Upon our arrival in Napier, and before reaching our lodging, we stopped at Esk Valley Estate to enjoy the view of the bay and our first official taste of Hawke’s Bay wine. Both were very nice!
Although our stay in Napier was planned to coincide with the annual Art Deco Weekend with its classic cars, period costumes and architectural tours, I confess I was far more interested in exploring the wineries in the area.
A little history
With a climate similar to that of Bordeaux, French missionaries planted the region’s first vines in 1851 with the intent of producing sacramental and table wine. Fortunately, the local landowners followed suit, and by the early 1900s Hawke’s Bay was the country’s leading wine region.
Blessed with plentiful sunshine and near-perfect growing conditions, Hawke’s Bay’s wine region produces many grape varieties. While the white variety of chardonnay is the most planted grape, and its ensuing wines are among the best in the country, Hawke’s Bay is also well-respected for its reds.
In fact, according to Hawke’s Bay Winegrowers Inc.‘s brochure, “Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Malbec are the central red wine varieties that produce Hawke’s Bay’s finest blends in a synergy of art, science, sunshine and craftsmanship.”
Knowing that joining a wine tour would be the best and most enjoyable way to learn about the local wines, my first stop was the information center in Napier where I booked one of the last spots in a six-person, four-hour excursion with Vince’s World of Wine, “Hawke’s Bay’s Original Wine Tour Guide.”
It was a lot of fun!
Robert Simon was our delightful tour guide. (He and his wife also own Mission B&B on the Avenue. Based on Robert’s genuine warmth and interest in others, I’m sure the B&B is a wonderful place to stay!)
We visited four wineries, as well as touring the Hawke’s Bay wine region and, in particular, the Bridge Pa Triangle and a winery on the outskirts of Gimblett Gravels.
Here’s a quick review of the wineries:
1. Moana Park.
According to their brochure, Moana Park is known for “Creating low allergen wines by starting with exceptional fruit quality, limited additives, vegetarian approved, following sustainable practices, zero spray residue resulting in hand-crafted multi-award winning wines that are friendlier on both the body and the mind.”
I confess that I did not realize wine was processed with animal products. I have since learned that egg white, gelatin or milk casing are often used in the “fining” process which removes the components that leave the wine astringent. An alternative non-animal product used in the fining process is bentonite, a type of clay. [Many thanks to the winemaker at Miraflores Winery in Placerville, California, for enlightening me.]
Moana Park is a family-owned winery which has been in the wine-making business for ten years and, according to my notes, is preparing to expand very soon. Unfortunately, Moana Park wines are only available in New Zealand.
Of the many wines we tried, my favorite were the 2011 Viognier Reserve and the 2011 Botrytis Chardonnay dessert wine. Both were a huge surprise to my palate, as I generally do not care for sweet wine. These were delicious!
2. Crossroads Wines.
This was a very brief stop, as a large tasting tour was expected immediately following our visit. Of the four wines we tasted, I enjoyed the Sauvignon Blanc.
When I asked our pourer, Carol, to identify the grapes growing in the vineyard adjacent to the tasting room, her only comment was that they were “a secret varietal for a flagship wine.”
3. Ash Ridge Wines.
Located on the outskirts of Gimblett Gravels, Ash Ridge is another family-owned winery and one of the newest in the area. Phil, one of the owners/brothers, was our host and was very knowledgeable – not to mention good-looking!
Of the six wines we tried, I most enjoyed the classic Bordeaux blend of Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and a little bit of Malbec.
Olives are also grown on the property, and we were told that olive oil from the Hawke’s Bay region is incredibly good.
4. Ngatarawa. Our final stop was Ngatarawa, which means “between the ridges” (a reference to the nearby topography). Housed in the historic Ngatarawa racing stables, cousins Alwyn and Brian Corban continue their family’s 100-year winemaking heritage.
Karen poured a range of wines, from Viognier to a Merlot-Cabernet Sauvignon blend. I enjoyed the Sauvignon Blanc and the Syrah, as well as the friendly greeting of their most laid-back staff member, Ra.
Even more so, I enjoyed hearing the love story of our tour guide, Robert, who met the love of his life in his later years and would be celebrating three years of marriage in May. (I am a Wedding Officiant. When I am not traveling I perform wedding ceremonies and I just love to hear other people’s love stories!)
A few other wine tidbits I gathered during the tour:
- New Zealand produces 2% of the world’s wine.
- Napier has the highest number of sunny days in New Zealand. The winery area is usually 10 degrees warmer than the coastline.
- While 20 years ago there were only 19 wineries in the province of Hawke’s Bay, today there are 90 wineries.
- Thirty different wineries grow their grapes at Gimblett Gravels, a former riverbed that’s very hot, flat and dry, with a low water table and great drainage.
- Hawke’s Bay is the warmest and oldest wine region in New Zealand. In fact, it’s too warm to successfully grow Pinot Noir grapes.
- According to Robert the past year (2012) was very dry, so the wines should be very good.
Each of the wineries that we visited were wheelchair accessible. I am sure Carrieanna, who uses a foldable wheelchair and can transport herself from chair to vehicle, could enjoy this tour.
However, when I specifically asked Vince (of Vince’s World of Wine) about accessibility he replied, ” Unfortunately neither of our vans are set up for wheelchair tourists. I am mindful of this but at the present time we are unable to offer this option.”