Days 3 and 4 of our road trip were spent exploring the Classic NZ Wine Trail from Hawke’s Bay to Wellington. We woke early in Napier and did a stroll about town, hoping to orient ourselves and get a peek at some of the town’s famous Art Deco architecture. The building style arose after much of the town’s architecture was destroyed after the 1931 earthquake. Both Art Deco and Mission style buildings are now common in towns throughout Hawke’s Bay. Unfortunately our first day in Napier was besotted with rain and cloudy skies, so our photos feel a little gray, but we made the most of it and turned the second half of the day into a jaunt from cellar door to cellar door at the wineries in the area…by the time the evening drew to a close, we were quite besotted as well. In the world of tastings, a little goes a long way. Word to the wise: Use the spittoon.
On our first day of wine tours, we indulged in the $15 cellar tour at Church Road winery in order to get a full picture of the winemaking process and its history in NZ. The tour was informative, but the vibe at the winery was a bit stiff. We did taste a number of pretty good wines from their line however, our favorites being the Noble Sauv Blanc and the Pinot Gris. Pinot Gris is the same as Pinot Grigio in other parts of the world, but the ones from this area tend to be a bit sweeter and less acidic than their Italian counterparts. “Noble” anything in wine refers to a black fungus that grows on grapes left on the vine and ripened until late in the season. It sucks a lot of the moisture out of the grapes, concentrating the sugars and drying the grapes out like raisins. The grapes must be pressed slowly and traditionally, using a basket press, to get the most out of the process. It yields a sticky sweet but very flavorful and full dessert wine. It was one of my favorite discoveries in Italian vineyards when my family visited for Christmas one year, and I was very excited to see noble wines in New Zealand vineyards. We picked up a bottle of the Pinot Gris to take along, and as I write, Jason and I are enjoying glasses in our hostel room at Worldwide Backpackers after a long day strolling the streets and museums of Wellington.
The second vineyard we visited was Mission Estate, one of New Zealand’s oldest wineries. It has a very friendly, social atmosphere in the tasting room, and though they do not offer tours, our sommelier and Jason got to talking, and we were invited downstairs for a sneak peak at the building’s advanced earthquake dampening system. Mission Estate offers a wide variety of wines, including the area’s ubiquitous Chardonnays and Cabernet Sauvignons, as well as a Viognier, Pinot Gris, and Pinot Noir, using grapes sourced from Otago in the South Island. After returning to Stables, our not-so-hot hostel in Napier, to ruminate on it a bot, we decided to indulge in a nice winery dinner out at Mission Estate on our final night in Napier. We sampled tuna, salmon, tiger prawns, potato and leek soup, and duck confit for appetizers, then we split a wonderful piece of snapper with a fresh, bright sauce that included sundried tomatoes for our main course.
On our final day in Napier, the day dawned bright and mostly clear, so we hit the streets with our camera and got what we really wanted from the public art in town and the architecture. Then we headed south toward Cape Kidnappers, with no concrete plan for the day. Some heavy rain blew in, so we ducked into Elephant Hill winery in Hastings, which has an absolutely stunning view of the Cape and hillsides from its on-site restaurant and cellar door. We learned an abundance about the newness of winemaking in the Hawke’s Bay region from their sommelier, and we sampled a number of good wines. Our faves was probably the 2009 Reserve Syrah…peppery but yummy nonetheless. Perfect with a steak on the barbie and a cool spring evening.
Following Elephant Hill, we hit Clearview Estate, just down the road, and we must say this winery was an unexpected delight. While unassuming on the outside, inside, its tasting room holds some of the most unique and complex wines we’ve seen (not that we’re experts or anything). Clearview specializes in big Bordeaux-style reds and Chardonnays. Neither are wines I enjoy much as a generality…especially the Chardonnays. Took much oak and lactic acid…it just doesn’t sit well on my tongue. But Clearview does these wines a little differently. One of their Chardonnays is unoaked, and that was an improvement in my mind, but oddly enough our favorite was their Reserve Chardonnay, aged in new French oak barrels. The wine was smooth and complex, and though it did have some of the oak and butter of a typical Chardonnay, it finished like honey, and Jason and I couldn’t get enough. Unfortunately it was also $45, so we brought an order form along with us so we can get back in touch once we’ve reunited with the working world. Other highlights included a blush wine that was perfect for a hot summer’s day…nothing like that pink stuff you get in jugs at home (though admittedly, I drink that too sometimes), a noble chardonnay that tasted like pineapples on the finish, and a yummy dessert red called Sea Red that we bought a bottle of for nightcaps on our tour of the chilly South Island.
We drove on to Cape Kidnappers, and after learning the tide was not quite right for making the hike out to NZ’s largest gannet colony on the end of the Cape, we marked the spot on our growing list of “yet-to-dos” in NZ, and moved on to Craggy Range Winery and Te Mata Peak outside Havelock North. It was getting late in the day, so we skipped tastings at Craggy Range and simply enjoyed the vista, then drove our way to the top of Te Mata Peak, saw some stunning vistas, and after grabbing some groceries for dinner, moved on to our final destination of the evening, Lochlea Farm, just south of Waipukurau. It’s a working sheep and cattle farm, and owners Glen and Ellen have a wonderful little backpackers built out behind their house. We were the only ones there, so we had the whole house to ourselves, and we awoke to the sounds of lambs baying for their mothers in the fields surrounding the house.
We departed the farm for Wellington the next morning and stopped outside Porangahau at a place commonly referred to by Kiwis as “The Longest Place Name in the World.” It’s much easier to call it that than to call it Taumatawhakatangihangakoauauotamateaturipukakapikimaungahoronukupokaiwhenuakitanatahu, which can be translated as “the hill on which Tamatea, the chief of great physical stature and renown, played a lament on his flute to the memory of his brother.” We had some fun here, because we set the camera on top of the car to get a photo of us both, and Jason had a bit of a wild time making it up on top of the sign in time to snap the photo. The sign is very wide you see, so the camera has to be pretty far away.
After Porangahau we wound our way through steep and curving mountain roads, making our way back to one of the more major roadways to Wellington. We stopped at Pukaha Mount Bruce Wildlife Centre, which is reputed to have great native wild bird habitats and a nocturnal kiwi house, but the kiwi house was under renovation and it was raining yet again, so we decided to keep moving. That is, until we discovered the headlights had been left on for a total of 5 minutes and the car would no longer start. The battery was pretty low when we bought the car since it had been sitting for awhile, and though it has steadily improved its performance since we’ve been driving longer distances, it turns out 5 min of headlights was too much for the little sucker. We waited around til we could coordinate a jump, then made our way to freezing cold, windy Wellington, where we checked into Worldwide Backpackers.
If I had three things to say about Wellington, they would be these:
- There is lots of public art.
- There is almost no public parking.
- It is unbelievably cold here.
We’ve spent our time here strolling the waterfront, browsing Te Papa, NZ’s national museum, full of great info that helped us understand our new home a little better, and exploring landmarks like the Beehive, NZ’s House of Parliament, and Cuba and Courtenay Streets, the centers of Wellington’s famed cafe culture. We indulged in Sweet Mother’s Kitchen, a Kiwi attempt at New Orleans creole/Tex Mex, but sadly for us, there’s no place like home. Serves us right for attempting it this far from its roots. The only Cuban place I’ve seen here serves chiles rellenos…try that for authenticity. (And folks, for those of you who don’t do Cuban regularly, chiles do not feature in the Cuban diet, at all.) It makes you wonder if Indians or Japanese living in the U.S. cringe every time they’re faced with dining out at a purportedly authentic restaurant with dishes “from home.”
We board our Bluebridge ferry to Picton in the South Island tomorrow morning at 7 a.m.