Situated on the eastern coast of the north island, Hawkes’ Bay, New Zealand is the oldest and second largest wine region in the country. It was one of the original colonial provinces when New Zealand was colonized by British settlers in the mid-nineteenth century. This flat fertile land is perfect for farming: dairy, sheep, beef, orchards and of course one of our favorite crops – grapes! It has an ideal warm, sunny and dry climate for vineyards. This is the largest premium red wine-producing region in the country with over 80% of the national vintage for Cabernet, Merlot and Syrah. Within Hawke’s Bay, the vintage is divided evenly between red and white.
Perhaps the best known region within Hawkes’ Bay is Gimblett Gravels, named after the gravelly soil type laid down by the old Ngaruroro River, which was exposed after a huge flood in the 1860’s. Gimblett Gravels is home to some fantastic wineries including a couple that we visited during our trip: Te Awa and Craggy Range. We had a tasting and lunch nestled within the vineyards during our visit at Te Awa. Te Awa makes a range of outstanding wines including Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Syrah and a Cab/Merlot.
Craggy Range has one of the most amazing views from a winery tasting room that we’d ever seen. It’s pretty easy to see where the winery got its’ name from. Here’s what Anthony Rose of The Independent Newspaper, UK had to say about Craggy Range. “If you don’t know Craggy Range, get acquainted, because I can’t think of another wine company that’s managed to roll Bordeaux, Burgundy, Loire and Rhône styles into one harmonious group of wines so successfully.”
But this is not a post about either of those wineries..
This post is about a winery that we were not even looking for, Eskdale Winegrowers.
During our New Zealand trip, we had just spent the previous day exploring the “thermal zone” between Rotorua and Taupo. We had even visited the spectacularly underwhelming Lady Knox geyser! From the guidebooks, we knew that Lady Knox erupted on a daily basis at 10:15 am. What we did not know is that the Lady is “induced” to erupt by dropping a surfactant (aka soap) into the opening of the vent. At the appointed time the head geyser inducer person grabs a microphone to talk to the crowd and then strolls over to the geyser vent and tosses some soap down the hole and voila within minutes an eruption occurs! The story goes that this “secret” was first discovered when a gang of prisoners used the hot water at this location to wash their clothes. After adding soap to the mix they had one incredible surprise! OK, maybe it is not fair to call this underwhelming, but after you’ve visited Yellowstone and seen Old Faithful, this seems to be cheating … just a bit.
Upon leaving Taupo, you take the Thermal Explorer highway (route 5) to Napier and the Hawke’s Bay region. You’re now arriving in another of New Zealand’s world class wine growing regions. Before turning off of route 5 and onto the main road which heads into Napier, we stopped at Eskdale Winegrowers. As mentioned above, we were not looking for this particular winery. We we’re actually looking for another winery that starts with “Esk” as part of their name, but once we saw the beat up old sign for Eskdale we thought maybe this was the place we were looking for. It wasn’t, but it was so much more.
Once you turn off the main road, if you’ve never been there before, it’s hard to tell exactly where to go. It’s not a large commercial operation with a paved parking lot and a designer tasting room. There is a gravel road that winds around some overgrown apple trees just a bit until you reach what looks to be a barn. But it is not just any barn, it is the unique, boutique and amazing Eskdale Winegrowers winery.
Looking at the picture above, we were not quite certain that we made it to the right place, but the stainless steel tanks do speak to the fact that someone is fermenting something here. And really that is what we typically are looking for during our travels.
So we parked the car and headed inside. Now we knew we were in a winery because there was a sign leaning against an old barrel with some bottle prices listed, some wine bottles looking like they were ready to be packaged, some wine barrels and some fantastic brick cellaring bins. This is definitely a winery,and a rather charming one at that, but at the moment the only thing missing was the people. We had the place to ourselves. The old sign did say open from 9-5 and we were there between those times, but there was nobody to be found.
Not thinking it right to just start helping ourselves to the wine we called out loudly a couple of times to see if anyone was around. After a few minutes we heard a response that indicated there were people here and they’d be present in a moment. To our delight a women appeared along with a frollicking naked little girl. She explained that she was babysitting her (i think I recall correctly) granddaughter and they had been taking a nap in the yard under the trees. The little girl went to play outside and the woman asked if we would like to taste some wine. Of course we would.
Here’s is what we learned that day. The woman, whose name is Trish Salonius and her husband Kim started planting grapes here in 1973 – long before all of the other wineries in this area started. They find that the area has gotten too commercial, but will keep making wine as long as they can. All of their wines are estate grown, and they do not have always have a particular vintage every year – they just have what they have. Kim was not there that day, but Trish told us he says will make wine forever and that he will need to be buried in a wine barrel before he stops.
They did not have a frig for the whites so everything was sampled at room temperature. One thing about wine tasting is that while whites are normally best served with a chill on them, but when you taste them warm, the wine cannot “hide” any of the flavors. So a rule-of-thumb is if a white wine tastes really good warm, then it will taste quite fantastic when it is chilled. To grab a wine to taste, Trish grabbed an unlabeled bottle from the brick cellar, declaring that she thinks this is the Chardonnay, glued a label on it and opened it for us to taste. Cool – you don’t always see that everywhere!
This amazing Chardonnay was from 2006. It had spent a year in new French oak, and about 4 years in the bottle before we grabbed one. It poured with lots of deep yellow color and tasted big yet refined. Despite all the other world-class wineries we visited during our trip to New Zealand we felt that this was our greatest find. Now one might argue that the wine scorers of the world may not have given 90 or more points to this bottle, but they would be missing the point. Combine our accidental stumbling upon Eskdale Winegrowers, with the ramshackle charm of the Cellar Door, the genuine warm hospitality of the owner, grandma and granddaughter sleeping outside in the shade on a hot day when we arrived, along with the bottle labeling just prior to sampling and we’d say this baby was a 100 pointer! In fact this may be the greatest winery you’ve never heard of. During our trip, we told everyone else we talked to in the area to stop by. Even folks who lived and worked there did not typically know of Eskdale Winegrowers. We told them to hurry and go snatch up the Chardonnay before others find out.