Thermal springs, gourmet food and stunning scenery intertwined with aromatic whites and red Bordeaux blends – there’s much to enjoy on North Island, says BRIDGET STOTT.
Hawke’s Bay, Martinborough and Gisborne are a haven for lovers of top-class, boutique New Zealand wines. Some are rarely found outside the country, making a trip to the North Island very rewarding.
The best time to visit North Island is February, not just for the weather, but for Harvest Hawke’s Bay, the annual wine festival in Hastings. What started as a local country fair has grown into an global event attracting 20,000 visitors.
Most will fly into Auckland, from where it’s a seven-hour drive to Gisborne. An overnight stop at the extraordinary bubbling, hissing, thermal wonderland of Rotorua is advised. Next day, continue south, perhaps pausing for a picnic lunch or jetboat ride at the powerful, aqua blue Huka Falls, before scooting past trout-stuffed Lake Taupo. At this point, you head eastward, through dark primeval forests and away from the mountainous backbone of the North Island, towards the east coast.
North Island is big sky country, with craggy, sun-soaked hills, broad plains and long sandy beaches. Popular with boarders, Gisborne has a great beach of pounding surf and a laid-back, seaside feel, while vineyards skirt the town. The longest sunshine hours in New Zealand contrast with cool winters that make ideal growing conditions for grapes. By far the most enjoyable way to try the easy-drinking Chardonnays, Rieslings and Gewurztraminers is to bike around the flat roads. The more interesting wineries are small boutique operations, so it’s advisable to arrange a visit in advance.
Two of the best in the area in North Island include Pouparae Park (open daily), with renowned Chardonnay, Merlot and Riesling. Or seek out Millton Vineyard, where biodynamic principles are applied to all aspects of production of its reasonably priced Rieslings, Chenin Blancs and dessert wines, which are planted, harvested and bottled according to the phases of the moon.
From Gisborne, it’s a relaxed, three-hour drive south along the Pacific Coast Highway which hugs much of the spectacular coastline to Hawke’s Bay. Base yourself at the Art Deco town of Napier. It was rebuilt in the 1930s after a devastating earthquake flattened both it and neighbouring Hastings. Napier has been producing wine since the arrival of the first European settlers in the 1850s. By the 1920s, names such as Mission Estate, Te Mata Estate, Vidal Estate, McDonalds Winery and Glenvale Winery (now Esk Valley Winery) were well established.
There are about 40 wineries here, seeking to combine New World flavours with Old World structure. The region typically produces Merlot or Cabernet Sauvignon blended with the other Bordeaux varieties, and the occasional Syrah. Fresh Sauvignons with ripe tropical fruit flavours are also popular and the area is a significant producer of sparkling and dessert wines too. Individual wineries have had success with Pinot Gris, Viognier, Gewurz, Riesling, Semillon, Chenin Blanc and Pinot Noir.
In North Island wine tourism is enthusiastically embraced. Some 30 wineries operate an open-door policy and offer free tastings from their impressive cellars. Find them dotted around Napier, Hastings and Havelock North, just a few kilometres apart. Many producers see casual visitors as essential trade, and fashion themselves as ‘destination’ wineries, offering not only wine, but self-catering accommodation, gourmet eateries, tasting classes and shops stocking wine and local produce.
A good example is Craggy Range. Opened in 2002 to much fanfare, the venture, led by Steve Smith, uses cutting-edge techniques and hi-tech viticulture to great effect. The stunning winery is attached to the highly acclaimed Terroir restaurant, with panoramic views of the giant Te Mata peak and surrounding vineyards. Te Mata Estate itself is New Zealand’s oldest winery, dating from the 1890s. It is family-owned and specialises in premium wines, including its Coleraine blend of Merlot and Cabernets Sauvignon and Franc.
Take time to explore the modest cluster of fine small producers around the Gimblett Road area. The open-textured gravel terraces along the Tutaekuri, Ngaruroro and Tukituki riverbeds make for high-quality wines, including those at CJ Pask Winery (Gimblett Gravels), where you can sample Kate Radburnd’s highly rated varietals and, with luck, a Reserve Declaration Bordeaux-blend.
Gordon Russell is another traditional winemaker based at Esk Valley. His Merlot-Malbec-Cabernet Franc-based The Terraces, and Reserve Merlot-Malbec-Cabernet Sauvignon rank among the country’s top Bordeaux blends. Here too, food and wine tourism thrives. The Sileni Estate has a restaurant, gourmet food centre, olive press, culinary school and conference facility. Its red Ngatarawa soils produce Merlot-dominated blends, with aromatic, elegant and finely structured lines.
Neighbour Alwyn Corban pioneered winemaking in the region known as the Ngatarawa Triangle in the early 1980s. Now, the 100-year-old stables on his small estate house the winery and a tasting room. Try the excellent-value Stables range, the Glazebrook Chardonnay and the Merlot-Cabernet Sauvignon that’s worth laying down. Sniff out the dessert wines too.
To improve your wine skills, visit Te Awa’s interactive tasting room. Winemaker Jenny Dobson spent a decade in Bordeaux and her European flair is defined by her top-quality Chardonnays, Sauvignons, Merlots, Syrahs and Bordeaux blends. The Longlands and reserve-quality Te Awa are excellent, as is the Pinotage.
From here, it’s a 3.5-hour drive further south to Martinborough, through the sheep-dotted hills of Wairarapa. Just over an hour from the capital, Wellington, Martinborough was once a sleepy rural village. Now, thanks to its winemakers, it has a cosmopolitan feel, but it’s also a popular destination for Kiwis and international visitors who stock up on the area’s renowned Pinot Noirs, Cabernets, fruity Sauvignon Blancs and crisp dry Rieslings.
Most of the wineries lie within a kilometre of the village. Ten are accessible by foot with others just a short ride by car or bike. Ask for the Martinborough and Wairarapa Wine Trails brochure, free from the Visitor Centre, or visit the Martinborough Wine Centre – the first of its kind in New Zealand. Visitors can try local varietals as well as a range of Pinots – Noir, Gris and Pinot-based bubbly – from around the world. The Centre emphasises the quality of the local wines, making it an ideal place to begin your exploration of Martinborough, while staff can help plan itineraries for visits to preferred wineries.
n Pouparae Park.
Tel +64 6 867 7931,
n Millton Vineyard, Manutuke.
Tel:+64 6 862 8680, www.millton.co.nz
n CJ Pask Winery (Gimblett Gravels) Hastings.
Tel: +64 6 879 7906,
n Clearview Estate Winery, Hastings. Tel: +64 6 875 0150,
n Craggy Range Vineyards, Havelock North.
Tel: +64 6 873 7126,
n Esk Valley Estate, Napier.
Tel: +64 6 836 6411,
n Kemblefield Estate Winery, Hastings.
Tel +64 6 874 9649,
n Ngatarawa Wines, Hastings.
Tel: +64 6 879 7603,
n Sileni Estates, Hastings.
Tel: +64 6 879 4830 (winery) or +64 6 879 4831 (restaurant)
n Te Mata Estate, Havelock
North. Tel: +64 6 877 4399,
n Te Awa Winery.
Tel +64 6 879 7602,
n Ata Rangi.
Tel: +64 6 306 9570,
n Martinborough Vineyard.
Tel: +64 6 306 9955,
n Margrain Vineyard.
Tel: +64 6 306 9292,
n Dry River.
Tel: +64 6 306 9388,
Tel: +64 6 306 9495
n Te Kairanga.
Tel +64 6 306 9122,
Tel +64 6 306 9019,
n Muirlea Rise.
Tel: +64 6 306 9332
or email email@example.com
n Opou Country House.Tel: +64 6 862 8732, www.opoucountryhouse.co.nz
n Tom’s Cottage, Havelock North. Tel: +64 6 874 7900,
n Te Mata Estate, Havelock North. Tel: +64 6 877 4399,
n BlackBarn Retreats. Tel: +64 6 877 7985, www.blackbarn.com
n Margrain Vineyard, Martinborough. Tel: +64 6 306 9292, www.margrainvineyard.co.nz
n Martinborough Hotel.
Tel: +64 6 306 9350,
n The Straw House, Martinborough. Tel: +64 6 306 8383, www.thestrawhouse.co.nz
n Tourism New Zealand. Tel: +64 9 069 101010 (£1 a minute), www.purenz.com
n Air New Zealand. Tel: +44 (0) 800 028 4149, www.airnz.co.uk, flies daily to Auckland from Heathrow. Flight time: 24hrs.
n Gisborne 209 Grey Street.
Tel: +64 6 868 6139,
n Napier 100 Marine Parade.
Tel: +64 6 834 1911,
n Martinborough 18 Kitchener Street. Tel: +64 6 306 9043,
n Harvest Hawke’s Bay, February 3-4, 2007, www.hawkesbaynz.com
n Art Deco Weekend, Napier, second or third weekend in February, www.artdeconapier.com
five Day Trips in the north island
n Day 1 Drive from Auckland to Rotorua (3.5 hours). Lunch at Capers Epicurean (www.capers.co.nz) before exploring the Waimangu volcanic valley and the mud pools and erupting geysers at Wai-O-Tapu Thermal Wonderland. Dine at Bistro 1284 (www.bistro1284.co.nz). Overnight at Lodge at 199 (www.199.co.nz).
n Day 2 Drive to Huka Falls (2 hours) for a picnic, before heading to Poverty Bay, Gisborne (2.5 hours). Swim with
sharks, then hire bikes to visit wineries. Dine at The Marina
(+64 6 868 5919).
n Day 3 Head to Napier (3 hours). Explore wineries around Napier, Hastings and Havelock North. Dine at Craggy Range.
n Day 4 Try a self-guided Art Deco walking tour of Napier. Lunch at Take 5 (+64 6 835 4050) before a 3.5-hour drive through sheep country. Overnight at the Martinborough Hotel.
n Day 5 Explore the Martinborough Wine Centre before hiring bikes and visiting a few of the wineries around the town, stopping for a picnic lunch at the Martinborough Vineyard, en route.
Wined and dined out? Try these
Between Gisborne and Napier, you’ll pass great swathes of sparsely populated farmland and the Wharerata State Forest. Break your journey with a long soak at the Morere Hot Springs, on the Pacific Coast Highway, 60km outside Gisborne. This thermal reserve contains soaking tubs of hot iron and saline-rich seawater in which to wallow. Or dive into the Nikau plunge pools, surrounded by palm groves and verdant native forest.
Open daily from 10am to 9pm.
Wander the wonderfully preserved Art Deco town of Napier, taking in the 2km-long Marine Parade promenade, but don’t be tempted to swim: there’s a very strong undertow. Art Deco aficionados may want to book a place on the Afternoon Walking Tour, which takes in many of the town’s beautiful historical buildings, including banks, hotels and shops. The heritage society website (www.artdeconapier.com) has more information.
Written by BRIDGET STOTT.