Tuesday, April 3, 2007

Hawke's Bay: Six Wineries and 44 Wines in 24 Hours

About a year ago, my friend Joe hosted a fun wine tasting night with some friends. We were to each bring a bottle of a wine from Oceania (Australia or New Zealand). Then we covered up the labels, tasted, took notes, and drank lots of wine. Everybody knows that NZ is known for its Sauvignon Blancs, and Aussie's make lots of Shiraz, so Tyler and I tried to find something more unique, to stump our friends at the tasting. However, when we stopped by the wine store, there were probably only about a half dozen options that were not Sauvignons. (I think we might have ended up with an OK Pinot Noir.)

Fast forward to our time in New Zealand, and we're learning that there is a lot more to experience. The North Island is known for reds and Chardonnays, and the South Island is famed for their Sauvignon Blancs. We've already talked about our Waiheke Island tasting experiences, here's a quick rundown of our time in Hawke's Bay (Napier and Hastings).

Hawke's Bay Vines, with grapes ripe for picking

We arrived early afternoon in Napier, and after settling on where to stay, we decided to fit in quick visits to the two wineries closest to town: Church Road and Mission Estate. I have to admit, I was feeling slightly snobbish about them, thinking that wineries so set up for tourists just couldn't be as good as boutique wineries in farther off reaches. Luckily, I was wrong. At both wineries, we tasted lovely wine and had great experiences with the staff doing the pourings. And it turned out that neither wineries were newcomers trying to cash in on the tourist market. Church Road had been around since 1897, Mission Estate since 1851 or so.

The second day, we packed up and got ready for a night at the nearby, more agricultural town of Hastings, where there are loads of wineries. It's also known for the "Gimblett Gravels," soil which makes for French-like growing conditions and well-draining ground. And the wines lived up to their reputation. We visited four wineries, Trinity Hill, Te Awa (where we also had a fantastic lunch), Matariki, and Vidal. Again, all quite good and all offering free tastings. We were finding, though, that complimentary tastings often leave us making purchases, negating the savings on the tasting itself.

In general, we have found that there is a strong French influence on the wines of New Zealand. They're not afraid of blends (Bordeaux and Rhone style have shown up frequently), and the style isn't the big, bold, juicy "Parker-ized" feel you tend to get from many Australian and even American wines. The Syrahs have a good spiciness and pepperiness to them. The Sauvignon Blancs are more minerally and try to differentiate themselves from the citrusy and grassy flavors that come out of Marlborough. There were even surprising varietals being grown, like Montepulciano and Sangiovese. And interesting winemaking approaches, including unoaked Chardonnay AND an unoaked Cabernet Sauvignon (very interesting, more vegetal, with flavors of tomato and green peppers). One winery had a Chardonnay made from "free flow" juice, which is the juice that naturally accumulates from the harvesting process, involving no formal crushing or pressing. There have also been some good dessert/late harvest/ice wines. At Mission Estate, they had an ice wine made from juice that was frozen after being pressed. Unorthodox, but the girl at the counter was right in saying that it tasted like liquid fruit salad. At Vidal Winery, they had a "Noble Semillon," for which they let the grapes stay on the vine until they get the noble rot, famed from the Chateau d'Yquem wine in France.

I first experienced wine tasting of this fashion visiting my brother in the Bay Area. For his birthday and my visit, we made a day trip to Napa and tasted some wines. I found that by tasting a number of wines in one go, you could start to really identify characteristics of the grapes and differences in winemaking. Really start to identify what I liked and didn't like about wines or styles. And it's really fun now that we're involved in some garagiste winemaking of our own in Washington. Tyler and I bought into a third a barrel of some Cabernet Sauvignon with family friends, and we've gotten to be involved in all stages--crushing, pressing and barrelling. Now I can nod somewhat knowingly when someone talks about brix or malolactic fermentation. (Thanks, Gary!)

All in all, we made it home with five bottles, one from each winery we visted. We tried to pick things that were unique to the winery or that we wouldn't be able to get elsewhere (even in NZ). (We took a picture of the bottles, along with our trusty Swiss Army knife opener and classy tin camping mugs for drinking pleasure, but I'm posting this from a small, rural library that doesn't have a USB port. I'll try to add when we get to Wellington.)

Here's what we got:

Church Road Viognier--very lovely honey and fragrant notes without being overpowering. Wish we could buy two and cellar one.

Mission Estate Cabernet Sauvignon--the unoaked wine that was too interesting to pass up. Should be great with pizza or simple pastas that we are eating on the road.

Trinity Hill Montepulciano--good and easy drinker, and just a surprising find in NZ. (It's really a shame we can't send a case..or two..back with wines to keep. Need things we can drink in the next couple weeks.)

Te Awa--didn't buy anything, but they had a fantastic unoaked Chardonnay we drank with lunch. Fruity and yummy.

Matariki--we weren't as crazy about their wines in general (in their defense, they were our third winery), but we picked up the Sangiovese for about the same reasons as the Trinity Hill Montepulciano.

Vidal--we weren't going to buy anything here. (Don't worry, by now we had parked The Enterprise and walked to this winery.) But it was a lovely late summer evening, and we decided a nice cool white would be nice by our campsite. So we picked up an an unoaked Chardonnay, which they called "unwooded." Funnily enough, with their accents, at first we thought we were tasting "un-watered" wine. Fortunately, all was cleared up when we saw the label.

Now we're in Martinborough, on our way to Wellington and the South Island. It's still wine country, known for Pinot Noirs, so I'll have more info for any other wine enthusiasts out there! (Eventually we'll give our livers a break when we head to Abel Tasman National Park!)

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