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Hawkes Bay and a passion for wine

From the outside grapes look a little like mini passion fruit. From the roadside Hawkes Bay wineries, large and small, all paint a similar picture. Slice a passion fruit open and you are met with a vibrant explosion of colour and texture; venture beneath the surface of New Zealand wine country and you’ll encounter more than a subtle hint of passion.

Hawkes Bay vineyards

From grape to glass, wine is synonymous with passion. From the dedication of cultivation, to the eccentric characters, right through to product descriptors dripping with adoration. It is the primary ingredient of a time-honoured craft. Hawkes Bay is ripe with tours and festivals ready and waiting to offer you a sip from the surface; however to absorb the real flavour of New Zealand’s wine country its best to go it alone.

Long straight roads are flanked by rows of carefully cultivated grapes. The land is awash with ordered growth punctuated by winding gravel tracks that slow your pace to a crawl as you venture deep into knee high forests. These tracks lead to vineyards; some barely visible from the main highways they nestle into the landscape surrounded by their agricultural moats.

We drove slowly down the dusty track, the doors slid open; a strong figure with a thick salt and pepper crop emerged with a welcoming look of excitement in his eyes. He was waving vigorously and beckoning us closer. “That was my real wave, not one of those forced ones”, exclaimed Xavier as we edged into the empty tasting room. The surroundings were humble but real. There was no grand architectural façade; the tasting room was small with minimal decor housing nothing but a large wooden barrel. It didn’t scream a hospitable kiwi welcome however our natural English hesitation soon dissolved as the intriguing exuberance of Xavier’s larger than life character filled the room.

Xavier lures you in with his humorous approachability, you feel like you have known him ten years not ten minutes. He explains he divides his life between his family in New Zealand and his passions in Sicily. When asked why, he appears to deliberately shroud himself in mystery: “I drive a black fiat punto, wear a singlet and listen to Metalica. I cultivate my cellar of wines and lunch with friends”. Comically mystified, my thoughts were interrupted, “this one you’ll go ape shit over” he exclaimed. I had almost forgotten I was there to taste wine.

We are handed chocolate chips to aid our appreciation of the red cabernet sauvignon. As I surrender to the sensation of liquid black forest gateau running down my throat we are lured into a lesson on the pronunciation of ‘viognier’. By the time the merlot is served Xavier knows the full story behind my migration to New Zealand and the intimate details behind my parents divorce. His passion for wine is obvious, his passion for people is warming and his passion for life is mysteriously inspiring.

Wine is made by machine today but it’s the people, processes and passion that really develop the flavour. A tour or festival provides the mechanical approach to exploration; the real discoveries lie on the road less traveled. The hour we spent at the smaller Askerne Winery in the sole company of their in-house eccentric provided us with a unique taste of the ingredients that go into making Hawkes Bay so rich. Approach the area as you would approach a fine wine – follow your senses, open you mind and you will be pleasantly surprised.

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