Mike Yardley: Roaming the Hawke’s Bay heartland

Author
Mike Yardley,
Publish Date
Sat, 28 Aug 2021, 12:52PM
(Photo / Hawkesbaynz)
(Photo / Hawkesbaynz)

Mike Yardley: Roaming the Hawke’s Bay heartland

Author
Mike Yardley,
Publish Date
Sat, 28 Aug 2021, 12:52PM

After revelling in the pleasures of Napier, the Hawke’s Bay hinterland was calling. Over 100 wineries and cellar doors are pinned to the pastoral folds of the region, kissing its fertile countryside and crinkled, tumbling hills. Hawke’s Bay doesn’t have a signature variety, although their full-bodied reds have given rise to the sobriquet, “Bordeaux of New Zealand.” It excels in the hospitality stakes with generous wine tastings across a staggering range of varieties, best known for Merlot Cabernet blends, Syrah and Chardonnay. But I equally enjoyed sampling their Riesling, Pinot Gris and Viognier.  

Mission Estate is the nation’s oldest winery, initially established in 1851, by Marist missionary priests who planted the first vines, to produce alter wine. Housed in the sumptuously restored seminary building, La Grande Maison, where Marist Priests used to train, the Mission Restaurant is a discerning choice for a sun-drenched leisurely lunch or romantic dinner.  Some of the priests were killed on-site during the 1931 quake.  

Be sure to join one of the introductory history tours, which provides an enriching overview of this treasured winery. Church Road is another historic vineyard with a fantastic wine museum, cellar door tastings and popular winery tour. I also headed to Trinity Hill, set in the acclaimed Gimblett Gravels area, which produces an exemplary range of varieties. They’re always experimenting and I adored some of their lesser-known varieties, likes Viognier and Arneis from northern Italy and Tempranillo from Spain.  

The cellar is a popular venue for exhibitions of contemporary art and the attractive gardens are the perfect setting for a summer platter. I enjoyed a sumptuous wine tasting experience with my Trinity Hill sommelier, Brittany, who guided me through six premium wines including their flagship Homage Syrah. As Brittany remarked, Hawke’s Bay Syrah is really coming into its own, giving New Zealand Pinot Noir a run for its money. Across the road, I also sipped and swilled some fine specimens at Villa Maria Gimblett Gravels. I particularly enjoyed their Esk Valley Albarino, which is crisp, fresh and fruity. Their Gimblett Gravels 2018 Syrah has a wonderfully leathery, earthy flavour.  

Finally, how could you possibly skip Craggy Range, with its incredibly striking setting, wedged between the Tukituki River and mountain backdrop of Te Mata Peak. The Terroir restaurant showcases Craggy’s top-flight range paired with flavourful dishes specialising in salivating local produce. In addition to wine country, there’s no disputing the bay’s credentials as a vast temple of gastronomy. Nearby in Havelock North, a sparkling combo is Malo Restaurant, where the emphasis is on local, seasonal flavours and the neighbouring wine lounge, Smith & Sheth. From afternoon, the cellar door transforms into a very cool wine lounge & patio. Not only can you enjoy the elegant wines of Smith & Sheth CRU, but also their sister wineries Pyramid Valley and Lowburn Ferry, alongside some sommelier selected wines from around the world. It’s a revelation. 

When in Hastings, stake out Sazio, a seductive Italian eatery that serves handmade, fresh pasta cooked to order. I highly recommend sinking your teeth into a plate of their pappardelle with ossobuco ragu. Buon Appetito! This tomatoey smash-hit is next level comfort food. Arguably overshadowed by Napier’s world-acclaimed architectural cachet, Hastings’ built heritage is strikingly impressive, a happy mix of Spanish mission, Art Deco and Stripped Classical styles. Like Napier, much of it emerged like a phoenix from the ashes of the quake. You can ogle several dozen of these heritage-listed confections in the CBD, including the magnificent Toitoi, the Municipal Building and the eye-catching Westerman’s building.  

Hastings loves its public art with a plethora of eye-catchers speckled across the city centre, including Neil Dawson’s suspended sphere, Suntrap, to the adorable flock of sheep, Chloe & Friends, by Gary Hebley. In addition to the thriving creative scene, the city centre is enjoying new-found vitality, particularly its East Block 200, (Heretaunga Street) which has undergone a head-turning renaissance, bursting with artisan stores, eateries, taprooms, bakeries and cellar doors. Independent retail stores include Black Bird Goods, Little Red Bookshop, Real World and Kindred Road. Then there’s artisan producers like Cornucopia, Ya Bon and La Petite Chocolate. Y’a Bon French Baker is an ultra-contemporary artisan bakery with a distinctive French style.  

Gigantic glass windows frame the bakery work space, so you can watch the bakers in action from the adjoining cafe Cupple, which is run by local coffee roasters First Hand Coffee. If organic food and natural health is your bag, Cornucopia is unmissable, they’re absolute sticklers for ensuring access to healthy organic food and safe, natural products. Chocoholics, check out La Petite, where ethical and sustainable business practices take centre stage. Try their divine and amazingly creamy milk chocolate. Cadbury doesn’t have a patch of these guys.  

Heading out of Hastings, as roadside blossoms danced in the gentle breeze, backdropped by the snow-topped grandeur of the Ruahine Ranges standing guard to the west, I dabbled in some of the myriad of bucolic delights pepper-potting Central Hawke’s Bay. Dispersed throughout this hinterland district is a trove of historic villages, stately homesteads, boutique producers, eclectic landmarks and soothing landscapes.  I struck out on State Highway 50, commonly nicknamed “The Road Less Travelled,” because it’s the secondary route between Napier and Wellington to complement SH2. Weaving its way through the foothills of the Ruahines, SH50 is like a distilled highlights reel of Central Hawke’s Bay finest features.  

Stunning in every season, this driving route is a favourite of vintage car enthusiasts in spring, when pastures are filled with frisky lambs. Tikokino Peonies bloom from October to November, while Taniwha daffodils is a hallmark of spring in Central Hawke’s Bay. The district comes alive in September and October with a spectacular line up of events and tours during the annual Spring Fling Festival. Capturing the essence of this enchanting sub-region of Hawke’s Bay, Spring Fling showcases the very best food, wine, adventure, culture and history. The full list of events can be found at www.thespringfling.co.nz 

Central Hawke's Bay as we know it today is made up of a number of towns and smaller settlements founded by the early pastoralists who bought up great chunks of land here in the second half of the 1800's, created vast farming stations and built beautiful homesteads. I popped into one of these jewels, Gwavas Garden & Homestead, owned by Stu and Phyllida Gibson. The homestead is category 1 listed with Heritage New Zealand and boasts one of the best examples of interior Totara panelling in New Zealand, a majestic Rimu staircase back-lit by a huge stained-glass window containing the family’s Marshalling of Arms. The homestead has three gorgeous bedrooms available for bed & breakfast style accommodation at ridiculously bargain prices. Stu and Phyllida are wonderfully laidback hosts who will make you feel right at home.  

Situated in the middle of a mature 9 hectare Woodland Garden of National Significance, the homestead was built for Phyllida’s great grandfather, ASG Carlyon. The oldest plantings date back to 1860 – and there’s some formidably towering specimens, like the Atlantic Cedars. The property also boasts a magnificent remnant of native forest, which the Gibson’s are rightly very proud of. Many species in decline elsewhere still exist in Puahanui Bush, just behind the homestead. It’s home to long-tailed bats, bush falcon, large numbers of tui and kereru, forest gecko, and a range of unusual invertebrates. This 132-hectare lowland podocarp forest is a significant biodiversity landmark in Hawke’s Bay. Preserved by the Carlyon and Hudson families, it’s one of the best representative remnants of this forest type, east of the Ruahines. www.gwavasgarden.co.nz 

From there I tootled down to Ongaonga, a stunning historic village of storybook good looks, where I half expected horse and carts to be clopping down the main street. Awash with evocative buildings and cottages, there’s the original School house, Jail, Butcher and Settler’s hut, at your disposal. The Coles Brothers’ building, in the heart of the Village, is particularly special. The category 1 listed building was built in 1878 and housed the Coles Brothers’ various enterprises including carpentry, surveying, interior decorating and even coffin building and the local undertaker business. It’s currently being meticulously restored. It’s a drool-worthy village and a Village Fair takes place during Spring Fling. 

My final stop in Central Hawke’s Bay was in Takapau, home to Junction Wines. The Ashworth family planted the first of their grapes on their property’s stony gravels in 1994, and have progressively planted productive varietals of Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Gris, Riesling, Gewurztraminer, Syrah and Flora. Today, a visit to this family vineyard and cellar door offers a wondrous encounter with their award-winning, intense, aromatic wines. The wines reflect John Ashworth’s, (former All Black) passion for Pinot Noir, and his son Leith’s, natural flair for winemaking and together they have established an integrated winemaking operation. Junction Wines is the southernmost stop on the Hawke's Bay wine trail. The Vineyard is incorporated in the family sheep and beef operation, where the new season lambs are used for pasture management throughout the vines, as well as leaf plucking through January and February.  

The cellar door is located in the working home of John and Jo Ashworth, who are outgoing and entertaining hosts, sharing their knowledge and passion over a wine tasting. The Cellar Door is family friendly and if you are coming through in a campervan or motorhome you’re welcome to pull in and stay overnight. It’s stacked with rugby memorabilia from John’s playing days, including his representative jerseys. The wines are simply exceptional but one drop you won’t want to miss is 2018 Reserve Front Row Pinot Noir. Only 776 bottles of this wine were produced in a limited release. John was All Black number 776, a formidable front row forward who played for the All Blacks in 24 tests, from 1977 to 1985. The Front Row Pinot Noir was barrel aged in French oak for 18 months with 50% new oak. The wine packs all the punch of a front row forward, with smooth edges as it ages. This quintessential Kiwi wine experience is out of the box. www.junctionwines.co.nz 

Strike out to discover the many splendours of Central Hawke’s Bay from the five-star jewel-box delights of Swiss-Belboutique Napier. This brand new premium hotel offers a contemporary take on Napier’s Art Deco credentials, with irresistibly designed accommodations, spaciously designed and loaded with pampering. Check out Saffron Social Kitchen for divine Indian cuisine with a modern twist. The property also boasts an ultra-contemporary fitness centre, on-site parking and pet friendly rooms. Bag a great stay and a great rate on Booking.com.  No matter what your budget or accommodation preferences may be, for great-value stays with total flexibility and convenience, head to https://www.booking.com 

As New Zealand’s premier food and wine growing region, Hawke’s Bay really is Food and Wine Country. With an abundance of fresh produce, remarkable history, outdoorsy delights and scenic splendour by the caseload. Make your first port of call the region’s official website. www.hawkesbaynz.com 

Mike Yardley is our resident traveller on Jack Tame Saturday Mornings.