Living among the vines is wonderful when you don't have to do any work, writes Maureen Marriner
Wines can be cheeky, can bring to mind wet grass, the infamous cat's pee on a gooseberry bush but they can, I have discovered, also have a lot of nerve — it means high levels of acidity and bright flavours. A similar term is tension. One supposes a glass with nervous tension wouldn't be the best choice after a hard day at the office. These wine words, along with others like brix and bird peck, I pick up on a whistlestop to the Napier area, the hub of Hawke's Bay wine production.
My accommodation for the night is about as peaceful and exclusive as anyone could want. I am to be the sole occupant, discounting rabbits, birds and neighbouring sheep, of a vineyard, Te Awanga Estate. Named after the surrounding area, it is part of Rod McDonald Wines, and its cellar door sits below an apartment. The cellar door, which does platters and pizzas, is closed Monday and Tuesday outside the summer months so there's just me to soak up beautiful views from limestone hills, over vines and out to the sea.
Te Awanga Estate is home to the "world famous in Hawke's Bay" Sunday Sessions, where local DJs and musicians entertain till late during the summer. It is also a popular venue for weddings. The week before my arrival a ceremony was held under a large willow, then the bridal party was whisked to the top of the hills for photographs while their guests enjoyed the joys of the cellar door and the romance of the vines.
Of course, if your work is the vines, romance is a bit thin on the ground. In the weeks before my autumn visit, bad weather had been threatening and McDonald's team had been going hell for leather in 30C+ days to get their crops — aka "the berries" — harvested in time. The hard work each season must be worth it, for the awards keep rolling in; the latest the Champion Red Trophy for Rod McDonald Wines' Quarter Acre Syrah 2015, as well as four other trophies, at the world's most influential wine awards — the International Wine Challenge (IWC).
Luckily for me, there are still grapes — pinot noir — to be found among "my" vines in front of "my" apartment. I take them inside where gourmet snacks and wine have been provided, along with fresh roses, loads of books, and a green ukulele should the musical muse be with me.
Hawke's Bay is New Zealand's oldest wine-growing region and the Mission Estate its oldest winery but new ventures are always being undertaken, big and small. For those who want a vineyard lifestyle without the hard work, new homes can be bought among vines.
This wine-growing region is on the move success-wise and part of that is because, geologically, it has always been on the move. Whenever new ground is broken for vines, rounded limestone rocks, big and small, have to be dug out, having been washed down from the hills over the millennia as the three main rivers change their courses. On the journey downwards, the rocks get smaller and can become gravel, as in Gimblett ...
Getting out to enjoy all this countryside is a doddle because, apart from the hills of limestone uplifted by earthquakes through the ages, the land is gloriously flat and ideal for cycling.
The 200+km of trails here combine three of the national cycle trails. The flat Water Ride takes in Napier and surrounds, its Estuary Loop weaving through wetlands out to the coast.
The Puketapu Loop includes a stop at the historic Puketapu pub, where there has been a hotel since 1885, and where the annual activities include the pig-hunting contest, and Best Dressed Possum for the kids.
The Landscape Ride explores the coastal communities of Haumoana, Te Awanga (good surf break) and Clifton, which border Cape Kidnappers, home to the world's largest gannet colony. If you want to give the quads and glutes a workout, head inland up the Tukituki River Road Loop with views of Te Mata Peak.
Both those rides pass vineyards but for the truly dedicated there's the Wineries Ride on the Heretaunga Plains, around the wine-growing areas of Bridge Pa and the Gimblett Gravels. The region has more than 30 wineries and the conveniently easy-going ride covers 33km — or 47km with add-ons — and 11 cellar doors, cafes and accommodation if you need a bit of a lie down. You may not however, unlike me, get your own vineyard.
IF YOU GO
Getting there: Air New Zealand flies from Auckland to Napier.