Wednesday, 14 March 2018 12:31

Paying homage to Trinity Hill’s Syrah

Written by  Oliver Styles
Warren Gibson. Warren Gibson.

Oliver Styles meets Trinity Hill's enthusiastic winemaker Warren Gibson.

Warren Gibson hails me with the kind of nonchalance that suggests we either know each other well enough to be beyond salutations or he has heard my car stereo as I pulled into Eastern Institute of Technology to do the interview (I have two small children - my moments of puerile rebellion are few and far between). 

The tall, thin, quietly spoken winemaker, as synonymous with Trinity Hill as the effusive founder John Hancock, seems preoccupied as we amble down the road. This is possibly because he’s chaperoning American wine writer and critic Elaine Chukan Brown – a woman who, I get the feeling, would not be averse to kicking me in the shin were I to suggest she needed chaperoning. She’s Jancis Robinson MW’s woman-on-the-ground in the US and was one of the international judges at the recent Air New Zealand Awards that Gibson chaired.

Clearly, though, the widely respected Chief Winemaker at Trinity Hill has multiple duties this afternoon and I’m already beginning to feel like I’ve chosen the wrong day to meet. Before I settle down to talk to him, he’s greeting the two women manning the guest list and hailing sundry persons as they file in and out of the tasting room.

From my pre-winemaking journalism days, I’ve assumed I can sidle into the tasting without an invite. I’m an old hand at blagging my way into events – I’ve even conned my way into a creditors’ meeting – but I’m not getting past the ladies on the door. After a genial effort to show that I might be worthy of a wave-through, I resort to stabbing colleagues’ and friends’ names on the guest list. I’m not far off whispering a “do you know who I am?” through my teeth, forlorn in the knowledge that there is only one obvious answer to this. After a winemaker takes one of the doyennes to the side – while my attempt is fruitlessly continuing – to ask if such-and-such could be added to the list and this is met with a straightforward nod, I give up.

Luckily, Gibson looks like he’s momentarily free from handshakes, hellos and waves, and we retire to a small patch of grass outside the winery to run over his recent accolade: Trinity Hill’s Homage Syrah 2015 has topped the New Zealand billing with 99 points on US critic James Sucklings’ website. Although not tasted by Suckling himself – a man clearly cultivating a brand image with his long hair and all-climate scarf – respected Australian taster Nick Stock and Contributing Editor to JamesSucking.com handed out the laurels.

Stock is clearly impressed, not just with Trinity’s flagship wine, but with Hawke’s Bay Syrah in general. “Syrah is a quiet force to be reckoned with,’’ he says, ‘’primarily the wines of Hawke’s Bay where things bend in a medium-weight direction and are bathed in fragrance, spice and pepper. Outside of the Northern Rhône, and perhaps Chile, it is hard to think of a place that delivers Syrah with this much allure.’’

Two vintages of Bilancia Syrah – Gibson’s own winemaking project along with wife Lorraine Leheny – also feature in the top scores, as does Vidal Legacy, Church Road McDonald Series and Grand Reserve, Craggy Range Le Sol, Millton’s Clos St Anne The Crucible (a Gisborne showing) as well as Te Whare Ra and Fromm representing Marlborough.

But we’re here to talk about the Homage 2015. Gibson reckons it’s showing well because of its typicity and relative approachability. It isn’t as structured as 2013 or 2014 – ‘’shy’’ wines from warmer vintages, he says. The 2015 vintage is ‘’more attractive as a young wine [than the previous two]’’. He calls it, with a little smile, ‘’the goldilocks vintage – not too hot, not too cold, not too dry, not too wet…’’ – in short, he believes it possesses both seriousness and drinkability.

Stock clearly thought so too. ‘’A superb wine,’’ he writes. ‘‘Quite possibly the greatest expression of Syrah that New Zealand has produced.’’ Gibson tells me – with no hint of boastfulness – he has a bit of pedigree with JamesSuckling.com, picking up 97, 98 and 99 points over the last few years. 

And how did Gibson manage it? As when talking about most things, he’s endearingly unassuming as he rattles through the three vineyards – all, incidentally, within the Gimblett Gravels, although the wine is not labelled as such – that make up the blend. In some years he’ll use non-Gimblett fruit, hence the need to keep Hawke’s Bay most precious ‘terroir’ off the billing. In this instance, the vineyards range from eight to 22 years old. One six-ton parcel gets a foot stomp with a layer of Viognier skins laid out in the middle – for a brief moment I think of the Morbier cheese with its little central line – and the wines get a once-a-day pumpover.

‘’We try to be respectful of the fruit – use less new oak,’’ he says, absently tugging at a patch of grass. ‘‘We make it like Pinot Noir – it doesn’t get moved much in barrel. And the Whole Bunch component is a big part of the wine.’’ This makes up 35 percent of the blend in 2015 and, looking at some of the producers topping the ranks for Nick Stock, it looks like the use of whole bunch in Pinot and Syrah is almost de rigueur.

Gibson, who’s still acknowledging people as a group files out of the tasting room and into a waiting coach, tells me he’s looking for a more savoury tannin profile with the wine. Nonetheless, he believes it’s showing a good deal of attraction as a young wine and it reminds him of the 2004 – Homage’s third vintage.

I’m now starting to feel like I’ve encroached enough on his time. So we leave it there. Gibson heads off to entertain more connections while I, with my tail brushing my knees, consent to hand over cash to get in to the tasting.

 

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