Wine: Big happenings on the hill

By Yvonne Lorkin

Before you ask, there is no actual spot on the map named Elephant Hill.

Yet driving up the striking, palm-lined driveway towards the winery restaurant, you can indeed cop a glimpse of a sunbaked, hillside vineyard behind the building, while right in front of this architectural masterwork stands an enormous wooden elephant. So there you go, they've got a hill, they've got an elephant, and now - after a decade of pursuing food and wine perfection - they've got a reputation for being a true-blue Hawke's Bay's success story.

For offshore-based owners Roger and Reydan Weiss and their tight Te Awanga-based team, it's been an incredibly busy 10 years. If they're not hosting MasterChef contestants battling for "lamb-on-the-barbecue" supremacy on national TV, they're accommodating famous TV presenters-turned-wine-commentators hosting master-classes on syrah.

They've had opera legend Jose Carreras belt out his hits to thousands seated in their vineyards, and they've opened their state-of-the-art winery doors to host fundraisers for the local community fighting to save its precious coastline from erosion. They've taken part in more food and wine events than you can shake a screw cap at, and they've surely clocked up close to a million air miles sending their staff to collect umpteen awards from wine competitions here and abroad.

So you'd think it might be time to sit back and relax - but no. The first decade was spent getting things right on their coastal site, "precision viticulture" they call it, while the recent purchase of two new properties, one in the famous Gimblett Gravels district and one in the not-so-famous - but-just-as-amazing Bridge Pa Triangle - has given Elephant Hill viticulturist Brittany Thompson loads more work to do. She couldn't be happier.

"Although we've all had a few frantic late nights recently because the frosts have been a bit of a worry - but most of the country is in the same boat," she says. "You expect it at the Gravels and Bridge Pa, and we're fortunate we can use a helicopter to cover both sites because they're close together, but we've been dealing with frosts over at Te Awanga for years, so it's nothing new," she adds.

"But I thought frost never came near the sea," I said, expecting frost fighting to be a challenge for her with the new, inland vineyards.

"Oh yeah, frosts definitely come down to the coast where we are."

Frost aside, the season is shaping up really well, says Thompson. "We've had settled days and no rain for a long time - which is great for the grapes, but not so good for the farmers. The chardonnay isn't too far away from flowering which is great to see".

Having grown from a single 25ha vineyard to 56ha across three sites, Elephant Hill can tailor each site to the right varieties for its terroir. "We've been removing the bordeaux varieties (merlot, cabernet, malbec and petit verdot) from Te Awanga and replacing them with aromatic varieties like pinot gris, sauvignon blanc, chardonnay, gewurztraminer and viognier," she says.

"Those varieties grow beautifully out there in the salty air, and syrah also really loves it, too." Brittany and her team are also gradually removing some of the bordeaux varieties from the Bridge Pa Triangle site and replacing them with more syrah, which has become a flagship variety for New Zealand's newest appellation. "The certified organic site over in the Gimblett Gravels is where we'll source our bordeaux-style grapes," she adds.

Thompson has been working with Elephant Hill since early 2008 and she's been a fanatic campaigner for fostering a sustainable mindset across all aspects of the company. "I'm most proud of the fruit quality that we deliver from a pretty challenging site (Te Awanga)," says Brittany. "I'm a big believer in operating sustainably, but we definitely go above and beyond what's required from our Sustainable Winegrowers of NZ audits. For us it's not about just ticking the boxes."

Elephant Hill was recently awarded the Massey University Discovery Award at the Ballance Farm Environmental Awards, which acknowledged the company for looking out of the box when it came to the challenges it faces, and for solving them without using chemicals. "This means anything from the way we deal with pests in the vineyard, the wastewater from the winery, or even that we use electromagnetic pulse technology to stop algae settling in the pond (which surrounds the restaurant) instead of using chlorine to keep it clean."

Connie, a 5-year-old border collie huntaway cross is Brittany's constant companion, so it's hardly surprising that, when asked if she weren't working in the wine business what would she be doing, that she says "I'd probably end up working with animals". Thompson's enviable ability to stay trim and healthy is also directly related to her occupation. "The best part of my job is getting to walk through the vineyards every day, no matter what time of year and whatever the weather. Having a nice walk in the vineyard is the highlight of my day," she laughs, adding "there's also nothing better than budburst and harvest. It's only the stuff in the middle which causes the stress".

- Hamilton News

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