Hawkes Bay winemakers reflect on a quarter century of hard work and tenacity.

"Those early days were a time of a great tenacity," recalls Sacred Hill co-founder and managing director, David Mason of the era three decades ago when the winery was establishing its first vineyard in Hawkes Bay. In the first year it was decimated by drought and wind, which meant half had to be replanted. The following year another half of the vineyard was lost to a flood; then when the vines started to bear fruit, Cyclone Bola wreaked more havoc.

"There's a farming mentality that you just get up and do it again, so we did," he states.

As he kicks off an estate tour to celebrate the company's 25th vintage in the Dartmoor Vineyard where it all started, Mason can now reflect on how this perseverance has paid off. Sacred Hill has been transformed from a small venture - founded on a few thousand dollars by him, his brother Mark Mason and the company's long-time winemaker, Tony Bish - into one of the country's largest wine companies.

Sauvignon blanc was one of the first wines made, which the Mason brothers went on to develop into one of New Zealand's benchmark sauvignons, Sauvage.


Instead of trying to ape the highly aromatic Marlborough style, they used white Bordeaux as a more fitting template for this warmer region. This created a weightier, more textural barrel-aged style, which we sampled from 2001 - surprisingly sprightly for a variety that in New Zealand is not known for its longevity - to a sneak preview of the 2011. This exhibited the ripe tropical fruits, flint and intense grapefruit character that's now associated with the wine.

Next stop on this celebratory lap around the estate was the Rifleman's Vineyard, the source of Sacred Hill's revered top chardonnay, that bears its name and helped establish the winery as one of the country's leading producers of this varietal. Recent years have seen its chardonnay range widen, with the addition of the Wine Thief chardonnay some years back from younger vines from the vineyard and the recently launched Virgin chardonnay from the Rifleman's site too.

"We wanted to make a chablis style without oak," explains Bish of the Virgin concept. "But we don't say unoaked, as too many that have been called that were made in a style that New Zealand should forget. This is a premium chardonnay that's been hand-picked, made from the first-press juice - like virgin olive oil - and has absorbed flavours and texture from contact with its lees."

It's not all whites at Sacred Hill, as was demonstrated by a tasting of the estate's reds: the richly fruited and peppery Deerstalkers Syrah; the cabernet-based Helmsman that beat top Bordeaux in a series of international blind tastings; and the Brokenstone, once a merlot, but now honed to include varietals such as syrah.

Though Hawkes Bay remains Sacred Hill's heartland, it made the move into Marlborough in the early 2000s, buying the Cairnbrae vineyard there in 2003. It now also makes a pinot noir out of Central Otago, where Mark Mason - who's no longer directly involved in the company - owns vineyards.

"It may have been an inauspicious start, but we feel that this is the beginning of the next 25 years," David Mason concludes.

"Through passion and hard work, we've improved the vineyards and the winemaking over those years and invested in the culture and quality of people within the company.

"There will always be hurdles, but people that with energy and who can share ideas soon find their way around the obstacles."

Sacred Hill Virgin Hawke's Bay Chardonnay 2011 $29.99
Joining Sacred Hill's strong line-up of chardonnays is this inaugural release of a serious, edgy unoaked style, sourced from its revered Rifleman's Vineyard. Mandarin and white peach fruit infused with lemon blossom coil around its taut core of mineral and citrus, supported by good palate weight. (From Caro's.)

Sacred Hill Halo Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc 2012 $24.99
Since branching out into Marlborough, Sacred Hill has gained acclaim for its sauvignons from the area as well as its classic Sauvage. In the Awatere dominant Halo sauvignon blanc, grassy and blackcurrant leaf flavours combine with punchy lime and slaty mineral. (From First Glass, Advintage.)

Sacred Hill Brokenstone Hawkes Bay 2010 $49.99
Among Sacred Hill's impressive portfolio of "Special Selection" ultra-premium reds is this stellar blend of merlot, cabernet sauvignon, syrah and cabernet franc. A fabulously fragrant wine with notes of violet, spice, black fruits, herb and savoury that's supple and juicy with a firm but fine tannic structure. One to cellar. (From Caro's, Advintage.)