The equation of one hand, one vine, one wine serves as a cornerstone to many wine lovers in search of the best wines in the world. Without getting into a thorny argument about whether smaller producers actually make better wine on the whole than larger ones, it is impossible to deny the romance of a small family-run winery where one or two people literally make the wine from field to bottle.
Both in name and in action, Unison Vineyard in the Gimblett gravels region of Hawkes Bay, New Zealand, embodies everything that picky wine lovers are looking for when they enjoy “boutique” wines. Started by the husband and wife team of Bruce and Anna-Barbara Helliwell, this little gem of an estate is managed start-to-finish by the two proprietors.
Anna-Barbara Helliwell is an experience viticulturalist with extensive experience in Germany, while her husband Bruce is an oenologist who has worked in the US and in various locations in Europe. The two perfected their tag-team approach to winemaking at an estate (I’m not sure which one) in the Chianti region of Tuscany before deciding to move out on their own.
The pair knew exactly what they were looking for, but it was not clear where they would find it: severely infertile soil, a moderate climate, and the opportunity to chart new directions in a wine region instead of duplicating a well proven methodology. When the two eventually made their way to the relatively unpopulated (and from a wine perspective un-recognized) region of Hawkes Bay now known as the Gimblett Gravels they decided to set down their roots.
When the Helliwells arrived this 2000 acre stretch of deep, deep alluvial gravel was a non-descript place, dotted with orchards and sheep farms, with little sign of the treasure that lay below the surface in the form of incredibly stony gravel beds layered many meters deep by the nearby Ngaruroro River.
The Helliwells were one of the pioneering winegrowers of the region, which has quickly built up a reputation for growing Bordeaux-style varietals. They purchased a small lot of 16 acres in the heart of this yet-unnamed district and set about building a small winery into which they have poured their lives for the past 14 years.
Their vineyards, planted with high density and cropped to very low yields, contain Pinot Gris, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Syrah. Under the watchful eye of Anna-Barbara the vineyards have become a benchmark for the region, leading to enough demands for Helliwell’s services that she also now runs a vineyard management and consulting business in addition to Unison.
Not surprisingly, grapes are all harvested by hand and sorted fastidiously before being pressed carefully by hand in the traditional wooden basket press. I don’t have much more detail on the winemaking processes than that, other than the observation that the red wines are likely filtered lightly or not at all before bottling. The estate produces a total of about 2500 cases each year.
In addition to their wines, the estate also makes a traditionally aged balsamic vinegar (in various caratelli wood barrels, aged for years) and an extra virgin olive oil. Apparently the two couldn’t quite leave their Italian roots behind.
As is typical with such operations, any time you stop by you’re like to find one of the owners cheerfully pouring their wines in the Tuscan-inspired barrel room, as Anna-Barbara was when we stopped by last month.
2006 Unison Pinot Gris, Gimblett Gravels, Hawkes Bay
Palest of gold in color this wine has a fresh, lively nose of pear, mineral, and white floral aromas. In the mouth it is crisp and clean with a nice pear aspect with a hint of lychee fruit that is carried long on the palate through the finish.
2006 Unison Rose of Syrah and Merlot, Gimblett Gravels, Hawkes Bay
Light pink in the glass, this wine has a mineral driven nose with strong aromas of wet felt. In the mouth it has a spicy aspect to it as it bounces around the tongue with good acids and primary flavors of raspberry fruit. It is light and clean, if a little simple, and it finishes just slightly hot to my taste. 8/8.5.
2005 Unison “Marie’s Vineyard” Merlot, Gimblett Gravels, Hawkes Bay
Light garnet in color, this wine has an alluring savory nose of black olive and tobacco notes with a hint of red fruit shining through. In the mouth it offers good balance with a light tannic structure supporting spicy flavors of plum and cedar with an excellent length. 8.5/9.
2005 Unison “Unison” Bordeaux Blend, Gimblett Gravels, Hawkes Bay
Dark, inky garnet in the glass with suggestions of fine sediment this wine smells of leather and beautiful sandalwood incense. In the mouth it is both taut and smooth at the same time with great weight on the tongue and excellent balance. The flavor profile reveals a core of red cherry fruit wrapped in cedar and sandalwood, a package which lasts through a great finish. Ruth and I didn’t bring home many bottles of wine from New Zealand, but this was one of them. 9/9.5.
2005 Unison Syrah, Gimblett Gravels, Hawkes Bay
Dark garnet in the glass, this wine has a surprisingly floral aspect to its nose which overlays aromas of blue and black fruits. In the mouth it offers the regional signature of faint white pepper flavors along with leather and blue and black fruits that carry through the moderate finish. One of the better Syrahs we had in the area.
I can;t find any of these wines online, but they should theoretically be available in small quantities around the country. Unison’s wines are imported by New Zealand Wine Imports 800 Michigan Ave. #3J Evanston, IL 60202. 847-864-1612.