Romantic HB history
with Peter Saunders
Hawke‘s Bay‘s wine history is both romantic and accessible.
There’s every chance for the visitor to soak up aspects of the old days of wine in this country as well as taste its most recent renderings from long-established producers.
There are two ‘oldest in New Zealand’ titles in terms of winemaking in Hawke’s Bay.
Te Mata Estate in Havelock North is the oldest winery in New Zealand still operating at the original site.
What was once a stables for the Chambers family was converted to make wine in 1872.
1979 was the first year of winemaking under its present owners, the Buck and Morris families, the old cellars with hay-loft intact included in what has now become a substantially larger and more modern winery.
The main thrust of the original cellars is now a barrel hall, surrounded by much more recent additions of winemaking technology.
Many wine drinkers will remember the “TMV” label in the years prior to John Buck and Michael Morris.
When McWilliams could sell the Cabernet Sauvignon for two dollars a bottle whilst most wines sold in the country for half that, TMV gave it a try.
It wasn’t quite as good.
Te Mata has become something of an icon in the New Zealand industry since then, building on single vineyards, independently owned, like Coleraine, Elston, Castle Hill and others.
Detail has been important in planning such development.
Who would plant a vineyard specifically for Rose, for example? Te Mata did, on land which was sound for higher-volume yields of Cabernet and Sauvignon Blanc.
Te Mata has many sides, from important exports of quality wine to development of the Bullnose vineyard with Syrah (Shiraz) plantings, down near Gate Pa.
Te Mata is also connected to a new, major vineyard development called Woodthorpe Terraces, at Kawera Rd, Okawa, but yet to appear as a label.
If the owners needed to show their confidence in the industry, then they did it in a big way with Woodthorpe, a separate operation to Te Mata Estate but with the same planning base as a fundamental.
Also developing in a major way and yet still very much part of the earliest days of wine in Hawke’s Bay is The Mission winery at Taradale.
The Mission (Marist Brothers) winery can claim to have been making wine longer than any other remaining winery, but they changed site, thus allowing Te Mata the right to the title of oldest existing winery.
The Mission winery shifted from St Mary’s Church site at Meeanee to the current spot on Church Rd, Taradale, in 1910.
Flooding, more than once, of the original cellars made the shift necessary.
Mission’s first recorded wine sales, however, are in 1895 and certainly wine was made back in the 1860’s – for sacramental purposes of course.
For a long time, The Brothers studying religion at the seminary above the winery, tended the vineyard, picked the grapes, made and bottled the wine.
Only in the past decade has the seminary activities transferred to Auckland and the magnificent views and old buildings on the hill above the winery have been converted into a restaurant.
Some old research facilities and library remain.
Mission as a winery is now quite commercial for the Greenmeadows Trust Board.
The Brothers may no longer be actively seen pruning vines but we can still walk amongst the century-old barrels which used to contain much aged sherry and port.
The Mission range has changed also, but there’s still some sacramental wine available.
Now, the vineyards at Meeanee are forgotten for top quality wine but new holdings at the “Jewelstone” vineyard on Gimblett Road off Highway 50 out of Hastings lift the quality potential.
Let’s not be fooled; “Jewelstone” is the top label of The Mission but as yet no wine from the Gimblett Road label has been included.
The first small vintage from this sacred turf was in 1996.
Yet Mission now rates as a producer in the top ten percent of New Zealand wineries in terms of its size.
The volume wines have jumped enormously in quality over the past decade yet still sell for $11-$15 a bottle.
There are other Mission wines from better sites and the best may still be ahead.
Yet trying today’s range of decent Chardonnay and fattening-up reds is so different to the weak-kneed bits and pieces of years past when the grapes available bore little resemblance to what comes in today.
Mission is serious, retaining a hint of the ‘quaint’ amongst the presentation at the winery but very much able to compete for value and quality with other winemakers.
Maybe setting on the restaurant lawn above the winery and being served the middle and premium range of Mission wines is the best way to look over Hawke’s Bay in a panoramic view and enjoy the distance we have come as a country in wine terms.
Just down the road, the McDonald Winery of Montana still has its wine museum, a remarkable development with life-size (at Least) figurines working with the equipment of yesterday. It’s very much worth seeing, before tasting their wines of today under the Church Road label.
The late Tom McDonald may not recognise the site from his shed from the 1950s but he would be delighted that commercial Cabernet of fine quality is still coming from the winery which bears his name.
Photo caption – Te Mata Estate winery, New Zealand’s oldest winery still operating.
Selection of the Week
Mission Hawke’s Bay Chardonnay 1997 ($13) is a classic example of history doing its full circle, and returning to simply made, nicely fruited wines which are great with food.
We have turned many corners along the way with extra elements of flavour variation, some of which have worked some of the time.
But this is a carefully-made commercially-available wine which tastes of Chardonnay and Hawke’s Bay: almost ready (no hurry) and affordable on a holiday budget.
Best with lunch or with an early dinner before the red.