Lord of the vines

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Indulgence - Tom Wil­liams

BI­CY­CLES and wine, on pa­per at least, do not make the best part­ners. Wasn’t it Vir­gil who said that good vines love open hills? Well, bikes, in my ex­pe­ri­ence, are con­sid­er­ably less keen on them. So how my girl­friend con­vinced me that a tour of New Zealand’s wine coun­try would be in­com­plete with­out cy­cling around Hawkes Bay is be­yond me.

We had planned our trip us­ing Foot­print’s WineTrav­elGuidetothe World and, so far, we’d had great fun in the Marl­bor­ough re­gion, drink­ing Mon­tana’s breath­tak­ing sauvi­gnon blancs. Hawkes Bay, in the North Is­land, was sup­posed to be a con­trast and, with this un­usual com­bi­na­tion of epi­cure­anism and ex­er­cise, it looked as if it was go­ing to prove more of a con­trast than I had an­tic­i­pated.

NZ tends to make peo­ple think of TheLord­oftheRings (its topo­graph­i­cal variety made it the per­fect stand-in for Mid­dle-earth in the movies) and bungy-jump­ing. Cy­cling is not on many vis­i­tors’ ac­tiv­i­ties lists, but it is a pop­u­lar sport here and it does not take long to find Hawkes Bay-based com­pany On Yer Bike to hire out bi­cy­cles and pro­vide the es­sen­tial food and maps to make our day a suc­cess.

We set off on a warm day in March and it soon be­comes clear that this is not to be the chal­lenge it might have been. Hawkes Bay is mer­ci­fully flat. Ev­ery­where we look there are vine prairies, deep-green rows stretch­ing out to­wards low, un­du­lat­ing hills, be­hind which craggy, rough-hewn moun­tains rear up in the dis­tance. It is the kind of scenery that keeps even the most un­en­thu­si­as­tic cy­clist go­ing.

Af­ter 40 min­utes or so at a leisurely pace along de­serted roads we reach our first cel­lar door at Ngatarawa. The bot­tle-filled wooden cabin is looked af­ter by a small, rather feisty grey-haired wo­man who, within sec­onds of our ar­rival, is un­cork­ing bot­tles, pour­ing wines and en­thu­si­as­ti­cally go­ing through their vi­nous bi­ogra­phies. It is a shame to spit out such pleas­ant drops but, with plenty of cy­cling ahead of us, our op­tions are lim­ited.

To get to the next es­tate, Hat­ton, we cy­cle through vine­yards where work­ers are pre­par­ing for har­vest. Their weath­ered faces do not reg­is­ter our pres­ence as they prune the vines and we cy­cle by un­no­ticed, ar­riv­ing at the win­ery in less than an hour. Hat­ton’s cel­lar door is ba­sic — a cou­ple of splin­tery pic­nic benches in a con­verted barn — but the wines are any­thing but, with Bri­tish celebrity chef Gor­don Ram­say num­bered among their fans. Hat­ton’s Tahi, a ripe, richly con­cen­trated bordeaux blend, is on the wine list at Ram­say’s restau­rants for £70 ($165) a bot­tle and it’s not hard to see why.

By now the ex­er­cise has left us ready for lunch. We cy­cle be­tween the vines with child­like aban­don, then sit down be­tween the rows to eat the wraps and fresh straw­ber­ries with which we have been pro­vided, plus a grape or two, cheek­ily stolen from the ripen­ing bunches around us. Un­der the blue, cloud-streaked skies, it is hard to be­lieve NZ can get any bet­ter than this. We would stay here all day if we didn’t have one more win­ery to visit, and we have to cy­cle fast to get there.

Sadly, Sileni is not worth the ride. Its cel­lar door looks more like a Bond vil­lain’s lair than a win­ery and, inside, the heav­ing tast­ing bar and sou­venir shop are mod­elled on one of those Cal­i­for­nian tourist traps that dot the Napa Val­ley. It is a shame to end on this note when there are other winer­ies to visit, but we are out of time. We have to meet the On Yer Bike truck in Sileni’s car park.

The tour has been great fun and the wines mostly ex­cel­lent but now, hav­ing sniffed, swirled, spat and cy­cled our way around the re­gion, it is time for a well-de­served rest and, per­haps, a bot­tle of wine to savour.

www.onyer­bikehb.co.nz The Spec­ta­tor

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