Wine Tasting in New Zealand
On a wine-soaked road-trip through the North Island, Jeninne Lee-St. John uncorks a deluge of new world vintages, panoramic Pacific vistas—and a latent love of Chardonnay. Photographed by Richard McLeish.
Published on Apr 23, 2015Page : 1 2
How do you feel about wine for breakfast? After three straight days of non-stop sampling North Island wines in multi-stop tours and multi-course meals, after waking up this morning in this high-ceilinged modern farm house still tasting last night's peachy, desserty Mission Reserve Noble Harvest 2012 that went down so smoothly with the local-cheese-and-Damson-plum platter, well, wine for breakfast doesn't seem such a bad idea. You know what they say about a little hair of the dog, after all. But first, a little egg of the chicken.
We 'laid' on breakfast for you.—From the Black Barn chooks, Pen, Jen and Gwen
Black Barn Vineyards.
What a glorious morning. It had rained every day since we got to New Zealand, but today the sun has broken free, basking the rows of grapevines surrounding this cottage in an ethereal light. Spring out of bed and pad into the kitted-out kitchen, where fresh rashers of bacon await in the fridge, fresh ground coffee waits to be French pressed, and flower pots overflowing with potatoes, mushrooms, fruit and brown eggs wait with a tongue-in-chook note from their layers. Nearly a week of three gourmet meals per day has us giddy at the task of a self-made breakfast fry-up in an old-school cast iron pan. Thank you, Pen, Jen, Gwen and the rest of the Black Barn Retreats team for knowing exactly what greasy cushion of deliciousness we'll need in our stomachs before we start filling them with wine.
Did I mention what a glorious morning it is? Jenny Ryan from Takaro Trails fetches us from the cottage and in 20 minutes we're cycling along a flat, dedicated bike path bisecting fields and farms and vineyards in the heart of big-sky Hawke's Bay, itself the heart of the North Island wine industry. First stop: the beyond picturesque—seriously, a lab bounds out to greet us—white barn with red trim and green doors of Ngatarawa and Farmgate Wines. They've got eight vintages lined up on the counter, from an award-winning, small-batch 2008 Chenin Blanc adorably adorned with the photo of a local bread maker to an award-winning reserve 2009 Shiraz. Glasses at the ready. It's barely 11 a.m. But it's five o'clock somewhere.
A morning tasting at Ngatarawa and Farmgate Wines.
That's pretty much the No. 1 tenet to live by if you're on a weeklong North Island wine and food drive. Marlborough, in the South Island, put New Zealand on the global wine map, but its compatriots north of Cook Strait—the melting-pot-of-minerals Wairarapa, the Mediterranean-like Hawke's Bay, and even dry-farming Gisborne—have equally fertile terroirs that mature all range of grape varietals, many of which go into producing stellar vintages you can't get outside of the country. This passionate wine culture is matched by a culinary one that's Made-in-New-Zealand-proud, heavy on game and seafood and handcrafted cheeses. And these locavore leanings extend to the very best hotels scattered along the New Zealand Wine Trail that, whether full-service, helicopter-accessible resorts or intimate B&Bs, seem totally devoted to your comfort, of course, but also your indoctrination into Kiwi viticulture. All of which makes it incredibly difficult to not just jump in and drink all day.
It also makes the occasional lack of pampering feel like a real treat. That morning at Black Barn, it was a surprising relief to walk in the kitchen and find nobody there but us chickens.
On the go with Takaro Trails.
Compare tasting notes in Wharekauhau’s great room.
"SCREW SAUVIGNON BLANC."
That's the No. 2 tenet of drinking your way through the North Island. Steve Nathan said this to us on that glorious morning as we sat in the backyard of his Salvare Estate cellar door, his yellow lab rolling at our feet and his Sauvignon Blanc-free range of wines teasing our lips. But nearly everyone we met voiced some version of this disdain for the new world wine king. It's not that North Islanders don't appreciate the renown Marlborough's star has brought to their country. It's that they want the world to know that they're capable of so much more complexity.
I've been to Marlborough, where I learned how well this country does Pinot Noir. Throughout the North Island, we tasted heaps of them, as well as everything from Cabernet Sauvignons to Gewürztraminers. But I'm a devoted Sauvignon Blanc girl. Bangkok, where I live, is hot and tropical, and I want something cold and passion fruity that's going to be a reliable pour. And here I am in New Zealand with people constantly trying to pour Chardonnay down my gullet. Chardonnay! Doesn't everyone feel about Chardonnay the way Paul Giamatti's character in Sideways feels about Merlot? And how North Islanders feel about Sauvignon Blanc?
Well, here's the thing: Chardonnay grapes thrive in places with ample spring showers, long and dry summers, and heavy clay soil. That's the maritime North Island, which seems on a mission to prove that Chardonnays don't have to be overly oaky and taste like buttered wood. In fact, they don't have to be oaky at all. Some of the best examples we had in on this trip were unoaked. I guess if anyone can win my heart, it's these determined North Island oenophiles. Let the wooing begin.
Palliser Bay has a parabolic black-sand beach.
It's a verdant, alternately calm-and nerve-inducing drive from Wellington through the winding mountainous roads of Kaitoke Regional Park and Pakuratahi Forest to the Wairarapa region. We emerge at Greytown, finding the incredibly comfortable but completely unobtrusive hospitality that we quickly learned was signature Kiwi at Briarwood—part B&B and part Airbnb, with kitchens in each of its suites pre-prepped for fresh-fruitand-muesli breakfast. The Studio Suite, in a carriage house separated from the main building by a sweetly symmetrical French garden, feels like a tech-savvy metrosexual's loft, with leather furnishings, an entertainment system pre-loaded with music and movies, and, in the bathroom, a heated towel rack—which I am overjoyed to discover is a standard feature in the chilly-at-night-North-Island hotels.
Driving into neighboring Martinborough and its clapboard-encircled grassy square is like entering a quaint New England town. The bucolic nature spills over to the characteristics of the wineries, all of which seem to have taken an oath of humility and down-hominess: it's as if each is purposefully trumping the last in shedding any pretense whatsoever, so that we finally found ourselves in an endearingly crabby old gentleman's garage tasting wine sporting labels that looked like they'd been clickwhirred out by a dot-matrix printer.
The No. 3 tenet of understanding Kiwi wine (and, in fact, Kiwi history, topography and architecture, among other things) is you better care about tectonic plates. The country sits at the uneasy juncture of the Pacific and Indo-Australian plates, making earthquakes a way of life. One collision of the two plates millions of years ago gave literal rise to the hills of volcanic and limestone soil that surround Martinborough, and in which the vines of Murdoch James Estate are planted. Here, the geological contrast is obvious: the grapes grow on a relatively arid rise, looming over a dry riverbed valley in which cows graze beneath incongruous weeping willows.
Pinot grapes at Brodie Estate.
The loose soil of this terrace limits how much water reaches the plantings, creating stressed vines—actually a good thing. The vines are forced to focus their energy away from foliage toward smaller, more concentrated berries, making for better wines, particularly Pinot Noirs. It wasn't until the 1970's that meteorologists discerned that Martinborough's climate was similar to Burgundy's—and we all know how good they are at making wine.
A geology lesson, a tasting and a tour of the family-run but, for the Wairarapa, relatively industrial Murdoch James vineyard and winery was followed by lunch in their cozy Bloom restaurant, a splurge on their Blue Rock Pinot Noir 2011, and then a drive—courtesy of our amiable guide Simon of Martinborough Wine Tours—back and forth across the town square to several more vintners.
At Brodie Estate, proprietor James Brodie, a rugged silver fox in his knit cap and holey sweater, looked like he should've been a mid-century French yacht captain. They were pressing Pinot grapes with a hand plunger. We sampled the skin-filled juice, pungent and sweet. We walked away with bottles of Angel's Sigh rosé and 2010 Pinot Noir. Later, in a triumph of taste over packaging, from our last stop, Cabbage Tree, we left with a bottle of 2011 Chardonnay. By day two, I was already beginning to get it.
Fresh-pressed Pinot nectar at Brodie Estate in Martinborough.
After that day's education in terroir, Wharekauhau (place of knowledge) Lodge beckoned for the night. Wharekauhau is pronounced "Forry-ko-ho" and it is a fairytale of a functioning ranch, seaside cottages and a noble manor into which we rolled just in time for complimentary bubbly, whiskey and canapés. In the billiard room, airy country kitchen or great room warmed by a roaring fire (there's one in your cottage, too, along with local-wool carpeting, a bay-view tub and deck, and homemade cookies) compare notes with the other guests about their wine drives, then adjourn for private, candlelit dinners. The onproperty-sourced elements—Palliser Bay alphonsino fish, Angus beef, garden veggies—pair precisely with Martinborough vino. The dry Riesling by Te Kairanga smelled oh-so slightly of beeswax; the Alexander Vineyard Merlot was plummy and earthy.
As helicopter-over-from-Wellington-for-lunch-luxe this hotel is, the property also manages to be true salt of the earth, a working sheep station that stretches 2,000 hectares from the black-sand beach on Cook Strait up through forests filled with eel ponds and pastures grazed by thousands of head of cattle. Polkadotted among them in the paddocks are belly-painted stud rams who leave their telltale color markings on amorous ewes so the ranchers can estimate the arrival dates of spring lambs. Much like the cuttings-tobottling wander through a winery we took, immersion in Wharekauhau really is a farm-to-table experience.
THE INTENSE CONCENTRATION OF
wine producers and cellar doors in Hawke's Bay—the area four hours north of Wairarapa composed of Napier, Hastings, Havelock North and surrounding towns—make it a prime spot for expert-led touring, and the night before our tipsy bike ride with Jenny was a winery-hopping dinner with Gareth. Gareth Kelly's Twilight Odyssey is a relaxed, three-part meal with each wine-soaked course at a different restaurant. An ample assortment of meats and cheeses accompanied a 10-varietal tasting at the buzzy watering hole Vidal, followed by fanciful mains (think: Merino lamb loin and belly with celeriac, plum and gingerbread) and flights at the sweeping nouveaux-barn Terrôir at Craggy Range, with the night properly capped by sweets and savories at Mission Estate. Of all the tasting advice and notes on New Zealand that effusive Gareth offered, none was more useful than the origin story of this place.
Mission Estate, birthplace of New Zealand viticulture.
Like in California and Chile, Catholicism brought wine to New Zealand. It all started in Hawke's Bay, with a group of French Marists who in the mid-1800's began planting vines for sacramental and table wines. Mission Estate, birthplace of Kiwi viticulture, maintains headquarters in a restored clapboard seminary high on a bluff typical of the texture of this area's land. Hawke's Bay is the second largest wine-growing region in the country because the missionaries happened to be stationed on astoundingly diverse and versatile soil, in warm, sunny, grape-friendly environs. Just off the Pacific and threaded by five rivers, Hawke's Bay has sand, silt, clay and gravel—notably the Gimblett Gravels, whose shingle soil is perfect for peppery Shiraz and, to my surprise, the creamy yet delicate Viognier I bought at Trinity Hill.
We had an inkling of the majesty that was in store for us next, so on the approach to the famed Farm at Cape Kidnappers, we stopped at a milk bar for some stay-grounded fish and chips and ate them straight from the newspaper, salty-wind splattering our sunnies on the black pebble beach of Haumoana. It was a highlight. Then, we took a deep breath and headed for the mountaintop.
The "driveway" to The Farm leads you across streams, to cliffs' edges and through the grazing grass of so many sheep you wonder how they keep track of them all. Above the clouds, the lodge, suites and spa take in the expansive eastern view so that sunrise is a true delight. But I'm getting ahead of myself. Because the Ridge Suites, where we stayed, with complimentary mini-bars and excellent audio systems, are cocooning any time of day. And, that night in the restaurant, in front of the fire on the glassed-in lanai, I'm happy to say, I ate one of the top five meals of my life. Silver serving platters and succulent roasted poussin were involved.
Morning light graces the dining room of The Farm at Cape Kidnappers.
Not that the more humble pancakes, berries and crispy bacon for breakfast were anything to shake a stick at. The Farm also has a helipad so, after breakfast, Bay Heliwork picked us up for an eagle-eye survey of the 2,400-hectare property and the ocean, river valleys, hills and dales beyond. I was already awed by the lush golf course, the squawky colony of monogamous gannet seabirds, the clay-shooting range and all that pasture. Then we took a dip over the Pacific and rounded a corner, coming upon a set of overwhelmingly dramatic cliffs, straight out of Lord of the Rings. Towering above the water, the jagged slices of loam look like a giant took a fork and stabbed the earth, pulling chunks away into the sea. In fact, dramatic things did happen on this cape. Kidnappers was named by Captain Cook himself after a comical-in-the-recounting double-kidnapping: Maori spied a Tahitian cabin boy aboard Cook's ship and believed him to be a compatriot being held captive. So the Maori "rescued" the boy. Cook then fired on their canoes, and the boy jumped into the ocean and swam back to the English ship, un-rescuing himself, I suppose.
The history of Hawke's Bay is writ in the water, as well as the wine, but also on the walls. The seaside city of Napier holds one of the largest collections of Art Deco architecture in the world, having been built in a supersonic two-year frenzy following a 7.8 magnitude earthquake in 1931. Yes, like so much else in New Zealand, this place is defined by plate tectonics.
Only a few Victorian houses on Napier's Marine Parade survived the 1931 quake.
We cruised the sunburst-and zigzag-adorned streets in a vintage Packard with its original fittings. At first, it's confusing how downright Miami the whole place feels, from the palm-lined Grand Esplanade to the low-rise Classical-façaded pedestrian boulevards to the pastel Spanish Mission houses on the hill. Then your guide from the Art Deco Trust reminds you that the style symbolized flight, freedom, newness and, with its use of Maori design, appreciation of ancient culture, and you realize this is an extraordinarily fitting theme for the peripatetic citizens of this nation at the end of the Earth, taking liberties to shape old-world grapes to new world new heights.
Actually, maybe I should say "at the beginning of the Earth." Jutting out into the Pacific a three-hour drive northeast of Napier is Gisborne, the first place on the planet to see sunrise. The best spot to catch first rays is supposed to be from the summit of Mt. Hikurangi—a sacred site for Maori, who believe it was the first part of the North Island to emerge when mythological hero Maui pulled it from the ocean—but the rain had returned by the time we got to Gizzy, so we skipped the hike but dutifully drove to the beach at 4:30 a.m. The drive back was, alas, in near-equal darkness.
No amount of cloudbursts, however, could hinder the enthusiasm of our hosts, Kay and Kees Weytmans, whose Knapdale Eco Lodge is a working farm, a sustainable B&B, and an exercise in worldly banter—ask this man about the health of trees in Nepal, and you'll soon find yourself talking South African politics. Kay puts together an impressive and rich dinner spread (feijoa with blue cheese, and venison steaks stand out), while Kees pours loads of wine and is somehow up in time to feed the farm animals before feeding you a full breakfast in the wee hours. Then it's show time. While eating, we watch exuberant Kees bound around the pastures corralling cattle, separating one cow from the herd that was bullying her, calling to deer, and hand-feeding horses.
Surveying Hawke's Bay from the famed Gimblett Gravels.
In this much more rustic area of the country, we sample all manner of apple alcohol at The Cidery and then head for happy hour at local dive Smash Palace. Judging by the number of people here at 4 p.m. on a weekday, this place must be a serious party on a Friday night. And why not? It's the coolest junkyard ever, in which planes, bikes and automobiles take flight, psychedelic murals and musical instruments are stapled to the walls, and more than a dozen beers flow from the taps.
But this is still wine country, and here in wet and wild Gisborne, silt and clay loams nurture citrusy Chardies. It took a fair amount of persuasion to swindle one of his last bottles of crisp, pineapply 2011 Unoaked Chardonnay from Bushmere Estate owner David Egan. As it turned out, that was the last bottle of wine we bought in New Zealand. It's still in my fridge, waiting for the perfect occasion. The Sauvignon Blancs I lugged home? Long-ago drunk. Okay, Chardonnay, consider me wooed and won.
Fly direct into Auckland from Bangkok via Thai Airways, from Hong Kong via Air New Zealand and Cathay Pacific, from Kuala Lumpur via Malaysia Airlines, and from Singapore via Singapore Airlines. Air New Zealand flies from Auckland to Wellington, Hawke's Bay and Gisborne. Visit newzealand.com for airline and travel information.
Briarwood 21 Main St., Greytown; +64 6 304 8336; briarwoodgreytown.co.nz.
Wharekauhau Country Estate Western Lake Road, Palliser Bay, RD3, Featherston; +64 6 307 7581.
Black Barn Retreats Black Barn Road, RD12, Havelock North; +64 6 877 7985; blackbarn.com.
The Farm at Cape Kidnappers 446 Clifton Rd., Te Awanga; +64 6 875 1900; capekidnappers.com.
Knapdale Eco Lodge 114 Snowsill Rd., Waihirere, Gisborne; +64 6 862 5444; knapdale.co.nz.
SEE + DO
Martinborough Wine Tours Martinborough; +64 6 301 8032; martinboroughwinetours.co.nz; six-hour Martinborough in a Day tour from NZ$475 for two people, including chauffeured visits to several local wineries and to Olivo Grove olive oil farm, all wine tasting fees and lunch.
Odyssey New Zealand Hawke's Bay; +64 6 211 3116; odysseynz.co.nz; A Twilight Odyssey NZ$199 per person, including wine tastings, three-course progressive dinner with paired wines at three different restaurants, guide and transfers.
Takaro Trails Hawke's Bay; +64 6 835 9030; takarotrails.co.nz; Takaro Tasters Winery Cycle private tours from NZ$250 per adult for two, including bike rental, guide and transfers.
Bay Heliwork Hawke's Bay; +64 6 879 9705; helicopterrides.co.nz; flights from NZ$90.
Art Deco Trust 7 Tennyson St., Napier; +64 6 835 0022; artdeconapier.com; Vintage Car Tour NZ$160 for up to four people.
Gisborne Cycle Tour Company +64 6 927 7021; gisbornecycletours.co.nz; Guided Gourmet Vineyard Tour NZ$200 per person for two, including bike rental, all wine tasting fees, picnic or vineyard lunch, guide and transfers.
The Cidery 91 Customhouse St., Gisborne; +64 6 868 8300.
Touring Art Deco Napier in a vintage Packard, with a vintage guide.
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