Unicorn wines, explains Michael Henley of Smith & Sheth, are those rarities, those little mouthfuls of magic, that you won’t find at just any cellar door. “They’re wines worth exploring, wines worth sharing,” he begins. “They’ll challenge your senses. And they’re cool – incredible wines you’ve probably never heard of.”
I’m beginning a journey into the unknown with Mike and his team at the Heretaunga Studio – Hawke’s Bay’s newest and most stimulating cellar door experience. The studio is located just a few steps from the equally new Smith & Sheth Oenothèque – an inviting, thoughtfully designed wine bar where it’s dangerously easy to while away an hour over a bottle with a friend. Both are owned and operated by Master of Wine and experienced winemaker Steve Smith and his Texan business partner Brian Sheth. And they’re refusing to do anything by halves.
Arguably the best way to start your Hawke’s Bay experience, Smith & Sheth’s Heretaunga Studio concept has moved the cellar door away from, as Mike puts it, “standing at a bar while someone lectures you about wine”, to a seated, fully immersive experience. Without giving too much away – and no matter how many wine-tastings you may have encountered before – it’s impossible not to be intoxicated by the sights, sounds, smells and tastes, all done in the comfort of a private room, sampling “wines that breathe of our place”.
In one I sample, the wine is breathing abundantly of geysers. Or a boys’ dormitory seething with decaying socks. This polarising wine, the Smith & Sheth Cru Mangatahi Vineyard Chardonnay, is actually one of my favourites though – super-unusual on the nose, delightful on the palate. A unicorn indeed.
Wine will ordinarily be a feature of any visit to this beautiful and bountiful region – it boasts dry summers, sundrenched hillsides, well-drained gravels and 72 wineries pressing plump grapes into silky, juicy syrahs, merlot, cabernet sauvignon and chardonnay. There are those that are household names – Esk Valley, Mission Estate, Church Road – and then those considered insiders’ favourites. Wineries like Oak Estate, with its light-as-air rosé, sublime 2016 merlot, and a rustic cellar door and café, serving up some of the best casual winery food in the Bay.
While some winery platters are as stuck in the 90s as The Spice Girls, these guys have created a beautifully modern selection that includes a divine smoked fish and thyme dip, seared beef with daikon, a nutty burnt butter and plenty of housemade bread. Around the corner, there’s also the utterly pretty, picturesque Alpha Domus, where you can bring a hamper and picnic in the vines, and Te Awa, which does a sensational family-style lunch – you might find their baked chèvre drizzled in honey, eel parfait, and generous plates of slow cooked First Light wagyu on the menu when you visit.
The provincial city of Hastings is growing hurriedly, with plenty of fresh faces taking leases on CBD property for their food or retail start-up. Stop in at French bakery Ya Bon, which shares space with coffee shop Cupple, and watch master Moise at work crafting his chewy chia seed sourdough – it’s a treat. Or nip across the road to the Common Room to relax in the shaded beer garden with a perfect afternoon IPA.
Out Havelock North way, Black Barn Kitchen is like a mini farmers’ market, stocking a tightly curated selection of preserves and pickles, pottery, and picnic rugs! Simply do not let yourself leave without some Pintxo charcuterie – handmade by Basque import Eneritz Etxeberria and her Kiwi husband Francis de Jager, it’s hands down the best we’ve tasted.
If you don’t know someone who worked at Rush Munro’s Ice Cream Garden in their youth, are you even from Hawke’s Bay? The sweetest wee store in the land now serves a fresh range of organic ice creams – when I take my small person in for a treat, he can’t work out whether the Scorched Almond or the Strawberry and Coconut are the best on the menu. “It’s a tie,” he decides.
The final course is always cheese. Right? Juliet Harbutt is an internationally regarded cheese expert, author and the founder of Hunter Gatherer Tours. Give her a bell and she crafts a bespoke tour for you and your group, based on availability, seasonality and any particular interests. Just give her 24 hours and she’ll whip something special up – including lunch at her lovely Andy Coltart designed home afterwards. And yes, there’s always cheese.
How’s the Serenity?
The best views in the Bay? Well, they’re around every corner. Blessed with rolling pasture, trees laden with blossoms in spring and apples in autumn, and braided rivers, it’s an Instagrammer’s paradise.
Take a day trip to Mangakuri Beach – bring the pooch; dogs are practically compulsory, especially the black ones for which the sweeping bay is named – and stop for coffee at Red Bridge on your way back. Mel and Ant Campbell use local Hawthorne beans, do a damn fine brioche and a bowl of H20 for your thirsty canine.
Or, head out to the seaside community of Clifton and enjoy brunch at new addition Hygge. The ricotta pancakes with orange syrup are a thing of beauty, and there’s yoga under the vines and Sunday buskers during summer months.
Those long of leg, or large of lung, enjoy walking, biking or running up Te Mata Peak for the region’s most commanding view. And it’s fun (albeit slightly nervewracking) to watch the paragliders throw themselves off the top. For the more sedate, take the marked track beginning at the Tauroa Road carpark to see the Redwoods, a Gruffalo-like forest the kids will love.
The new Napier
The Art Deco city has really picked up its game and those many graceful heritage buildings, lovingly restored, now house a diverse offering of fabulous food, art and retail experiences.
FG Smith in Ahuriri delivers a spirited, seasonal café menu and serves Allpress coffee, in a light, bright space.
Urban Winery is modern, spare and the ideal spot to sample a glass of something special from winemaking legend Tony Bish. Keep an eye out for new kids on the block, the National Distillery Company, moving in next door in coming months.
If you fancy some retail therapy, check out The Rabbit Room, tiny as the name suggests, but a brilliant burrow of interesting New Zealand art that you won’t find just anywhere, or Blackbird Goods for pared-back luxury – skincare, candles and kidswear. Then sink into the sofa at Matisse Wine Bar and spend, oh, about 45 minutes, reading the extensive wine list incorporating top drops from countries you didn’t even know produced it.
Rest your Head
1. The Manse
For a lush, luxury experience and attentive hosts with a wealth of international wine and food knowledge, The Manse, perched on the edge of the renowned Gimblett Gravels, is the ultimate in (as owner Gary Grootelaar puts it) “seven-star treatment”. Let Gary and his wife Dietske, who breed their own beef, lamb, chickens and guinea fowl on site, organise an indulgent weekend (or week! Why not?) of heli-golf, four-wheel driving, truffle-hunting, pilates, yoga – even Cuban cigar sampling. And the food is legendary – Gary is a whiz in the kitchen, a master of all things meat, and is more than happy to share his skill in a private cookery lesson.
2. Craggy Range Garden Cottages
The latest addition to a range of exemplary accommodation available on-site at Craggy Range, the Garden Cottages put visitors in the heart of the vineyard, with staggering views of Te Mata Peak from the living area of these contemporary, two-bedroom residences. Wake up to locally crafted muesli, organic milk, and Hawke’s Bay fruit preserves – and plan for a meal in the newly refurbished restaurant while you’re here.
An Oriental Bay
Locals lament the lack of a decent (or any) yum cha restaurant in Hawke’s Bay. But thankfully there’s not a total absence of interesting Asian food. Sai, in the Napier CBD, is an upmarket eatery whipping out some of the tastiest Thai in the country. Start with the meang kana – verdant betel leaves, crunchy peanut and pork crackling – and try the seven-hour beef shortrib in panang curry, or sizzling prawns (pla goong) to follow. Exceptional.
Around the corner on Marine Parade is the inexplicably named Faith Hope Love Malaysian Cafe – a hole-in-the-wall featuring a fairly dinky interior and very good noodles. The mee goreng is delicious, and enormous, so bring a friend. In Havelock North, Indian restaurant Namaskar is popular with locals. Work your way through the chef’s special menu for a real treat. The zafrani, using Bostock organic chicken and saffron, is sensational.
Op’s Kitchen markets itself as a dumpling bar, but opt for their bao. The tofu with pickled cucumber and peanut sauce is unbelievable.