling region in terms of viticultural history, was how to attain the sort of profound understanding of site that would allow them to maximise the potential of these areas – the sort of understanding we see in traditional vineyard classification models such as that of the Côte d’Or, for example, with its meticulously charted map of crus and lieux-dits, an epic opus of mediaeval data-gathering. Could such an understanding, rooted in close and repeated observation over decades and centuries, be fast-tracked? Could the Elephant Hill team somehow expedite this process, to acquire the insights they needed to understand and exploit their terroirs? Of course, the next question was ‘how can we do this’?

It is fortunate that neither ambition nor work ethic, are in short supply at Elephant Hill.  Add a dash of single-pointed madman vision for good measure. The viticultural and winemaking teams put forward a project proposal that would push their understanding of their three vineyards to the very limits. It required significant backing – not least financial – however it did not take long to convince the Weiss family of its value. And so began an extraordinary project, perhaps unique in its aspiration, scope and timescale, the pursuit of that age-old concept: a sense of place – distinct, unique and timeless.

The project involved an in-depth analysis of local vineyard areas and individual sites. The vineyards were separated into plots, and further sub-divided into plots within plots depending on aspect, microclimate, and soil type ranging from shingle and clay to ancient stony river beds. Then, grape varieties, clones and rootstocks were matched to each vineyard plot with the aim of maximising the potential of each and every site. From the grapes yielded, micro-vinifications were carried out amounting to hundreds of experimental cuvées, each year, each contributing its own insight, small pixels in the bigger picture.

This ambitious work in progress has already paid dividends for Elephant Hill. Over and above the Estate and Reserve wine ranges, the team’s ever-deepening understanding of their three distinct terroirs has led to the production of the exceptional Icons wines, the ultimate blends from the very best fruit draw from across all vineyards, and now the Elements collection, a quite separate project bringing the spotlight on specific terroirs and varietal expression.

The Full Elements and Icons series is available now. Click here.

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