Monday, February 18, 2008

New Zealand: Napier & Hawke's Bay

I’ve been completely addicted to New Zealand’s crisp Sauvignon Blancs, especially during the warmer weather months. So when I discovered that my husband and I would be traveling to New Zealand on our honeymoon I was ecstatic. Fresh, herbaceous white wines at an affordable price? A chance to tour the vineyards I’d read so much about? Nirvana. And then my heart sank when I realized we wouldn’t be stopping on the South Island at all, which is home to Marlborough, the country’s most famous regional producer of Sauvignon Blanc. Merde.

Yet all was not lost, as serendipitously, this is how I came to discover Hawke’s Bay, one of the most exciting wine producing regions on New Zealand’s North Island. Located just outside the gorgeous coastal city of Napier, Hawke’s Bay boasts over thirty wineries and offers up miles of bucolic countryside in which to sip and savor some of the country’s best vino. As an added attraction, this region is incredibly accessible to aspiring oenophiles in both price range and attitude. The lack of pretension among friendly vineyard staff and a favorable exchange rate makes purchasing wine here a pleasure, and is happily unintimidating even to beginners. One important fact to know before you go: they don’t exactly skimp on the “tastes.” In fact, they’re more like giant half glasses of wine. So if you insist on pedaling a bicycle (driving a car is completely out of the question) consider yourself forewarned, invest in a helmet and make use of the free crackers. We hired a professional to introduce us to the wines, culture and landmarks of Hawke’s Bay. Our five vineyard adventure included Matariki, Hatton Estate, Craggy Range, TeMata and Vidal. Given the difference in climate between Hawke’s Bay and Marlborough, the type of varietals grown on the two islands differs remarkably (although there is some overlap). Be prepared to be blown away by the dynamic reds, something New Zealand is not particularly known for, at least in the American market.

Tasting Notes:

Matariki 2004 Pinot Noir: A Gold Winner at the 2007 London International Wine Challenge, this was one of my favorites. Velvety, not too jammy and with just the right amount of earthiness, this $24 bottle tastes better than many of the more expensive bottles I’ve sampled from Washington and Oregon.

Craggy Range Gimblett Gravels Sofia: A Merlot/Cabernet Franc blend, this $40 wine was so delicious that Rod Stewart’s managers had purchased several cases earlier that day to take back to the rock star himself. Although it’s not as much of a bargain as some of the others listed it’s a lovely wine to bring out to dinner and hey, if it’s good enough for Rod Stewart….

TeMata Chardonnay: Surprisingly subtle with none of that overpowering oakiness so often found in California Chardonnays and for $18, this would be a great accompaniment to a light, fresh summer dinner of seafood or salad. Exceptionally well-balanced, especially given the price point.

Vidal Sauvignon Blanc: Delicious passion fruit finish and at $14 a pop we bought more than a few bottles to squirrel away for casual Friday nights or summer brunches. Since it was fruity (but not overly so) this wine would even be great for a cocktail party or get-together with the girls.

Hatton Estate 2002 Tahi: This meritage of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Cabernet Franc offered a depth of flavor rarely seen in wines this cheap and reminded me of some of my favorite bottles of Bordeaux that are twice as expensive. Clocking in at $36 a bottle it’s within the realm of affordability yet would be perfect to serve at an intimate dinner party in the fall or to give as a hostess gift to someone who enjoys heavier reds.


The Masters Lodge – Owned by a friendly American couple, this hotel offers the ultimate in romance, luxury and privacy. Comprised of only two suites and set on a hill overlooking the South Pacific Ocean, your hosts can arrange activities like master cooking classes, private dinners with local winemakers and massages in the solarium. Prices begin at $800 per/suite.

Pacifica Kaimoana Restaurant – With a five course tasting menu and wine pairing option, this restaurant is the showpiece of Napier’s fine dining scene and consistently delivers fresh seafood and innovative cooking to its patrons.

Wine Tours:
Grape Escape – The charming Greg Beachen will pick you up and whisk you off on a specialized tour of Hawke’s Bay or New Zealand depending on your interests and preferred price range. Tours range in length from a casual afternoon jaunt to an in-depth twelve day wine trail. Prices start at about $60 and end at close to $8,000 per/person for a trip of almost two weeks in length.

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