Lord of the vines
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