Church Road Winery

If ever there was a name synonymous with winemaking and its colourful history in Hawke's Bay, that name would be Tom McDonald.

He was, quite simply, the king of red wine - which is hardly surprising given he began working in the industry in his boyhood.

McDonald clearly learned fast, working the vines planted back in 1897 by a chap from Luxembourg by the name of Bartholomew Steinmetz, and the small winery he had set up off Church Rd.

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When Steinmetz decided to return to Europe in the 1920s, he left the whole deal in the hands of Tom McDonald - who was barely 19.

As it turned out, McDonald went on to buy the winery and set to making the first fine red wines in New Zealand.

The first commercial cabernet sauvignon emerged in 1949 and the McDonald red wines quickly forged a reputation as being among the best.

So it comes as no surprise that Church Road today has a nationally and internationally acclaimed reputation for producing great reds.

Current chief winemaker Chris Scott has clearly underlined that with his skills.

McDonald retired in 1976 but carried on winemaking until 1981, then a change of ownership saw the winery close its doors until 1989, when it was revamped and renovated - and it hasn't looked back since.

The 1990 vintage chardonnay, cabernet sauvignon and merlot kicked things off again.

It is a fine place to visit and enjoy a meal as well as a tasting, and to feel the breadth of that remarkable history.

The great grassed arena beyond the grand back steps is a refreshing and colourful tonic to savour ... like the wines within, of course.

Inside the grand building, a walk through what were once the great underground vats and which now form a step back in time museum of historic artifacts is an absolute must.

Down there you will notice a sparkle in the walls.

It is the tartrate crystals formed from the tartaric acid in the wines once stored there so many years ago.

And the historical implements of winemaking are startling.

The great barrel room with its chandelier-graced and polished timbered entranceway is a popular venue for events.

They didn't hold back in terms of creating not only ambience but perfect conditions for winemaking with a strong French influence.

French oak wine vats are used to ferment the red wines and oak barriques to age them.

It clearly works when you get to taste the results.

I recall enjoying a few glasses of the fabulous "Tom" label red with Scott a couple of years back, when Crowded House played at the grassed arena out back.

He simply asked "How is that?" and I was lost for words.

"Superb" finally came out but it didn't seem anywhere near descriptive enough.

When you check out the awards list Church Road has stacked up, you will get the picture.

A real asset and right on the Napier city doorstep.