Situated on the dry eastern side of North Island, Hawke’s Bay is one of New Zealand’s oldest wine-growing regions, first planted by French missionaries in the mid 19th century. They arrived from France in 1851 and established their community near the Ngaruroro River. They started to grow vines, but successive floods, including one in 1867 that changed the course of the river, meant that they needed to move to higher ground. Undaunted, they cut the Mission House into 11 sections, put logs under it and rolled the whole building to its present site with the help of traction engines.
As a place to cultivate the soil, Hawke’s Bay is pretty much ideal, with more sunshine than anywhere else in New Zealand. It has warm temperatures, tempered by its closeness to the sea, a mix of soils and a good supply of water for irrigation. No wonder that this is now a thriving market garden area. But that change in the course of the river nearly 150 years ago did far more than just make the missionaries move their house. It exposed a rocky expanse of ground made up of the rounded stones that had previously formed the bed of the river. Difficult to cultivate, this stretch of gravel was ignored for generations, becoming a wasteland. Then in 1988 a gravel extraction company wanted to take it over for their cement business and that is when the local grape growers decided that it would be a lot more use as vineyard and they rescued it. Now the Gimblett Gravels is one of the most distinctive soils in the whole of New Zealand. Its unique stony terroir, free draining, with low fertility and the ability to hold the daytime heat in the stones, is now famous for the quality of its reds, in particular rich flavoured Cabernets, Merlots and Syrah.
As for the missionaries, they have moved on, but their house still stands. There is a restaurant, vineyard accommodation and regular top-name concerts, and while the vineyards have been expanded and include local growers as well as their own production, they are still making excellent quality wine.
Le Bon Vin in Sheffield (00114 2560090) is the main regional stockist for Mission Estate wines. Most are from Hawke’s Bay, although there is an excellent Pinot Noir from Central Otago and a Marlborough Sauvignon.
My favourites include:
Mission Estate Syrah 2013, Hawke’s Bay, £14.50 (£11.50 on a two-bottle multi-buy): Ripe, spice-driven cassis fruit with a rich compote centre and pepper notes on the finish.
Mission Estate Syrah Reserve 2010, Gimblett Gravels, Hawke’s Bay, £14.99 (13.99 on multi-buy): A definite step up in depth of flavour and rounded concentration with dark forest fruits, layers of peppery spice and silky tannins.
Mission Estate Cabernet Sauvignon Merlot 2013, Hawke’s Bay, £14.50 (£11.50 multi-buy): Blackcurrant and raspberry fruit with supple tannins and a long, elegant finish.
Mission Estate Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon 2010, Hawke’s Bay, £17 (£14 multi-buy): A weekend wine with a sheen of concentrated elegance, deep cassis flavours and a long, harmonious finish.
It isn’t just missionaries who choose sites by the river, but it is to be hoped that the Craggy Range winery never needs to be jacked up on logs and moved. Craggy is definitely the most stylish and dynamic winery in this region, and quite possibly in the whole of New Zealand.
That Craggy Range has invested $70m in its Hawke’s Bay vineyards, complete with a showpiece winery, visitor centre and restaurant, demonstrates its confidence in this region. It also has vineyards scattered through the rest of the country, from Martinborough to Central Otago – all distinctively well-tended and carefully matched for variety to soil and climate. I used to have slight reservations about this range, because of Craggy’s early tendency towards heavy-handed oak but recent tastings have shown that the whole range has shrugged off that style and now the flavours shine through with clarity and elegance.
Bon Coeur in Masham (01765 688200) has a great selection from this range including the rather distinctive, ripe-flavoured Pinot Noir from Te Muna Vineyard in Martinborough. The Hawke’s Bay selection includes a citrus-charged, creamy, melon and almond-edged Chardonnay 2011 (£14.99) that has enough flinty minerality to team well with grilled sea bass or perhaps a plate of crayfish. Bon Coeur also stocks the seriously good Craggy Range Sophia 2010 (£39), from Craggy’s large section of the Gimblett Gravels. This is a seriously good wine, dense with dark damson fruit overlaid with cocoa, spice and yet finishing with clear, pure, elegant fruit. This is a dinner party wine that will shine out against a meaty main course.
Craggy Range also has a more affordable, approachable range of wines known as Wild Rock that provide great flavour for money. Try Wild Rock Merlot Malbec (Bon Coeur, £13.20) which gathers all the great fruit flavours of these grapes, with just a sprinkle of herbs and an exuberant, clean-tasting finish.
Another Hawke’s Bay property well worth looking out for is Te Mata. First planted a few years after the missionaries dragged their house up the hill, the estate was bought in the 1970s by John Buck. He has gradually restored and expanded the estate and now has vineyards at three key points across the region taking in different soils and different altitudes. The result is a top-quality property capable of producing fine wines. In particular, I enjoy Te Mata Bullnose Syrah 2010 which combines warm raspberry and plum notes with peppery tones and a silky texture. Find it at Field & Fawcett in York (01904 489073) at £29.60 and only open it for really good friends.