Foodstyle Review Magazine

Hawke’s Bay winery tour 

In favour of red blends

Foodstyle’s guide to the wineries of Hawke’s Bay isn’t comprehensive - we just want to tell you what wineries we really enjoyed on a three-day tour over the Autumn. By Alan Titchall.

The opportunity to sample wines before buying is far better than relying on wine reviews. Tasting is even more important when buying New Zealand’s best stuff, because price is not always an indicator of either quality, or your own tastes. In this country a poor vintage made from under-ripe grapes can retail for the same price as a good one.

You are also allowed not to like wines, especially wine varietals. My partner and I disagree over chardonnay styles, but we are both ambivalent about Kiwi sauvignon blanc – it can be too viticultural and unsubtle. Likewise Kiwi pinot noir – a lot of it is simply too ‘thin’.

Besides the tasting and the opportunity to hand-pick some longevity wines for the cellar, Hawke’s Bay wineries arguably offer the best ‘winery tourism’ in the country. Some of these estates as a good as you will find anywhere in the wine-making world.

The wines
Generally, this region, with its 72 wineries, features the country’s largest planting of full-bodied red wine grape varietals. It has a great climate for big reds and produces very complex chardonnays. When the weather Gods are in a good mood during spring (flowering) and autumn (picking), the vintages can be exceptional, as they were in 2012, 2013 and 2014.

Overall, New Zealand’s climate produces very ‘precise’ grape varietals. Many of the single varietal reds produced in the Hawke’s Bay are very ‘intense’. The syrah, for instance, has a big concentration of ‘white pepper’ flavour. Personally I prefer, and adore, the red blends from this region. They are exceptional, and cellar well.

Now I have declared my wine prejudices I am going to just concentrate on the wineries, as they all present a completely different visitor experience. 

Bunking down
Let’s get the accommodation out of the way because we found this the most challenging part of planning our tour. The options online are huge – and they vary in both cost and style, from B&BS, winery cottages, hotels and motels, and lodges. New Zealand’s definition of a lodge and the general ‘star’ rating for any accommodation, by the way, is all over the place, so research carefully.

Rural/countryside accommodation offerings are plentiful, but we decided to bunk down in Napier city on the reasoning that our winery excursions would be during daylight hours and food and beverage options in Napier city at night would be more plentiful. Plus we could drink and walk, or cab, the city being so small.

If staying on Marine Parade be wary of the noise generated by trucks thundering along to the port – if you want a room with ocean views check out the ‘double glazing’. The Masonic Hotel and the Country Hotel are also pretty cool and we ended up socialising a lot there in the evenings.

Planning winery visits
Start with a good tourist wine map of the region. Study that map. You need at least two days to make a dent in the local winery offerings. Distances between wineries may not be huge, but there’s a lot on offering, and they are bunched into distinct districts. Work out a circuit through these different wine districts and allow time to enjoy the larger winery venues as they are very impressive.

Our selection certainly doesn’t cover any where the number and variety of wineries open to the public in this region, so it is subjective. We used the ubiquitous, but comprehensive, Hawke’s Bay Winegrowers Inc map available everywhere, and covering venues from Napier north to the southern coastal region of Te Awanga – with Taradale; Hastings central; Hastings west; and Havelock North in between.

We started at Te Awanga, the most southern coastal area south of Napier and Hastings, and worked our way back north west through to Havelock North, Hastings, Taradale and through to the north of Napier city.

Te Awanga is a dead-end beach area featuring two of the most recognised wineries in the country. Both of these neighbouring venues on Clifton Road could not be more different – Elephant Hill and Clearview Estate.

The serving staff at Elephant Hill must get sick of explaining the winery’s name and life-size bronze elephant statute at its entrance. This flat coastal area, obviously, is devoid of both hills and any type of Pachyderm. Apparently the German owners, who spent time in South East Asia, have a passion for elephants. The red blends are very good.

Clearview Estate Winery & Restaurant, a little further down Clifton Road, couldn’t be more different and it’s easy to miss its modest entrance.

This winery was set up in 1989 with a rustic ‘red shed’, and the woody architecture certainly looks ‘historic’ these days. Not sure if the little signs telling one how to park and what not to pick were charming or irritating? The Cape Kidnappers Merlot Malbec (yes, another blend) is a cracker.

Vidal Estate Keltern vineyard.

As you move inland and cross the Tukituki River, make a beeline to Craggy Range Vineyard. This is a Napa Valley, Northern Californian, scale winery that is a star in terms of wine cuisine tourism in Hawke’s Bay. The setting, looking back on the Escarpments separating the coastal plains from the interior heights is breathtaking. The wines are good, the food is good, and the service, we found on the day, was good. It is a must visit – just look at the photos. Two other vineyards in this area as you drive closer to Havelock North village are Te Mata Estate and Black Barn Vineyards & Bistro. Both must visits.

Stop in Havelock North village. It has a charm (or should that be affluence?) not often found in the North Island’s townships.

Heading North West from Havelock North through Hastings central is one of the region’s oldest wineries – Vidals (set up in 1905 and with an eatery still operating with the country’s first winery restaurant licence granted in 1979). Winemaker Gordon Russell loves his chardonnays and if you find his Gimblett Gravels, Hawke's Bay Cab Sauv/Merlot 2009 (legacy series), grab it.

West of Hastings is a winery region worth putting a whole day aside for, as it features some of country’s most venerable wine producers. The first, coming up from the South, is the huge Sileni Estates – another ‘corporate’, Napa-scale winery, with a grand entrance and good merchandise, including local foods. Another two I wouldn’t miss is Ngatarawa with its old beautiful converted stables (pictured) and wines with Corban and Glazebook family connections.

Te Awa Winery (as with Vidals, under the Villa Maria corporate umbrella) has a popular local restaurant run by chef Stephen Tindall who was profiled in the Foodstyle Autumn 2014 issue. This wine district also features Trinity Hill, Stonecroft and Pask Winery.

Just before driving back into Napier there is the region of Taradale on the city’s western side, with a nest of venerable wineries, which include Church Road, Brookfields and, not to be missed, Mission Estate Winery. On its elevated site, the old Mission is popular lunch venue and interesting visitor centre (pictured).

Lastly, north of Napier City, on your way to Taupo or Gisborne, is Esk Valley winery. This is another charming, old world winery on an elevated spot above the road. It was started in 1933 and its wine maker Steve Sykes has worked there for over 20 years. Suffice to add – check out the red blends!

Ngatarawa winery with its old beautiful converted stables and wines with Corban and Glazebook family connections.

Autumn 2015 

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Craggy Range.

Elephant Hill at Te Awanga, the most southern coastal area south of Napier and Hastings.

Cuisine with a view of the Escarpments at Craggy Range Winery.

Entrance to Selini winery West of Hastings.

Mission Estate Winery at Taradale – wine tourism at its best.