“In the early eighties,” said Brendan McDonald, our guide to the Hawke’s Bay region and a native son of the Napier area, “there were about eight wineries.” The local wine industry was a new phenomenon and McDonald said that most people thought it would be a passing fad.
“I remember my father telling friends,” he said, “that the soil was so poor where they were planting grapes, nothing could possibly come of it. It wasn’t his best prediction.”
Hawke’s Bay is now one of the most productive wine growing regions in New Zealand.
We got to see it first hand with Odyssey New Zealand Wine Tours.
What makes Hawke’s Bay a great place to grow wine grapes?
An important component in the equation is (not surprisingly) the weather, which is markedly drier than other parts of NZ. It’s also one of the warmer parts of the country and is blessed with a variety of different soils which enables the production of many varieties of grapes.
McDonald says that the growing conditions in the region are like France’s Bordeaux and Rhone regions. This translates as a 50/50 split between red and white wines. However, he says if you were to narrow down what the premier wines produced in the area are, Chardonnay would be ranked very high.
Tastes have evolved in the Chardonnay space. Unlike the old days when Chardonnay was often too “oaky” McDonald says that the better ones are balanced, so they don’t overwhelm you.
In the red wine department McDonald reckons that Merlot is the one varietal that Hawke’s Bay’s reputation is built on. In the future he believes Syrah will be the future star of the region.
Hawke’s Bay is also renown for wine produced in a sub-region called Gimblett Gravels, formerly a river bed with little topsoil. The area is hot and dry and when it does rain, the water drains quite rapidly. Once considered the worst soil in Hawke’s Bay, it’s now a stellar spot for grapes and acreage costs a small fortune.
What local growers have learned is that the best soil for growing good grapes isn’t necessarily the richest soil and Gimblett Gravels (see map above) is illustrative of this.
Our tour made the rounds to four wineries—Moana Park, a boutique outfit with limited production; Te Awa, which exports its products; Ngatarawa (formerly one of the largest family owned wineries in NZ) and Oak Estate, another boutique winery.
At Oak Estate we wrapped up the tour with an excellent platter that included pate, rillettes (a sort of fish spread), smoked chicken, dried apricots, nuts, marmalade, cheese, olives and sauerkraut.
It was a first class offering that capped off the day perfectly.
In every winery we visited we sampled four to six varieties and got a discourse on the nuances of each. These included Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris, Syrah (Shiraz in Australia), Merlot, Riesling, Viognier, Sangiovese and several Spanish varietals.
We liked much of what we sampled. In general, but not always, we preferred the whites.
Moana Park: Merlot Rosé and Pinot Noir were the best.
Te Awa: Albariño, a Spanish varietal (used to produce Vino Verde in Portugal) and a vintage called “Left Field Rosé” stood out. We also tried a Te Awa’s Syrah on our own and it turned out to be the best red we had on our trip.
Ngatarawa: Pinot Gris and Very Old Saddlers a port-like dessert wine were wonderful.
Oak Estate: Pinot Gris, Chardonnay and Merlot were memorable.
What we liked about this tour: You are not put into a position to drink and drive. (New Zealand is very strict about DUI). Brendan, or one of his colleagues, will pick you up at your hotel or Airbnb in a van and whisk you away. At the end of the day, no matter what condition you are in, you are deposited at your accommodation.
No muss, no fuss.
Thanks to the efforts of Brendan, we were able to cover a large swath of territory in every sense of the word. We saw both boutique wineries (that don’t export outside of the country) and larger operations that do. We enjoyed a cross-section of wines and were able to educate our palates.
With Brendan at the wheel we got the kind of local insights that would otherwise be impossible.
At first blush his appearance seemed incongruous with what you might think someone who leads wine tours should look like. At well over 6’ and north of 250 pounds, he looked every inch the rugby player (that he formerly was).
However, you would be wrong in assuming that someone akin to Duane “The Rock” Johnson would not be conversant with the wine space. Affable and charming, he had an encyclopedic knowledge of the region.
For those who might be insecure about wine tasting he offered a primer on the basics such how to hold your glass and what to look for (color, viscosity, smell, etc).
He also reiterated one of the noble truths of wine tasting that everyone needs to hear: Don’t be concerned about what the experts think.
Your own opinion of the wine is what’s most important.
The tour we took is called the “Wine & Gourmet Odyssey” which goes for NZ$149 per person. There are others available from Odyssey Tours NZ.
It’s money well spent.
(Top photo of Paritua Vineyards is courtesy of Wine NZ).