Always keen to experience wines and vineyards in other regions Wendy and I headed to the Hawke’s Bay for an afternoon wine tour with Bay Tours.
Tony from Bay Tours welcomed us and gave us a quick outline of the afternoon’s itinerary. As we travelled in our comfortable air-conditioned minivan he gave us an outline of Napier’s recent history. Whilst we were aware of the earthquake in the ‘30s and the subsequent rebuilding of the city we had no idea of the extent of land uplift caused by the quake. The original Napier was built on a hill and to the north were large tidal lagoons, where many boats were moored. The whole of this area was raised almost two metres by the quake, boats were left permanently high and dry and the lagoons became swamp land which has been reclaimed, developed for agriculture and the current Napier airport. More recently wetland areas have been developed for wildlife and recreation.
First stop on the tour was Mission Estate, an appropriate starting point as it was the first winery in Hawke’s Bay – developed by the Marist brothers and still owned by the Church. The Estate was founded in 1851 with the stunning two storey wooden building built on a different site. After flooding, the building was cut into 11 pieces, carted to the current elevated spot by traction engines in 1910 and put back together. Sounds crazy and indeed I would guess most thought it was crazy but photographic evidence for this amazing feat is displayed in the tasting room.
The tasting room is wood panelled and we were offered a range of – mainly reds – to taste. Rather bizarrely the first wine on the tasting list was a Marlborough pinot gris. Very pleasant, but I am pretty familiar with Marlborough pinot gris so was keen to move on to local wines. A couple of chardonnays followed, then merlot, cabernet sauvignon and a desert gewurztraminer. If you do head out to Mission estate, make sure you schedule a bit of time to wander around both the building and the grounds and admire its view over Napier, the reclaimed land and some of the vineyards. Tremendous.
Tony showed us where the Mission concerts used to be held (I say ‘used to’ as the tradition is in limbo at the moment) then we drove through the area known as the Gimblett Gravels towards our second stop of the day – Moana Park
This area has so many similarities to Marlborough. Stony soils that before the vines were pretty much worthless, plenty of sunshine hours, similar winter climates, frost protection, even earthquakes. The big difference in terms of the influence on winemaking is the overnight temperature over the summer. Here temperatures hold up overnight and that means it is much more suitable for bigger reds – cabernet sauvignon, merlot and malbec. It is also considered pretty near perfect for chardonnay, although Marlborough folk might dispute that – we make some excellent chardonnays too.
Anyway back to Moana Park where Amber gave us an excellent tasting of a range of wines all with very low sulphur content and therefore ‘low allergen’. We started off with a Hawkes Bay sauvignon blanc – much softer, less fruity and definitely less acidic than the Marlborough styles. Pleasant but we are Marlborough folk and it seemed a little too soft for our tastes. Next on the list was a viognier, a wine that is now gaining ground in the Bay and also in Marlborough. This one is a beauty – delicate honeysuckle nose, apricot and spice on the palate with great mouth feel. We tasted both chardonnays – excellent, but only if you like chardonnay. Wendy is always being told she will like this chardonnay and keeps trying them but has so far not found one to her liking. Two reds were next – a merlot malbec and a syrah. Both great but I would say they were a bit young yet with rather grippy tannins. To finish I tasted the dessert pinot gris. Bring on the creme brulee, this would have been a delightful match.
Our final stop for the day was Salvare where the winemaker, Elise, directed us to a table out in the sunshine and shared the wines over an excellent platter. This was such a relaxed tasting. We shared with Tony the stories of Marlborough and Hawkes Bay wines, history and landscapes. Again chardonnays featured heavily in the whites (sorry Wendy). A merlot, syrah and Salvation Red (a bordeaux blend) made up the reds. The reds here were considerably older, therefore softer on the palate and more approachable. The dukkah, relish and (Elise’s own creation) dukkah buttah were also splendid. As the winter sun warmed our backs we enjoyed meeting the winemaker and benefitting from her knowledge and expertise.
Tony then returned us to our accommodation via the old port and the city centre, again with excellent commentary on the history of the area.
Not too much to do that evening apart from relaxing with a glass of Hawkes Bay wine, although I have to be honest, we are Marlborough girls at heart and we remain loyal to Marlborough pinot noir and sauvignon blanc.