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Producer Spotlight: Simon Swa, Elephant Hill

April 19, 2024

Producer Spotlight: Simon Swa, Elephant Hill

Simon Swa, General manager at Elephant Hill


Q) Tell us about the Elephant Hill Estate and how it was formed?

The original vineyard was planted in the early 2000s, on the site of a former deer farm situated literally a stone’s throw from the Pacific Ocean coast. It was founded by the late Roger Weiss, a close-to-retirement German businessman, contemporary art and architecture enthusiast, and wine lover from Germany who also fell in love with this beautiful part of New Zealand —Hawke’s Bay. He dreamed of establishing a world-class, boutique winery that could combine the fresh modernity of New Zealand with the stylish elegance and vineyard character of the European wines he already knew and cherished. In 2008, his vision was realised with the opening of Elephant Hill Winery on the day of his 65th birthday.

In 2013, our estate expanded with the acquisition of two other vineyards located further inland on very diverse and unique sub-regional sites, taking our vineyard plantings up to around 60ha. The three sites now make for a complete trio of vineyards that determine the style and character of all our Hawke’s Bay wines: our coastal vineyard, which we call SEA; our warm inland vineyard, EARTH; and our river gravels vineyard; the STONE vineyard.

Last November, on what would have been Roger Weiss’ 80th birthday, we celebrated our winery’s 15-year anniversary. Our founder’s legacy continues in the hands of his son Andreas, our current CEO, and his grandson Alan, the third generation of the family, who works in our cellar door tasting room. We remain committed to fulfilling Roger’s vision of fine New Zealand winemaking.



Q) Can you tell us about you and your role at the Estate?

My role is General Manager, responsible for all commercial aspects of our winery business, focussing on sales, marketing and export. I am very lucky to have a fantastic, dedicated team who manage our viticulture and winemaking. My background is nearly 30 years working in the wine industry, but not all in New Zealand. I was actually born in Burma in SE Asia, then brought up in the UK, schooled in Scotland, and worked in the fine wine trade in London for 12 years before emigrating to New Zealand 17 years ago. I am privileged to live and work in one of the most beautiful wine producing countries in the world and feel proud and lucky to now travel the globe representing our winery estate.


Q) Can you talk us through the different wines you make and the vision behind them?

Elephant Hill produces four wine ranges, each with a different style and vision, but all share a hand-grown, hand-picked, minimally handled, discreet oak, low malolactic, extended lees contact winemaking philosophy to help best express variety and vineyard.

Our Estate range comprises our varietal-led wines, most often a blend from two or three vineyards and carefully crafted to showcase our house style, which is typically aromatic, refined, textured, bright, pure-fruited and elegant.

Next up are our Reserve wines, a Chardonnay and a Syrah, again blended from our estate vineyards but derived from more select batches that undergo extended ageing in barrel and bottle before release. So, in effect, they are already cellar-aged, showing more oak influence and mellow maturity, ideal for immediate enjoyment.

Then we have our Elemental wines — a highly expressive, single vineyard, terroir-driven series labelled with their primary origin, either SEA, EARTH or STONE and including Chardonnay, Syrah and red Bordeaux blends. Made in smaller, limited bottlings and produced to show distinctive, elemental vineyard character. They have the ability to age well.

Finally, our Icon range is the pinnacle of our winemaking, comprising our Salomé Chardonnay, Airavata Syrah, and Hieronymus Cab Merlot. These are simply the very best fruit from the best vineyard blocks, but ultimately the best few barrels selected on quality alone, regardless of vineyard origin, to show the most luxurious, deeply complex and layered expressions of these varieties that our estate can produce in that vintage. Wines for the cellar and many years of future drinking.



Q) We know that terroir plays an important role in the making of these wines, can you tell us more about this?

At the heart of our winemaking are the SEA, EARTH and STONE vineyards. These all show distinctive terroir characteristics and greatly influence the style and taste of the bottled wines, depending on how much of each vineyard makes up the final blend. Our original home vineyard on the coast at Te Awanga, our SEA vineyard, produces brisk, vibrant, mineral, saline wines. Our EARTH vineyard located in Bridge Pa Triangle on the oldest, deep-layered, heavier soils, gives us plush textures and generous flavours. Finally, there’s our STONE vineyard on the Gimblett Gravels — an alluvial, stony and bony former riverbed site which creates firm, intense, complex, structured wines. Great single expressions or wonderfully complementary when blended judiciously.


Q) Can you talk more about New Zealand’s Hawke’s Bay region and how you see things evolving for wines from this region in the future?

It is a picturesque vineyard region on the east coast of the North Island, blessed with a high number of sunshine hours but tempered by the cooling maritime influence. Latitude-wise, we are the same distance south of the equator as Napa Valley and as north of the equator as Southern France is, but not as hot. Hawke’s Bay is a dry region, surrounded by a mountain range to the west that protects us from prevailing winds and weather, with five rivers that tumble down from the peaks through forests onto the flat plains heading out to the Pacific Ocean. It is on these alluvial river valleys and on the coastal plains that the best vineyards are planted. The region’s climate provides the perfect tension of warmth and cool, ripeness and freshness.

The evolution of Hawke’s Bay wines will see a widening spectrum of winemaking expressions, driven by a growing understanding and appreciation for sub-regional vineyard sites from both producers, trade and wine consumers. Chardonnay, in particular, is starting to show authentic expression of place and provenance, combined with a clonal character that adds another dimension. The heavy-handed use of oak has long been dialled back, but we also see cleaner, purer, less reductive styles, with more producers favouring acidity and aromatic freshness. Hawke’s Bay Chardonnay is starting to gain traction and attention internationally. With the short vintages, and prices for Chardonnay from California and Burgundy becoming out of reach for many now, our wines offer a real alternative.

And lastly, I’d love to see high-quality, refined Hawke’s Bay Sauvignon Blanc, some with barrel and lees ageing, continue to add a welcome counterpoint to the often obvious and ubiquitous Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc that New Zealand has been so well known for. Hawke’s Bay Sauvignon Blanc is altogether different!



Q) What is your favourite part of the winemaking process and why?

When the latest vintage wines are all safely tucked away in barrel and tank, and we can take a short break! But also, when we taste these wines from barrel a year or two later, to decide on the exact blends for all our wines. If the vintage and mother nature has been kind, we have the luxury of selecting from such a diverse palate of flavours from the vineyards, batches and barrels, that we are often spoilt for choice when assembling the final wines.


Q) When you are not making wine what might we find you doing?

We are surrounded by water everywhere in New Zealand and that dictates my interests. The winery looks out to the Pacific surf and is also close to some river valleys, so when I’m (rarely) not thinking about wine, I am often found in the ocean, chasing the perfect wave on a surfboard, or wading in a stream fishing for enigmatic wild brown trout. Aqua therapy either way… otherwise liquid pleasures, drinking a gin cocktail or a salty Chardonnay!

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