When you hear the word pioneer, it calls to mind someone fighting against the odds to establish themselves and survive in an inhospitable environment. It is with therefore not lightly that I call the small, unassuming winery of Stonecroft in the Gimblett Gravels region of Hawkes Bay the original pioneer.
Dr Alan Limmer happened to be in the right time at the right place when a viticultural research station in the north island lost its government funding and was shutting down. They had some Syrah vines believed to have been brought over from Europe to Australia by James Busby, and from thence to the research station in New Zealand.
Limmer saw the opportunity to plant these vines in what he felt was the perfect soil and climate for Syrah; the Gimblett Gravels. He planted the vines in 1982, but back then the fledgling vineyard was surrounded by a rubbish dump, an army firing range and a drag race strip. There was huge resistance from the council who were planning on turning the area into a gravel quarry and Stonecroft was forced to embark on a 10 year legal battle with the council to get the Gimblett Gravels recognised as a viticultural zone. Despite these obstructions the first vintage of Stonecroft was made in 1987 and proved that Limmer’s faith had been well founded for the resulting quality was exactly as he had hoped. The case against the council was only won in 1992 and immediately investment started to pour into the region.
These original Syrah clones, now known as the Limmer clone or Stonecroft clone, are still on their own rootstock and are propagated at the winery and provide the core of their top wines. In 2010 Dermot McCollum and his wife Andria Monin bought the winery and have held true to the origins of this incredibly historic estate, running it as a small organic family winery. The wines are exceptional, with a focus obviously on Syrah. Wild yeast, minimal intervention, low sulphur additions and restrained use of oak has led to wonderfully expressive wines that can easily be mistaken for the northern Rhone and have achieved a cult following from Syrah lovers across the world.
The wines abound with raspberry fruit, meaty richness, black pepper and a pure, poised acidity embedded within supple, ripe tannins. From the Crofters Syrah up to the Reserve Syrah they are complex, compelling, earthy yet pure expressions of this unique terroir. They also produce a gorgeous Merlot/Cabernet blend called Ruhanui which is silky, supple, perfumed yet finely structured. These wines are proven to age excellently but have largely remained an insider’s secret and as such still offer incredible value for money.
By Alex Tilling