When it comes to wine from New Zealand, most people think of only one varietal, and its corresponding wine region. That’s Sauvignon Blanc from the Marlborough district at the north end of the South Island, of course, which is justifiably renowned, it is true. But there’s much more to that island nation’s vast world of wine than that uniquely crisp and grassy quaff, a fact that is proven every November at the annual Air New Zealand Wine Awards. In 2008, the awards attracted over 1700 entries from New Zealand’s ten winegrowing regions, with the big winners coming not from the Marlborough, but from the Hawke’s Bay.
That stunningly beautiful area, situated on the North Island’s west coast and a six-hour drive from Auckland, is an ideal spot to begin a vacation trip learning about New Zealand’s other fine wines. Start with staying a night or two at the luxurious Langham Hotel in the heart of Auckland, making sure to stay in one of their Club rooms or suites. That gives you access to their fabulous Langham Club, where a lavish breakfast, evening cocktails, and conviviality await. The hotel’s Chuan Spa is a perfect place to work out the kinks from the long Air New Zealand flight from LAX.
Once you’ve had a massage, and checked out the city’s beautiful harbor and perhaps some of the boutiques around High Street, head out and take a quick, one-hour puddle jump flight from Auckland to Napier (again on Air New Zealand), hop into a rental car (remember to “THINK LEFT”), and make your way to one of the region’s fabulous lodges, where luxury accommodations and fine dining await.
Try staying a few nights at the Farm at Cape Kidnappers, the stunning, award-winning resort perched on the cliffs that offers incredible vistas of the bay (shown in the first photo above), a world-class golf course, truly fine dining, a full-service spa, and your own little beautifully appointed cottage. The Farm is out a ways from the Hawke’s Bay central wine district, but definitely worth the trip.
Stay a few days out there at the beautiful Relais & Chateaux property, where you can wander out on the cliffs on a soul-cleansing stroll, book a horseback ride across the hills, or get a lift out to the outskirts of the farm where Gannets perch and squawk. It’s the largest mainland colony of those distinctive members of the Booby family, and really a surreal look at more birds than you have probably ever seen in one place before. The Farm at Cape Kidnappers can arrange a personal guided tour of the Hawke’s Bay wine country, too, if having an expert (and a driver so you don’t have to spit) is to your liking.
Or simply spend a few days out at Cape Kidnappers, then head back into the heart of the wine country and check into Greenhill Lodge, the venerable and stunning Hawke’s Bay mansion that has been transformed into a charming and luxurious lodge near Hastings. The current owners, Neil Barber and Craig Hay will treat you like one of the family, feed you in a grand style, and give you a personalized wine education by the knowledgeable experts, who are on hand to offer special tastings before dinner or to guide you on a full-day tour of the region.
From either of those truly beautiful accommodations, however, you can easily forge your own trail to some of the most acclaimed wineries in New Zealand, including the 2008 and 2007 NZ Wine Awards Top Champion winners.
Church Road Reserve Syrah 2007 took the 2008 prize, while Trinity Hill Homage Syrah 2006 scored the 2007 honor. Both of those are shining examples of the famed Gimblett Gravels area of Hawke’s Bay, where astonishingly wonderful reds, including Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Tempranillo, and Pinot Noir, as well as delicious white varietals like Chardonnay and Viognier are being produced. A visit to Trinity Hill’s pleasant tasting room yields a wide range of wines; make sure to try their 2007 Gimblett Gravels Arneis, a soft, drinkable white with notes of pear and the 2004 Wairarapa Riesling, a smoky, citrus-infused wine.
Nearby is Craggy Range Winery, another of the Hawke’s Bay’s finest producers, which offers up some of the region’s top wines in a splendid setting. Try their legendary “Le Sol,” an amazing Gimblett Gravels Shiraz, while gazing out at the craggy mountain range close by. The 2006 is peppery, earthy, and floral, believe it or not, and drinks more like a Pinot Noir than a big, bruising Shiraz. In fact, all of the Craggy Range Shiraz offerings – the 2005 “Sophia” and “Te Kahu” in particular – are balanced, fruit-forward wines, with notes of plum and other red stone fruits that burst onto the palate, never knocking you over like some too-big Shirazes are known to do.
Have a quick lunch at Craggy Range, or head on to Sileni Estates, where they will really put on a gorgeous spread for you, pairing lovely cheeses, meats, and other treats with their vast range of wines, including the top-notch “The Triangle” 2006 Merlot and “The Plateau” 2007, a black-cherry-popping Pinot Noir that pairs perfectly with their luncheon offerings.
On a smaller scale in the Hawke’s Bay is Alpha Domus, the family-run winery whose red blends have been turning heads both at home and abroad. Their 2002 “The Aviator” is a Bordeaux blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, and Malbec, a big, still-tannic blend with red berry flavors melded with chocolate and spice, a wine to savor with a rare filet mignon. And don’t miss a trip to Te Awa, where some luscious local Chardonnays await; try the Windmill 2006 in particular, an oaky, yummy wine with flavors of pear and apricot.
No tasting trip to the Hawke’s Bay would be complete without a stop at Te Mata, arguably one of the oldest wineries in the country, with vineyards planted in 1892. Today, Te Mata’s best wines still come from those same vines. Try the famed Coleraine if you can, a dense, dark Cabernet blend that quickly sells out every year, or the Awatea, another of their highly respected red blends. Both often evoke delicious flavors of black cherry and chocolate, regardless of the vintage.
Another lesser-known but widely respected New Zealand wine region is the Waipara Valley, situated about 45 minutes north of Christchurch on the South Island. With a landscape of gravelly flats and limestone hillsides, this is the country’s newest and fastest growing wine region, already gaining fame for its flinty Rieslings, supple Pinot Noirs, and luscious Chardonnays.
Follow your own wine trail to this region, and you will not be disappointed, especially if you make the Otahuna Lodge your home base. The largest private historic residence in New Zealand, the lodge is owned by Hall Cannon and Miles Refo, two American ex-pats with a love for top-notch food and wine, which they offer every evening to lucky guests. The suites here are amazing, as are the gardens; save a little time for a long walk before setting out to the Waipara.
The valley is easy to find, a straight shot up Highway 1, but if the idea of finding a local expert to lead the way appeals, Mavis Airey is the area’s go-to guide. She’ll make all the arrangements, pick you up, and introduce you to some of the region’s best winemakers with her “Taste of Canterbury” tours, including Daniel Schuster of Daniel Schuster Wines. He’s one of the pioneer winemakers of the area, whose award-winning 2006 Omihi Selection Pinot Noir is a complex, spicy wine with bold flavors of cherry and red berries, an impressive example of what the Waipara has to offer. Try his 2006 Waipara Riesling, a crisp, wonderfully acidic wine with a white peach taste. It’s grand.
The Waipara’s Pegasus Bay is also producing some excellent white wines. Stop in for a try of their 2006 Chardonnay, a big, oaky, citrus-infused wine in the Montrachet style, and check out their 2006 Riesling, dry, smooth, and so drinkable you’ll order a case to ship home. A particular favorite in the region is The Mud House, a funny name but a terrific wine producer. Famous for their Waipara Hills Pinot Gris, a complex and aromatic wine with pear-apple notes, the Mud House is also a convivial place to have lunch while visiting the area.
Nearby, Muddy Water Wines produces a collection of handcrafted wines with across-the-board excellent results. Their Pinotage is a big red wine with plenty of body and tannin, while their “Slowhand” Pinot Noir is more delicate, yet lush and full of red fruit flavors. And their Rieslings are, like most of the other producers in this fine region, are some of the best in the world, with the dry, balanced, and flavorful (never too cloyingly sweet) characteristics of the area.
So while going with that tried-and-true Kim Crawford Sauvignon Blanc from Marlborough is certainly still a fine option (as is a holiday visit to that beautiful New Zealand wine region), perhaps it is time to move on, to taste (and visit) all the other fabulous wines and wine regions that New Zealand has to offer?
All photos by Jenny Peters.