Hawke's Bay A and P Bayleys Wine Awards chair judge Rod Easthope says expect "real pedigree" at next week's wine awards.
The local winemaker chats to Mark Story.

After what must have been a gruelling judging session, can you give us a preview as to the quality of this year's wines?
It was a great couple of days judging - as quality exceeded expectation. Why? Well, all judges were expecting to see some fantastic wines from the much heralded vintages of 2013 and 2014 - and they were there. But what really impressed were the wines from 2015 and 2016. These wines had real presence via intense varietal flavours, impressive extract and great length of flavour. But maybe even more importantly, these wines had freshness and balance. This made a great impression on the judges from out of town. It conveyed the all-important message that the best Hawke's Bay vineyards and winemakers are delivering something more akin to real pedigree, rather than one-off wines from the best vintages. And in a competitive wine world that is vital to securing the hearts and wallets of discerning wine buyers.

One of the parameters is that eligible wines need to be of at least 85 per cent Hawke's Bay grapes. Why not 100 per cent?
Well, 85 per cent regional integrity is in line with international appellation rules or the Geographical Indications regulations around the world. Not so long ago it was 75 per cent - so that regulation is now tighter than ever. Many wineries here in Hawke's Bay process fruit from vineyards all over the country and some leeway is allowed for sheer practicality to keep vessels full. However, when it comes to the signature varietals for Hawke's Bay, such as merlot, cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, syrah and other warm climate reds, I would be surprised if many of those wines were much less than 100 per cent Hawke's Bay wines. This is because those varietals are seldom found south of Hawke's Bay. With chardonnay; well Hawke's Bay just does it better - so why corrupt it with outside grapes, juice or wine.

On a trip through Marlborough recently I noticed more vineyards under construction. Do you think New Zealand needs more vines, or do we nurture the artisan nature of our small estates?
Although a drive through Marlborough will give the impression of New Zealand as a large player in the wine world, we are still actually a very small player on the world stage. And Hawke's Bay is a just a fraction of that. New Zealand still commands the highest average price per bottle in our major wine markets. Given those facts we are a long way from saturating markets and we still preserve the artisanal producers in amongst the large players. One must remember that the world's greatest wines from artisanal producers are from France and Italy - and let's not forget that these are two of the world's largest producers. A nation's generic image can be enhanced via large volume well-made commercial wines. And this doesn't preclude a region or nation from also having a diversity of producers with respect to size and style of production. New Zealand's wine industry is fortunate that our largest winemakers make such excellent wines. One must only taste the basement wines of other countries to know that. And this means that the first wine someone in a foreign market tries from New Zealand, whether it be from a small producer or large, it's going to be a rewarding experience and opens the door to the many great wines from New Zealand.
In Hawke's Bay we have seen the removal of vineyards from less favoured sites and converted to apple production. Against this we are seeing new vineyards being planted on better terroir. This is natural selection at work, and the sculpting of our region's production capabilities to better suit the right produce. Hawke's Bay is booming to my untrained eye at the moment - new wineries, new vineyards, new orchards, new pack houses. Hawke's Bay's beauty is in the tapestry of its varied produce.

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What's your personal winemaking philosophy?
Easthope Family Winegrowers' mantra is "Freedom over Approval". Our wines are unburdened by expectation or convention and rely solely on preserving the sensory thread from vineyard to bottle. To achieve this we utilise fruit from very low yielding vineyards, and then apply a low intervention approach to our winemaking; wild yeast, no additions, whole bunch fermentation and no fining and minimal filtration. These wines won't be for every palate. They are individual expressions that could not be mimicked.

Which bottle in your private cellar are you anticipating the most?
I have a 15-litre bottle of 1996 Rustenberg Estate Cabernet Sauvignon from Stellenbosch, South Africa, which I made when winemaker there. I plan to open it for my 50th birthday (of course that is some decades away ...)