I’ve been drinking syrah, or shiraz as it’s known in Australia, for at least 20 years now. This red wine grape takes on different qualities depending on where it’s grown. The Australian version typically is rich and full of dark berry fruit. The French version, where it reigns supreme in the Northern Rhone, has more savory and animal notes, with a peppery finish. Lately, I’ve been discovering the syrahs produced in Hawke’s Bay, on the East Coast of the North Island of New Zealand and loving it. Maybe it’s because they’re spicy and restrained, which is a pleasant contrast to the sweeter Aussie style which I’m drinking weekly; okay, nightly. Within Hawke’s Bay is a terrific region for these peppery numbers called Gimblett Gravels.
The Gravels (GG) has a gravely soil, as you might have guessed, due to it’s location on a dried out old riverbed. To be able to use the GG appellation, a vineyard must be planted 95% on this rocky zone. It is the first region in the world, to my knowledge, basing the ultimate designation of their district to a tightly specified soil type. These stony soils generate more heat during the day, like Chateauneuf du Pape, and retain it into the night allowing for better grape ripening and protection from frosts. Top wines here are from Bridge Pa, Unison, Stonecroft, Newton-Forrest, Trinity Hill, and Craggy Range. The last two are the only ones widely available.
When visiting Hawke’s Bay, Napier is the best bet for a good hotel room. The city is on the water and has a lot of choices for accommodation. You can cut loose, if you can swing it, at the nearby luxury lodge called The Farm at Cape Kidnappers. This time around, after Wharekauhau bled us dry, we opted for something reasonable and stayed at one of the many bedecked 2 story Floridean-styled motels along the Norfolk Pine lined Marine Parade. Can’t beat the location, unless you don’t like water; it’s right on the shore of Hawke Bay.
As for dining, there are three good spots. Pacifica is a cozy 35 seat room with a creative tasting menu and solid wine list. It was there that we had a wonderful meal and got lots of good info from their sommelier, Chris. After that, Terroir at Craggy Range Winery cooks fine food in a big wooden room with a gigantic fireplace (which won me over immediately). We drank a 2004 Craggy Range “Le Sol” syrah which was as delicate as pinot noir. Finally, Provedore Restaurant, along the marina, cooks inspired bistro fare and play cool music. The poached eggs with mince and toast, a traditional Maori dish, are satisfying breakfast fodder. It’s probably the only dish like it in town, as well.
The one cult wine from Hawke’s Bay is Esk Valley “The Terraces”(US$175). It’s not part of the GG: and it isn’t syrah. Instead the grapes are planted on a terraced vineyard just north of Napier and is a co-fermented blend of malbec, merlot, and cabernet franc. Even though Esk Valley is now owned by corporate winery Villa Maria, “The Terraces” is still only made in the best vintages and the wines are hand plunged. I drank the 1998 (a legend) and 2002 (hard as nails) recently while visiting Hawke’s Bay and loved the subtleness of the wines and their apparent age-worthiness. Coaxing the exotic black cherry and chocolate aromas with a hint of brett out of the glass over a meal was a great pleasure. I guess we’ve grown used to expecting pricey, cult wines to box our ears when we drink them. These were quiet beauties, much like New Zealand itself, and, if I’m not mistaken, they are noticed more for their poignant silences than for their kicking and screaming.