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Touring New Zealand 2017 - part 2

Napier and the Hawkes Bay Wineries

Napier is an easy day journey from Rotorua, about 220 kms, and quick now there is the Taupo by-pass road. However it is important to fuel before leaving the Taupo area because there are then no petrol stations until the outskirts of Napier, some 140 kms. We fuelled in Rotorua.

Napier is a perfect city – anywhere which has the climate to produce world class wines is an excellent place, and we usually stay at the Westshore Holiday Park. Westshore is just walking distance to the Port of Ahuriri with its cafes and shops, along a pretty boardwalk and then along the waterfront. There are also several excellent motels with ocean views. Otherwise the town of Napier, said to be modelled on Eastbourne in the UK, has hotels and motels many with good views of the ocean and promenade.

One of the features of Napier, and Hawkes Bay in general, is that there are lots of wineries with topclass restaurants and we have never been disappointed with the food or the wines on offer. Our favourite restaurant is currently Elephant Hill, which we always visit for lunch. Another favourite is Craggy Range. They both also make excellent wines and export a selection of their wines to the UK.

The best wines, as chosen by experts in the various competitions, vary each year. This partly depends on whch vineyards enter the competitions, as well as the weather at harvest-time. We have recently tended to concentrate on the AirNZ awards as they are blind tasted. In 2016, which we largely spent in South Island, we used the trophy wines chosen by the AirNZ competition as our targets for wineyard visits, tastings and purchases. We didn’t drink them all and There are still a few of these left stored in NZ, although we have no proper cellaring. Our notes are at nz16-p3.htm#anz_wine_awards. In 2017 we started again with the list of trophy wines and prioritised those from the Napier area and Hawkes Bay generally. There were only 3 wines: Villa Maria 2014 Reserve Gimblett Gravels Cabernet Sauvignon/Merlot Hawkes Bay, Mission 2015 Reserve Syrah Hawkes Bay and Mission 2014 Reserve Cabernet Franc Hawkes Bay. There were two trophy winners from Central Otago and the remaining 10 were from Marlborough.

Sometimes the main supermarkets are a cheap source of trophy wines, and we had already tasted the Wairau River 2016 Pinot Gris Marlborough. We have never been great fans of pinot gris, but this was a nice wine and drinking well now. On arrival in Napier our first target is always to go to Esk Valley, but we were unlucky on timing and the cellar door was closed on our first visit, so we stocked up on fruit from the stall opposite and vowed to return later. To our surprise the Orchard Shop in Bay View had some really nice cheeses from Hohepa, and local venison salami.

There are supermarkets in Napier, Countdown and Pak n’ Save, but wine is best tasted and purchased at the vineyards where we can ask questions and learn more about the trophy wines. Villa Maria has its winery and cellar door in Auckland, as well as in Blenheim, so that was not an option. Mission is close to Napier and we usually drive out there to admire the beautiful old house and gardens, so it was on our list. But first we visited the NZ Wine Centre in Browning Street. They have interesting stocks of local wines, as well as offering tastings. To our surprise there were some single bottles of unusually old wines for sale, and Abby explained that they had come from the cellar of a local family who were leaving Napier and wanted to sell their remaining bottles of wine. Two wines immediately caught our eye - Mills Reef 2002 Elspeth Reserve Syrah which had won Hawkes Bay Gold in 2003 and 5 Stars from the Winestte magazine, and Esk Valley 2004 Reserve Merlot/Cabernet Sauvigon/Malbec which had won the AirNZ Trophy in 2006.

We bought both and then tasted the Mills Reef to make sure that buying older wines was not a serious mistake "this arresting dark and intense red has the classic plum and black pepper flavours of the noble syrah variety". We know Mills Reef wines, usually visiting the winery restaurant for lunch when we travel to or from Auckland, and usually have a glass of Elspeth Chardonnay or Elspeth Syrah depending on our choice of mains. The Elspeth Syrah wines we have previously tasted have been younger and we were looking forward to trying our first older NZ prize-winning wine. With hindsight we should have left the Mills Reef to settle longer because it had a very fine sediment which took a long time to settle, even with decanting into a number of glasses, which influenced our tasting. But we were still very impressed and pleased with our purchase.

The following morning we went back to Esk Valley and showed Sue our purchase. She was surprised and excited for us that we had found such an older vintage and searched for the actual trophy so we could take a photo of the bottle with its trophy. In 2004 Esk Valley wines had an elegant label, which we much prefer to the modern scrawl, and the wine was described "... blend of 52% Merlot, 26% Cabernet Sauvignon and 22% Malbec ... ripe aromas and flavours of black fruits, plums, christmas cake and dark chocolate, with complementary oak spice". In 2016 we had purchased the 2013 Esk Valley Gimblett Gravels Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec "full bodied and displaying characteristics of black cherries, plums and spice" which had won the Trophy for Merlot blends in 2014 and we still had one bottle for comparison with the 2004. We can report that both wines are drinking well although we did not find so much emphasis on christmas cake and dark chocolate now. Based on the ageing of the 2004, the 2013 will be good for cellaring for perhaps another 5 years or more, and we regret not buying more last year. They went very well with lamb and goat stews and vintage local cheeses (the weather was getting colder and wetter by the time we opened the bottles!). Having mentioned our search for the Villa Maria 2016 Trophy wine, Sue arranged for a bottle from the limited stock to be reserved for us at Villa Maria in Auckland which we have now collected when we passed by. They are near the airport and very close to Rental Car Village.

Returning to the NZ Wine Centre a couple of times we decided that this year our theme would be tasting older quality wines and purchased more of their special cellar sale bottles. We bought them for for drinking now, but they will still need to rest and then must be decanted carefully as they all have some sediment. We puchased the Clearview Estate 1998 Reserve Merlot, Clearview Estate 2000 Reserve Merlot Malbec, Matariki 2005 Syrah, Sileni 2005 The Triangle Merlot (AirNZ Trophy 2007), Unison 2005 Merlot blend, Moana Park 2008 Vineyard Selection Merlot Malbec, Moana Park 2008 Vineyard Tribute Merlot and Rod McDonald Wines 2011 Quarter Acre Merlot Malbec. The list is self-explanatory, based on a selection of older and local red wines. We both agreed that the original owner of the wines had exactly our taste in laying down wines in a cellar. The bottles all appeared to be in a remarkably good clean condition and stored well. Of our 12 bottles from nine vineyards, we already know the wines of Esk Valley and Mills Reef and have visited Clearview many years ago but the others were new to us. It has always been interesting to find new vineyards and expand our knowledge of wine on our trips. Why twelve? We discovered that they had a card which we got stamped with each purchase and we got $20 back with the 12th stamp making the last bottle free!

Carrying our wines it was time to drive to Elephant Hill for lunch, being fortunate in eating in the sunshine and directly next to the infinity pool. We watched the workers in the vineyard doing the first selective picking of the sauvignon blanc. There will be three pickings. Lunch, as usual, involved one entree of rabbit terrine which was shared, then the mains of kingfish and soft-shelled crab and venison and finally the desserts. Usually we do the wine tasting before lunch, so it is easier to choose a glass of wine with the meal, but Sue had recommended the ‘bubbles’, Osawa NV, which was sold by the glass in the restaurant. It was really, really excellent, with a super colour and nice small bubbles. The wine tasting, free because of the lunch, allowed 6 wines to be tasted. Pete was driving so Pauline chose to compare the 2015 Chardonnay and the 2015 Reserve Chardonnay, then the 2014 Merlot Malbec and the 2014 Reserve Merlot Malbec, and finally the 2014 Syrah and the 2014 Reserve Syrah. The Estate wines vary in price between $29 and $34 whereas the matching Reserve wines are $49. As always, we prefer the Reserve wines, and liked the Chardonnay. They can be obtained in Guernsey from Randalls (!). The limited production 2011 Rania, at $49, was also available for tasting. It is an unusual concentrated sweet iconic wine, “displaying a combination of lemon curd, orange peel and marmalade with lingering grapefruit on the palate”.

The road continued towards Cape Kidnappers. We arrived at the end of the road and the start of the walking path at the same time as a tractor tour to visit the gannet colony returned. We see lots of gannets when sailing so had no real interest in taking the tractor tour. It was too late to go hiking and so we went back towards Napier.

Clearview winery is next door to Elephant Hill and we stopped to show them our 1998 bottle of Reserve Merlot, the oldest of the wines we had bought. After the initial interest in the bottle and where we had purchased it, both Charles Gear (the General Manager Sales and Marketing) and Tim Turvey (the Founder/Winemaker/Owner) came to see our find and provide more information. We had visited Clearview many years ago, partly because our neighbours had a boat called Clearview and suggested we try the wines, and partly because they were one of the first winery restaurants. Clearview was established with the first red wine from the vintage of 1989 and continues as a family owned and operated business. They could not find the tasting notes of the 1998 Reserve Merlot but did find the notes of the 1998 Reserve Cabernet Franc, which benefitted from the same weather conditions. However the tasting notes for the 2000 Reserve Marlot Malbec were still on file and it was described as an “an exceptional vintage with a seductive, serious and sensuous red wine”..... “50% Merlot, 28% Malbec, 12% Cabernet Franc, 10% Cabernet Sauvignon … dark, mouth filling and crammed with ripe fruit characters the wine is powerful, complex with long-term cellaring potential... matured for 14 months in predominantly new French oak, the flavours of plum, sweet spicey cassis, mint and earthy violets, combine with the long fine grained tannins and sweet oak”.

We had not realised before our visit, but Tim Turvey is pictured on the front cover of the Summer 2016/17 WineNZ magazine and is described as “Hawke’s Bay Wine Icon”. He graciously let us take his photo holding our 1998 Reserve Merlot, and Charles led us through a tasting of their current wines. The modern equivalent wine is called Enigma and the 2013 was available for tasting, as well as the 2015 Reserve Cabernet Franc, the 2014 Old Olive Block, and the unusual Sea Red fortified dessert wine. The 2013 Enigma was priced at $55 so we had done well with our two vintage wines, assuming they are as good as we hope after decanting. We promised to report back, and will keep the empty bottles for their shelf display. The 2000 Reserve Merlot Malbec certainly lived up to its expectations when tasted, although its cork was a bit of a challenge and our Swiss penknife had to deal with two pieces of cork when it broke but fortunately left no fragments in the wine. The wine was good. We each described our views on the wine and then read the notes which were almost exactly as we had tasted including a slightly earthy hint although we had not picked up the violets! It is nice now but will probably be best drunk in the next year or so. Some days later we tasted the 1998 Reserve Merlot, having in the interval purchased a proper decanter. We expected there to be a potential problem with a fine sediment, but there was very little although the inside of the bottle had some sediment on the sides. In the UK we have just finished our the last of our 1998 La Clariere Laithwaite and as we finished the last mouthful of the wine we tried to compare the two - very difficult when they are apart by time and distance. This also reminded us that Tim Turvey and Tony Laithwaite are both of the same generation of winemakers and both produce, to our taste, delightful wines with cellaring potential. Unfortunately Clearview no longer export to the UK.

Avocados were for sale on the road side and then the cheese shop, Hohepa, is at the bridges at Clive which we had to cross so we could stock up on more cheeses.

Having achieved so much and planning to go west from Napier, a pleasant half-day trip is to go north to Lake Tutira. We have often camped there but it is more difficult now. The lake has a problem with a blue-green surface skum, not a problem unless planning to swim or canoe, but also the camping ground further along from our usual spot by the water was full of sheep doing what sheep do. They were munching merrily but that is a problem with a tent, less so with a campervan or bus. We retreated and consoled ourselves with a large scoop icecream at the Tutira store before taking a backroad which went high into the hills before looping back to join the main road - some great views. We are rarely disappointed by getting away from the beaten track although sometimes they turn into more of an adventure than we anticipate.

An alternative to excellent vineyard lunches is the cheap staple NZ lunch of Fish and Kumara Chips, typically $8 to $12 for two portions of Hoki and a scoop of kumara or potato chips. We recommend the place at Westshore just off the main road by the school, and next to a useful dairy for icecream for dessert. The plan is to take the food to one of many benches in the park overlooking the ocean. The only disadvantage is that there are always flocks of hungry seagulls. The Op Shop at the church next door also often sells home made jams and chutneys. As we were leaving with our jam we were given what was descroibed as a zuccini, but we think is really better described as a marrow. It lasted well and took over a week before we had completely devoured it.


Our route from Napier was across the Napier Taihape road, which has been fully sealed for many years, and cuts across the grain of the country from the east to the mountains in the Central Alps. Having found it very useful to visit the wineries which produced our older wines, we decided to visit two other vineyards whose older wines we had purchased, Unison and Sileni. Both are in the direction of the Napier-Taihape road, and not far beyond the junction.

Sileni Estates are on the Maraekakaho Road and produce premium Merlot-based reds and Semillon from the Bridge Pa Triangle vineyards around the winery. Our Triangle 2005 Merlot had won AirNZ Pure Elite Gold and Champion Merlot Trophy in 2007, and had a screw top. The approach to the vineyard is along a long impressive avenue leading to the Reception building. Anne, the retail manager, was able to prvide tasting notes for our wine and also their Trophy plaque which was one of many on display at the entrance. There was also a display set of various sizes of bottle of The Triangle 2005 Merlot inside the doorway; they were obvously very proud of the vintage. The tasting notes describe the “concentrated dark berry and plum flavours, with hints of dark chocolate on the finish”. Cellaring potential was said to be 8-10 years, so our purchase was perfect. The wine had 89 points in Wine Advocate, May 2008. Sileni Estates used to have a restaurant but no longer. They did have a good shop with wine-oriented souvenirs and specialist produce, including Meyer cheeses. Although we had too much cheese the temptation of a goats milk gouda was too much. We also purchased the matching Triangle 2014 Merlot which we will save for a few years. The tasting notes describe “Rich savoury plum and berry fruit aromas with oak spice notes. Mocha and dark fruit flavours, with a full and fleshy palate and a silky, dark chocolate finsh.” Although their Merlot is good they are specially proud of The Plateau Pinot Noir which is grown further inland and higher. It is described as “old world style but with new world vibrancy, typical varietal floral, dark fruit and spice aromas, along with black cherry flavours, backed up with ripe, smooth tannins and a long finish”. We bought the 2013 Pinot Noir which again will wait until later; cellaring potential is predicted to be up to 6 years.

The last winery from our purchase of older wines was Unison, which is in Gimblett Gravels, just opposite Mere Road, where our favourite Stonecroft winery is based. Unison Vineyard was established in 1993 and has been owned since 2007 by the Horn family from the UK. Our Unison 2005 therefore pre-dated their arrival and they only had tasting notes back to 2007. We had already drunk our wine, and enjoyed it, so had only an empty bottle to show them. The Unison 2005 was made by Anna-Barbara and Bruce Helliwell, and is a blend of Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah. The 2007 was renamed Unison Selection and was a different balance with Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and Merlot, “deep ruby colour with intense aromas of ripe black plums, blackcurrant, liquorice, allspice and cardamom”. The current vintage, Unison Selection 2013, is a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot and sells at $60 although there is a cheaper Classic Blend 2013 of Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah. The philosophy seems to be to blend the best grapes from each year for the Selection, and have preference whether it is Merlot-led or Cabernet Sauvignon-led.

Overall our tasting of the 12 wines led to fairly obvious conclusions. Firstly, quality older wines, because they are not filtered and unnaturally stabilised, should drop a fine sediment and it is essential to leave bottles to settle at least for a few days and then decant very carefully. We tend to decant progressively using a couple of extra glasses at the end which also allows us to judge the impact of the sedement, it can be surprisingly little or sometimes very intrusive. Our purchase of a decanter was a useful yet unintended consequence of tasting older wines. Secondly, all the wines dated 2004, 2005 and 2008 were drinking nicely now, so in future years we might make a serious effort to set up a cellar for the future. The advice on many of the bottles was the wine was good to keep in a cellar for 5 to 10 years, and this was correct for those we tasted. Exceptional wines from good vintages should be able to be kept for longer.

While these Hawkes Bay wines are excellent, after our visit to Yealands Estate in Marlborough in 2016 described at nz16-p18.htm#yealands mention must also be made of the two Yealands AirNZ 2016 Trophy Wines, the Yealands Estate 2015 Single Vineyard Awatere Pinot Noir and the Baby Doll 2016 Sauvignon Blanc Marlborough. The latter is named after the Baby Doll miniature sheep which act as organic weeders between the rows of grapes. The Baby Doll Sauvignon Blanc was very good value in supermarkets and is an excellent example "bursts with flavours of passionfruit and blackcurrant. The palate is fresh and full with a zesty mineral finish". It was so good, and only $15, that we have already drunk all our bottles. The Pinot Noir will be kept until next year.

The next part will continue with the Napier-Taihape Road, Ohakune, The Forgotten World Highway to Stratford and Taranaki

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Content revised: 18th July, 2020