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Delicious drops from New Zealand's oldest wine-growing region of Hawke's Bay
By John H. Isacs

Fresh off of my 12-plus hour flight from Auckland, New Zealand, I'm anxious to share some of the delicious experiences I savored over the past week. While newer wine regions like Marlborough and Central Otago have been stealing many of the headlines in the global wine press, I'm pleased to say that there are some new and exciting happenings in New Zealand's oldest wine region. Hawke's Bay has been making wine for over 150 years and now makes some of New Zealand's most distinguished wines.

Pioneering wineries

Missionaries from the Society of Mary in 1851 were the first to plant vines in Hawke's Bay. Like Catholic missionaries worldwide, they needed wine to perform the holy sacrament and had little choice but to plant their own vines. The Mission, as the winery became known, is the oldest producer of wines in New Zealand. By the start of the 20th century, additional pioneering wineries including Te Mata, Vidal and others were putting Hawke's Bay on the winemaking map, producing wines from German, French and Spanish varieties. However, it wasn't until the 1970s when the region first started to develop an identity and concentrate on varieties that best suited the region's soils and climate.

French varietals

The climate of Hawke's Bay is remarkably similar to Bordeaux with maritime influences and a long growing season with low to moderate rainfall. Most of the soils are free draining with natural low fertility. This combination of factors makes the region most suitable for the French red wine grapes Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah and the white varietal Chardonnay. Other wines are made but with more modest results.

The most planted red wine varietal is Merlot. This early ripening grape is the easiest to grow in Hawke's Bay, in contrast to Cabernet Sauvignon grapes that sometimes have problems reaching optimal ripeness. The relatively easy-to-grow Chardonnay variety also does very well in Hawke's Bay.

Old-style New World wines

One of the distinguishing factors of the better wines from Hawke's Bay is that they seem to combine some of the best attributes of both New and Old World wine styles. The Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon wines tend to have the generous ripe fruit characteristics we associate with New World red wines but they also feature a degree of complexity and balance that define good Old World wines.

Syrah wines account for only 4 percent of Hawke's Bay production but they are clearly the new stars on the Hawke's Bay wine scene. While they exhibit nice ripe black fruit characteristics, they also have a peppery spiciness to them that reminds one of Northern Rhone Syrah wines. Stylistically, they are easily distinguished from the much riper and more heady Shiraz wines from the Barossa Valley in Southern Australia.

The Hawke's Bay Syrah reds with their balance and sophistication were among the most pleasant surprises of my trip and I highly recommend them to my Shanghai readers.

Chardonnay vines also thrive in Hawke's Bay, making wines with good fruit and ample acidity. The best examples are approaching a Burgundy style with palate-pleasing elegant yellow fruit flavors, good complexity and persistence. Compared to many Australian and Californian Chardonnays, the Chards I tasted in Hawke's Bay had less oak and more freshness.

Recommended wines

While I tasted several Hawke's Bay wines that are not available in China, I also tasted a number of excellent wines that are available here. Among the most interesting were wines from Mission Estate, Te Mata Estate and Sileni Estates.

Majestically situated on the Taradale Hills, Mission Estate is one of the most beautiful New Zealand wineries. Despite being the oldest maker of wines in New Zealand, the winery is incorporating some of the most advanced technology to make wines. During my trip I was shown a GPS-based system that is driven through the vineyard by motorbike to scan and ascertain the ripeness of each vine.

This allows the winemaker to choose the perfect time to harvest each separate plot of the vineyard. At lunch as I dined on a delicious duck leg confit, I tasted several delicious wines. The reserve level barrel-fermented Chardonnay, Cabernet Merlot and palate-stimulating Syrah were all standouts that showcased some of the best Hawkes Bay terrior and winemaking.

Te Mata has the distinction of being the oldest commercial winery in New Zealand. They also make two of New Zealand's most prized wines, the Coleraine, a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc that exhibits the best characteristics of a stylish Bordeaux with ample New World exuberance, and the elegant Elston Chardonnay.

Another Bordeaux blend style wine named Awatea can be considered the second wine of the estate and offers plenty of delicious dark fruit flavors and supple tannins at a lesser price than its big brother Coleraine. I was also impressed by the Woodthorpe series of wines that includes a Merlot Cabernet, Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay and interestingly also a Gamay Noir. The later was a nice interpretation of the light and refreshing grape used to make Beaujolais wines.

Mission Estate and Te Mata are two old and distinguished producers while Sileni Estates is a very modern and young winery that makes a large selection of excellent wines. At this estate I tasted 10 different wines from Hawke's Bay. The Sileni Cellar Selection Sparkling Brut made from Pinot Noir and the Cellar Selection Sparkling Sauvignon Blanc were both pleasingly fresh and aromatic charmers.

The Cellar Selection Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Merlot and Syrah wines were all well-made, food-friendly wines, while the Estate Selection The Lodge Chardonnay 2010, an intense yet graceful wine, The Plateau Pinot Noir 2009 and The Triangle Merlot 2010, were a level above in concentration and sophistication. A final delicious surprise was the Sileni Estate Selection Late Harvest Semillon 2010, a wine that offers a rich sweetness balanced by palate-cleansing acidity.

Hawke's Bay was the first major wine region I visited during my flavorful journey to New Zealand.

I also visited Marlborough, the largest region famed for its Sauvignon Blanc white wines, Martinborough, a tiny region making beautiful Pinots and German varietals and Central Otago, the world's most southern wine region gaining fame for its wonderful Pinot Noir wines. I look forward to sharing some of the wineries and wines I experienced in these regions in upcoming columns.

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