NZ trip 2010: Hawke’s Bay

(by peter)

As we drove into Hawke’s Bay through the verdant volcanic landscape of the North Island’s central hills, little did we imagine our short visit would include a car fire, cheese tasting and Super Tuscan red.

But, as we’re currently discovering, New Zealand has a wonderful capacity to surprise and delight.

Our first pit-stop was in Napier, one of the area’s largest towns, famed for its Art Deco architecture. We must have missed the prime parts on our way through (we saw more impressive Art Deco architecture in Masterton, further south) but we did encounter the beach: a windswept, flotsam-strewn coastline, with deep turquoise shallows and banked purple-grey shingle.

We stood, buffeted by the warm wind, and looked out to the east, towards the vastness of the Pacific and South America. To the south, further along the shore and inland, lay some of New Zealand’s most highly reputed wine lands.

We didn’t linger.

Our first winery visit proper on this trip was to Te Mata, one of Hawke’s Bay’s most venerable producers, owned and run by the ruddy-faced, engagingly matey John Buck OBE. (When we arrived with our two-year-old in tow, he promptly announced he was a “professional grandfather” himself, and proved to be most sympathetic in this regard.)

I’d met John once before, when I was tasting his impressive Coleraine red blend back to 1982. But I’d encountered the winery and the wines before that: primarily when I was writing my book on the architecture of wineries around the world, Wineries with Style. Funnily enough, both producers we visited in Hawke’s Bay (Te Mata and Craggy Range) were featured, though for very different reasons.

Where Craggy is all sensitive, round-edged post-modernism, Te Mata is a cheerful confluence of the old (19th-century brick winery) with the avant-garde of the late-20th century, including art deco and “art classico”, as John termed some of it, all of it crowned by John’s stunning private residence. This landmark design sits just across the road from the winery, on a hillside flanked by vines, its graceful pristine white forms rising out of the green canopy.

We found the wines at Te Mata to be an intriguing blend of an old school, traditional style (ie tending to restraint and food-friendliness rather than overt New World power) with an adventurous spirit (there aren’t that many New World producers proudly making Gamay Noir and Sauvignon Gris).

John is clearly a classicist at heart, gladly admitting that red Bordeaux is his ultimate winemaking benchmark (“I love white and red Burgundy,” he confessed to me, “but blending makes for the ultimate complexity and, if I had one bottle left to drink, it would be a great Bordeaux.”) It therefore comes as no surprise that Te Mata’s most ambitious red is its Coleraine Bordeaux-style blend.

The winery makes around 40,000 cases, half of which are exported. Somewhat unusually for New Zealand (though not necessarily the producers we’re visiting on this trip), the winery owns all its producing vineyards. The winemaking is traditional in ethos.

Our favourites were the following:

Cape Crest Sauvignon Blanc 2008, 13% – a wonderful oaked blend of Sauvignon Blanc (85%), Semillon (11%) and Sauvignon Gris (4%), this has exotic flavours of orange blossom and grapefruit. The palate is dense and food-friendly, with succulent spicy oak flavours. Not as full-on as many other New World examples of this style, with an attractive restraint. A parcel is currently on its way to Majestic in the UK, priced around £12-15. 7-7.5/10

Woodthorpe Chardonnay 2008, 14% – the Woodthorpe wines are sourced from a 520-acre estate (200 of which are planted to vines) and often represent excellent value for money. This is a stylish and accomplished Chardonnay at the level, with subtle oaking and a pleasant restraint, in a Mâcon-esque style. Available at Majestic. 7/10

Gamay Noir 2009, 13% – inviting cherry and red berry fruit, with a well balanced, crunchy crisp palate. Juicy red fruit acidity and soft tannins, with an elegant and refreshing finish. Excellent roundness and succulence here, the like of which you’d often struggle to find in Cru Beaujolais. Delicious drinking red, refreshing and moreish. 7-7.5/10

Bullnose Syrah 2008, 13.5% – black fruit with black pepper notes and a hint of cream. Some floral notes emerge. On the palate it’s elegant and foodie, with an attractive savoury peppery twist. Susie liked it more than me, finding it more meaty and attractive overall. 7/10

Coleraine 2007, 14% – a blend of 52% CS, 34% Merlot, 14% CFranc, 20 months in oak, made using the CS clone 169 from Château Margaux that apparently “smells like old roses”. Lovely red berry and tobacco nose, elegant cedar and bell pepper. Bordelais in persuasion. Palate is silky, fruity and spicy, elegant but with good weight to it. Young, dense and very promising. I was bigger on this one than Susie, who preferred the Syrah, but I gave it 8-8.5/10

Te Mata Elston Chardonnay 2008, 13.5% – we tasted this wine at dinner in Nelson a week or so after visiting Te Mata. A rough and steamy voyage in the car hadn’t damaged it at all: this was a seriously complex and notably harmonious Chardonnay, the kind that gets drunk in one sitting (admittedly between a few of us) with many admiring comments thrown its way. Oaky but citric and very well balanced. Great elegance. Very impressive indeed. 8.5/10

Before we left John and his eclectic architecture, we mentioned we’d seen a cheese shop-cum-factory next door and would he recommend it? His answer was typical of this forthright man.

“Ah yes, the Te Mata Cheese Company. We’re in legal dispute with them right now, over their use of the Te Mata name.” He paused, after which his face suddenly brightened. “But don’t let that stop you going!”

We took him at his word and enjoyed a very pleasant platter of bread, cheese and ham there, enveloped by the shade and aroma of several large fig trees.

Our next stop was Craggy Range, located just up the road and also our hosts for the brief stay. Our first glimpse of this impressive set-up had come the day before, when we’d climbed the lofty Te Mata peak to revel in the stunning views over Hawke’s Bay.

Unfortunately, someone behind us didn’t quite make it. As we enjoyed the views, suddenly a plume of smoke billowed over the crest. A small throng formed to gawp at the spectacle: a silver Mercedes in flames, with occasional small explosions (the tyres?) eliciting cheers from the younger male members of the audience.

Given the narrow girth of the road, no-one was getting up or down past this fireball – until the fire crew arrived (creditably promptly), closely followed by the local newshounds.

(Craggy’s winemaking director Steve Smith MW was later to tell us that a favourite pastime of the local hooligans is to roll burning tyres off the peak at night, down towards their winery. Neither of these incendiary incidences seemed to fit within the pristine, seemingly extremely civilised surroundings of Havelock North.)

Though a young winery, Craggy Range has swiftly established a reputation for lofty ambitions and smart, stylish wines. The company operates three wine tiers: one servicing buyers’ own brands, the next being the Wild Rock brand, with the Craggy Range single vineyard wines sitting on top. It is the latter we focused on during our visit.

Craggy has been one of the prime champions of the Gimblett Gravels winemaking area. This fascinating zone, a former river bed which sits on deep alluvial gravels not far from Bridge Pa, is one of the warmest spots in the area, and is fast gaining an excellent reputation for its Bordeaux blends and Syrah.

We sampled a range of Craggy’s single vineyard wines, at the winery’s stunning tasting room, while our daughter sat absorbed by the portable DVD player we’d bought in anticipation of these events proving challenging for the two-year-old mind. Here’s a video of the scene, with Rod introducing Craggy’s top two Bordeaux blends as well as the stunning 2007 vintage (to the background strains of Charlie & Lola on the DVD player…) Also with us at the tasting was Michael Henley, Craggy’s marketing manager.

Although Craggy’s Gimblett Gravels wines were undoubtedly impressive (especially the Syrahs – see below), Susie and I were equally taken by the quality of the Martinborough wines, which boded well for the next leg of our trip to the wine lands of Wairarapa further south.

Our favourite wines were as follows:

Craggy Range Single Vineyard Riesling Te Muna Road 2008, Martinborough, 11.7% (From £12.99 at independent merchants) – classic green apple nose, an intriguing blend of zingy lime and complex honeyed apple elements. The palate is fresh and invigorating, with brisk acidity well balanced by a deft touch of residual sugar (7.5g/l). Dense, elegant and young. More harmonious to our mind than the Otago Station Riesling 2008. Give it a year or two and it will be delicious. 8-8.5/10

Craggy Range Single Vineyard Te Muna Road Sauvignon Blanc 2009, Martinborough, 13.5% (£10.99, Majestic) – honeyed pear nose, much more restrained than your classic Kiwi Savvy, and slightly riper too, with elegant mineral notes. The palate is brisk, zesty and spicy, food-friendly in nature. Subtle, layered and broad, definitely made in an anti-establishment style, and successfully in my opinion. (Susie wasn’t as big a fan as me, giving it 6/10). Rod says it’s picked ripe, with whole bunch pressing, some spontaneous ferment, lees contact and barrel maturation, in search of this complex style. 7.5/10

Craggy Range Single Vineyard Gimblett Gravels Chardonnay 2008, 14% – toasty nose, savoury and nutty, a New World style but with elegant Burgundian elements. Rich texture on the palate, spicy and with brisk acidity. Laser-like focus. Very smart stuff – but will benefit from further age. 8/10

Craggy Range Single Vineyard Te Muna Road Vineyard Pinot Noir 2008, 13.5% (£15, Majestic) – one of the stars of this show, this Martinborough Pinot stood in direct contrast to Craggy’s Calvert Vineyard (from Bannockburn in Central Otago). Where the latter was all earthy, sappy promise on the nose, and yet didn’t quite deliver similar elegance and complexity on the palate, this Martinborough wine was the opposite. A subtle nose showing dark fruit, cherry and some warm earth. But it came into its own on the palate, with complex subtle and rounded character. Silky and easy in its skin. Foodie and succulent. Lovely texture. Delicious stuff. As Rod quipped, only partly in jest it seemed: while Central may be showy, Martinborough is, “the real home of Pinot Noir in New Zealand”. 8.5-9/10

Craggy Range Single Vineyard Syrah 2008, Gimblett Gravels, 13.5% – deep colour and a dense, youthful nose showing ripe black fruit and cherry. Aromas evolve gracefully in the glass, showing a glimpse of how this wine will mature, showing pronounced floral and black pepper notes. The palate, typically of the best Gimblett reds, is rich and velvety in texture and body but very drinkable and food-friendly. Dark, rich, dense with a lovely spicy and peppery edge. It contrasts with the 2007 vintage of this wine, which is more evolved and attractively peppery/meaty in nature but has slightly less concentration and overall harmony than this 2008 (oddly, given that most 2007s rather overshadow the often thin and unconvincing 2008s). 8.5-9/10

Le Sol Gimblett Gravels Syrah 2007, 14% – this wine is sourced from the same vineyards as the above Syrah, but from specially designated parcels, lower yields and slightly longer hang time. “It’s about pushing the envelope with Syrah,” says Rod, “showing what we can do when we push the vineyard.” It’s certainly a more full-on style, with lovely silky black fruit and peppery floral edge. The palate is velvety smooth, rich and savoury. Not a restrained style, but it treads a wonderful middle road between New World richness and elegant savouriness. Classicists will find this a bit over-the-top in comparison to the Single Vineyard Syrah (which Susie preferred), but it’s just as admirable in a different way. 8.5-9/10

The Quarry 2007, Gimblett Gravels, 14.5% – complex, brooding. Hints of leather and roasted tobacco emerge. Wonderfully well balanced and silky-textured palate. Good balancing acidity, succulent black fruit and tobacco flavours, with a firm underlying structure and focus. Elegant, harmonious and yet very complex. Perhaps not quite as seductive to our tastes as the Syrah, Pinot or Riesling – but still an admirable red. 8.5/10

Postcript: after the tasting, we took up a very kind invitation from Michael Henley to have supper at his beautiful house in Havelock North. Delicious spicy chicken was washed down with some wonderful wines – some of which Mike introduces in the following video (with tasting notes following below):

Craggy Range Rapaura Riesling 2007 – the driest of all the Rieslings we’d tried today, sourced from old vines in Marlborough. Lovely early-evening drinking wine, with orange blossom aromas and a refreshing green apple palate. Not as impressive as the Te Muna Road Riesling, but very good still.

Kumeu River Estate Chardonnay 2007 – outstanding. Michael Brajkovich MW unquestionably makes some of the most elegant, Burgundian-style Chardonnays in the New World from his base outside Auckland. This one showed toasted nut and ripe apple aromas, with a super elegant and savoury-nut palate, deep, complex and harmonious. Above all, elegant. Superb. 9/10

Lucente 1997, La Vita, IGT Toscana – Frescobaldi’s super Tuscan showed mature tobacco and dried fruit character, but lacked the real killer quality edge that we were all hoping for, and finished a bit tired and thin. An unexpected privilege to be able to try this Super Tuscan on our Kiwi odyssey – but firmly overshadowed by many of the Kiwi reds we’ve been trying. Which is probably just as well…