Bilancia Wines, Hawke’s Bay, New Zealand: Current Releases

New Zealand’s Hawke’s Bay wine region nestles up against the astonishing natural harbor that lends the area its name, sprawling primarily across flat, former river-beds. These generally gravel-rich and nutrient-poor soils, including the increasingly well-known Gimblett Gravels sub-region, have lent themselves to little else but grape growing. But when they first began to be planted in the early part of the 20th Century, everyone discovered just how good they were for wine.

Consequently, you don’t see many hillside vineyards in Hawke’s Bay. When the former floodplains of the area’s many rivers have leveled out such a gorgeous section of land for wine-growing, why spend the extra effort and money to farm the hills? So rare, indeed, are such vineyards in the area, that coming across the La Collina vineyard comes as quite a shock. You might even experience a brief sense of vertigo, as if someone has grabbed the whole of the Gimblett Gravels and tipped it up on edge.

I first literally stumbled on the vineyard in 2005 by complete accident, thanks to a combination of a poorly calibrated GPS device and user error. Thinking I was making my way to the Trinity Hill winery tasting room, I took a right hand turn too early, and ended up literally driving through a vineyard on gravel roads. I took a left to circle back around, and there, straight ahead of me was one of the most stunning vineyard sites I had seen (or still have seen for that matter) in Hawke’s Bay.

In January I finally had the opportunity to not only sit at the apex of this vineyard and watch the drifting shadows of summer cumulus clouds play over the flatlands of the Gimblett Gravels, but to taste the wines from the husband and wife team who have been responsible for this most unusual of vineyards and a winery named Bilancia.

If two married winemakers collaborate on making a wine, does the finished product say anything about their marriage? I can’t be entirely sure, because thanks to a trick of scheduling, on my recent trip to New Zealand I never saw Lorraine Leheny and Warren Gibson in the same place at the same time, but I can tell you this: the wine made by two Libras that is named (in Italian) for that symbol, the balance, certainly lives up to its moniker.

Leheny and Gibson are each an accomplished winemaker in their own right. They met going through the winemaking program at Roseworthy agricultural school in Australia in the early 1990s. Leheny did some post-graduate work at Delegates, whose Oyster Bay label is one of New Zealand’s largest, and Gibson did some work at Morton Estate Wines, allowing them to continue their budding romance after graduation. But finding work as a winemaker doesn’t lacollina.jpgalways mean you get to control where you work, so their relationship over the next few years had to fit in between harvests that spanned the globe. Gibson went to work in Hungary, then southern Italy, and Napa. Leheny left Delegates and went to work in the Margaret River appellation in Western Australia for a few years.

Eventually, however, the two came back to New Zealand when Gibson was offered the winemaker position at Trinity Hill winery. When John Hancock hired Gibson at Trinity Hill, he made it clear that Gibson could work on his own projects at the same time. That was about all the encouragement Gibson needed. He and his wife bought a plot of land that included a steep, slightly concave hillside behind the Trinity Hill winery and a bit of the flats below it, and began their wine label even as they were beginning to settle down into the semblance of a normal family life.

“It’s a good thing we started planting the hillside first,” says Leheny, as we perch at the top the steep vineyard. “If we started planting the flats we never would have planted the hill” she laughs. The first vines went into the hillside in 1998, and plantings continued over the next three years. The couple used family visits as a source of free labor, and eventually got about five acres planted, the heart of which is the windswept, north-facing hillside of Syrah vines which are now approaching fifteen years of age.

“The fantastic thing is that the vineyard basically takes care of itself,” says Leheny. “The wind keeps disease pressure quite low, and we don’t even really have to do any leaf thinning or leaf plucking. As it gets older, it’s just all about letting the vineyard express itself”

The flat parts of their land are in the second year of pre-certification for organic agriculture, and the couple is toying with the idea of certifying the hillside as well.

In addition to their hillside of Syrah, Leheny and Gibson have Viognier and Gewürztraminer planted in the flats, though they are increasingly grafting the Viognier over to Chardonnay after Gibson and Leheny decided to make it a focus in 2002. In addition to their estate vineyard, they also purchase some Pinot Gris from a vineyard closer to the coast.

The couple has never had a complex vision for their own label. “We just wanted to make our own wine. Something we would want to drink,” says Leheny,lacollina_also-2.jpg but she doesn’t hesitate to add the qualifier about the fact that “of course, it was important to us that the wine be really good, and showcase the vineyard.”

With two school age children, Leheny ends up focused a bit more on family than winemaking these days, but helps Gibson make every major decision about the label, and participates fully in blending decisions, albeit over their dinner table. Gibson is in the winery every day anyway, so ends up shouldering more of the day-to-day winemaking, while Leheny tends to handle more of what happens in the vineyard.

With just a couple of acres of hand-tended vines, and full liberty of the Trinity Hill winemaking facility, the couple has the luxury of making wine however they want. This means taking a quite non-interventionalist approach to their Syrah, generally allowing the wine to ferment with ambient yeasts, go through its secondary malolactic fermentation on its own time, and to rest calmly on its lees until bottling without any racking. Gibson has even given up the egg white fining he used to do. Sulfur dioxide additions are generally limited to just before bottling.

The white wines are still filtered with bentonite clay, especially those that have a little residual sugar like the reserve Pinot Gris, but Leheny told me that they’d prefer to avoid filtration altogether, and are working towards that goal.

All told, Leheny and Gibson produce about 2500 cases of wine each year, and have no intention of making much more wine than that, especially given their focus on primarily producing wine from their own small vineyard (their Chardonnay program was started with fruit bought on contract, but will increasingly become estate, and over time, will bear the La Collina vineyard name).

The wines are quite exceptional, with the Syrah standing out as a viable contender for the best Syrah made in New Zealand. Every wine in the portfolio has an honesty and sense of place to it that will appeal to the kind of wine lover who delights in the opportunity to taste wines made on a true vigneron scale. Sitting above the tiny vineyard on a summer’s day it is easy to imagine just how well Leheny and Gibson must know each vine, and how that translates into the quality in the bottle.

“We’re trying to be very respectful of the opportunity we’ve been given,” says Leheny when pressed to imagine the future of their brand. “We have no plans to fill the Trinity Hill cellars with our wine. lacollina_also.jpgWe’re happy with what we’re doing, and will continue. Warren loves his job, and has a lot of other responsibilities, so what we have the energy and focus to do is simply get better and better at what we’re doing now.”

It’s a mantra that could just as easily be applied to a marriage as a wine.

Note that, unfortunately, many of these wines are not available outside of New Zealand given their very small production quantities, and when they are available, they are not always in their most current vintage.

2010 Bilancia Pinot Gris, Hawke’s Bay, New Zealand
Pale gold in the glass, this wine smells of perfectly ripe pears and wet stones. In the mouth, beautiful pear and white flower flavors meld nicely with candied orange peel and wet stones, all having a faint hint of sweetness. With only 3 grams of residual sugar the wine is technically dry but it reads as off dry. Very pretty honey notes linger in the finish with a tiny bit of alcoholic heat. Until that warmth, however, this wine is very, very good. 14% alcohol. Score: between 8.5 and 9.

2008 Bilancia Reserve Pinot Gris, Hawke’s Bay, New Zealand
Light yellow-gold in the glass, this wine smells of lemon curd and paraffin. In the mouth beautiful saline flavors of pear and honey and lemon curd and gorgeous wet stone. This wine is mysterious and alluring with delicate, lacy acidity. Distinctly off-dry, and truly beautiful. Wow. Certainly one of the best New World Pinot Gris wines I’ve ever had. Made from a selection of the best fruit from the vineyard. 14.5% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5.

2011 Bilancia Chardonnay, Hawke’s Bay, New Zealand
Light gold in the glass, this wine smells of lemon curd and lemon juice with a hint of wet stones. In the mouth, beautiful lemon juice and lemon zest flavors mix with a hint of pink grapefruit in an acid-driven juicy bouquet of flavor. Electric and bright, with only a barely perceptible hint of vanilla and toasty oak, no one would ever pick this as a new world wine if tasted blind. Reads as excellent village white Burgundy. 40% new oak. 12% alcohol. Score: around 9.

2011 Bilancia Syrah, Hawke’s Bay, New Zealand
Medium garnet in color, this wine smells of violets and black pepper layered over cassis and blackberry fruit. In the mouth, plush cassis and blackberry flavors have a dusting of tannin and linger with floral notes in the finish. Decent acidity, but doesn’t have the breadth or the depth that it might. The La Collina single vineyard wine was not made in 2011, so this wine contains that fruit. Co-fermented with a little bit of Viognier skins. 13% alcohol. Score: around 8.5.

2009 La Collina Syrah, Hawke’s Bay, New Zealand
Medium garnet in the glass, this wine smells of cherry and black pepper. In the mouth it has a smoothness that is hard to ignore, a velvety plushness of both fruit and powdery tannin that paves the way for gorgeous cherry and blackberry and raspberry fruit. Expansive and broad on the palate, but not heavy in the slightest. Quite complex and gorgeous. Excellent acidity and wonderful balance. Remarkably good. Nearly impossible to taste the nearly 100% new oak that has been used on the wine.14.5% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $50. click to buy.

2010 La Collina “Tardi” Viognier, Hawke’s Bay, New Zealand
Light gold in the glass, this wine smells of crème brûlée. In the mouth honey and orange blossom water flavors have a soft acidity that is quite pretty, and keeps the fruit from being cloying. Made from late harvested grapes, the wine is moderately sweet, with a lightly tannic, chalky edge to it that is quite interesting. Tasty. 13% alcohol. Score: between 8.5 and 9.

The winery also produces another white wine from the La Collina vineyard — a blend of Viognier and Gewürztraminer — which I did not get a chance to taste.