Hawke's Bay, the oldest wine region in New Zealand, is known for its top-quality red wines and chardonnays. In fact, 30 percent of all chardonnay grapes grown in New Zealand are planted in the Hawke's Bay wine region.
What sets Hawke's Bay apart is its amazing array of soil types. Wines from this region are incredibly diverse, thanks to the wide variety of soils and the area's warm maritime climate.
Hawke's Bay History
Hawke's Bay's winegrowing industry dates back to before the establishment of permanent European settlements in the area. Although Captain James Cook discovered the bay in 1769, it wasn't until 1838 that the Catholic Marist Brothers order sent missionaries to the region.
They chose a place to settle and then set up a mission station in 1851, on what is now the grounds of the Mission Estate Winery. That same year, the Marists planted the first vineyard in the Hawke's Bay area.
By the early 1920's there were five well-established wineries in Hawke's Bay. As time went on, vineyards and wine production spread inland from the coastal areas. Today, you'll find vineyards near the coast, on alluvial plains, in valleys created by flowing rivers and on the slopes of mountains and hills.
You'll also find an array of wineries, ranging from small family-owned boutique wineries to wineries owned by large corporations – Pernod Ricard, for example. Each offers a glimpse into what has made this wine region special for over 100 years – diverse terroir, combined with a true love of wine.
Geography, Soils and Climate
Hawke's Bay lies on the Pacific coast of New Zealand's North Island, about five hours' drive southeast from Auckland. Napier, Hastings and Havelock North are the largest towns in the Hawke's Bay wine region.
Hawke's Bay has a warm maritime climate, with annual rainfall of approximately 31.5 inches. Summer temperatures range from 58 to 76 degrees Fahrenheit near the coast, but inland temperatures can be several degrees higher. Coastal winter temperatures range from 40 to 57 degrees Fahrenheit.
Because of the varying altitudes in the Hawke's Bay wine region – sea level to almost 1,000 feet – ripening dates can vary from vineyard to vineyard, sometimes by as much as two or three weeks.
The soils of Hawke's Bay deserve special mention. This wine region boasts over 25 different soil types, everything from silty loams and red metal to gravelly plains and stony outcrops. This amazing diversity gives wine grape growers the opportunity to plant red and white grape varieties that do well under very different conditions.
Natural disasters are part of Hawke's Bay history. The earthquake of 1931 devastated the towns of Napier and Hastings, and the area is famous for its floods.
The best-known of these, perhaps, is the flood of 1867, which changed the course of the Ngaruroro River and created Hawke's Bay's Gimblett Gravels area. The river's Omahu Channel, once filled with flowing water, dried up as a result of the flood, leaving a vast expanse of gravel with some silt and clay – Gimblett Gravels. The soil was so poor that even sheep farmers struggled to make ends meet. A few entrepreneurial souls realized that poor soils were perfect for wine grapes, and they began to plant. They quickly discovered that Gimblett Gravels' infertile stony fields retained the sun's warmth, creating an excellent terroir.
Amazingly, Gimblett Gravels almost missed becoming a prime wine-growing area. As recently as 1988, the gravelly beds attracted the interest of a concrete company looking for a place to build a quarry. Fortunately for wine lovers, growers had already established several vineyards in the Gimblett Gravels by this time and they worked together to encourage the concrete firm to sell its holdings.
Today, Gimblett Gravels is not only a recognized sub-region of Hawke's Bay, it's also a brand. The wineries and winegrowers of Gimblett Gravels have come together to create the Gimblett Gravels Winegrowing District. Wines from Gimblett Gravels, particularly Bordeaux blends, merlots and cabernet sauvignons, score very well in tastings, even when pitted against world-class Bordeaux wines, and bring awards home to the land once thought to be practically worthless.
Hawke's Bay Wine Grape Varieties
Hawke's Bay wine growers have a vast diversity of soils and microclimates to work with. These facts are reflected in the wide array of wine grapes grown in this region.
White wine grape growers prefer chardonnay and sauvignon blanc; in fact, 30 percent of all New Zealand chardonnay comes from Hawke's Bay. Other popular white wine grape varieties include gewürtztraminer, viognier, semillon, pinot gris, riesling and chenin blanc.
Red wine grapes predominate in Hawke's Bay vineyards, with cabernet sauvignon and merlot taking the lead. Syrah is also popular here; more syrah is planted in Hawke's Bay than anywhere else in New Zealand. You'll also find pinot noir, malbec, cabernet franc, and experimental varieties such as tempranillo and montepulciano.
Visiting Hawke's Bay Wineries
Hawke's Bay's wineries welcome visitors. Most cellar doors are open daily except on public holidays. The Classic New Zealand Wine Trail winds through Hawke's Bay, taking you past some of the region's best wineries.
If you'd like a glimpse into Hawke's Bay's winemaking history, head to Mission Estate Winery. As mentioned previously, Mission Estate's vineyards were first planted by Marist missionaries. The beautiful main building was a Catholic seminary until 1991. Today it's the centerpiece of a gorgeous estate, complete with restaurant, art gallery and cellar door. You can take a guided historic walk around the estate (offered twice per day) or linger over dinner on the outdoor terrace.
Te Mata Estate dates back to 1896. Grapes were first planted here by Bernard Chambers, son of the estate's first owner. The vineyards Bernard established are still in use today and lend their names – Coleraine, Elston and Awatea – to Te Mata Estate's best-known wines.
Today, Te Mata is owned by the Buck and Morris families. Their wines receive accolades from wine critics around the world, and the winery was named one of New Zealand's best wine producers, with a five-star rating, in Robert Parker's Wine Buyer's Guide, 7th Edition. The estate complex, designed with a unique New Zealand flair, includes the original winery building. You can stay at Eighteen92 or Woodthorpe Cottage, on vineyard property, if you'd like the experience of living amidst the grapes.
Vidal Estate, established by Spanish immigrant Anthony Joseph Vidal, began life in a converted race horse stable. Today, Vidal's award-winning wines, both reds and whites, bring medals and trophies home to the Hastings estate. If you visit, you can enjoy lunch or dinner at Vidal Estate's well-regarded restaurant and shop at the cellar door.
Church Road features the first wine museum in Hawke's Bay. The $12 winery and museum tour takes you through the historic winery building; Church Road is one of Hawke's Bay's oldest wineries. Your tour includes wine tasting at Church Road's cellar door.
Cycling enthusiasts can tour Hawke's Bay wineries by bike. On Yer Bike Winery Tours will set you up with mountain bikes – the route takes you right through vineyards – and safety gear. The standard tour takes you to eight wineries, but On Yer Bike also offers shorter customized tours.
Hawke's Bay's Future
Hawke's Bay's future looks very promising, even in the face of a difficult world economy. The Gimblett Gravels brand is becoming very well known, with Gimblett Gravels red wines more than holding their own against top-notch Bordeaux wines.
Hawke's Bay wine producers continue to pay attention to the details that count and capitalize on their individual terroirs and talents. This dedication to quality is reflected in the high scores and awards Hawke's Bay wines receive.