Church Road Winery, Hawkes Bay, New Zealand

Church Road Winery, Hawkes Bay, New Zealand
Church Road Winery has been in the same location since 1897 when Bartholomew Steinmetz planted his first vineyard. Steinmatz, a native of Luxembourg ,chose a property on hills near the sea port town of Napier, on the east coast of New Zealand’s North Island.

When Steinmatz decided to return to his home country in the 1920’s he sold the property to his assistant Tom McDonald who’d had been working at the winery for five years, since he was 14. At nineteen he wasn’t old enough to hold a liquor licence so that had to be in his fathers name till he reached 21.

Tom McDonald specialised in red wines and in 1949 produced New Zealand’s first commercial Cabernet Sauvignon. McDonald Estate gained a reputation for red blends and varietals until McDonald’s retirement in 1976. After a brief interruption the winery re-opened under new ownership as Church Road Winery and Tom McDonald’s reputation is honoured with the McDonald Series of wines.

I took the cellar and wine museum tour ($15 NZ per person, twice daily, booking advised) which concludes with a tasting. The tour covers some history and visits to various parts of the winery including fermentation tanks of stainless steel and huge upright oak casks plus the barrel aging cellars.

We learned that Church Road owns 350 acres (141.5 Hectares) of vineyards in various parts of Hawke’s Bay. The one acre vineyard facing the tasting room is Merlot planted on terraces on a steep slope that can only be hand picked.

There is no bottling line; wines are taken in tankers to Auckland for bottling with the exception of small run and experimental wines for which they hire a mobile bottling plant.

I was particularly impressed with the wine museum which was in a series of rooms that had originally been concrete fermentation tanks. Look up and you can see a line stained on the walls by the top of the wines and a hatch above. These rooms now have tableaus of historic wine making and bottling equipment with figures modelled on actual people of the period. There is also a fascinating section of ancient history with exhibits including Roman amphorae, drinking cups and more.

Back in the tasting room we were poured

Blanc de Noir 2006 ($30 NZD)
This traditionelle method sparkling wine, which is Church Road’s only fizz, is made from 100% Pinot Noir grown in Hawke’s Bay. No dosage level is given, but the wine is dry and crisp with sharp green apples on the finish.

Rose 2013
Hawke’s Bay appellation. Predominately Merlot with Syrak, Bad sauvignon and Malbec. An off dry wine with a sweet sugary finish.

Chardonnay 2012 Grande Reserve.
This had spent 11 months in Frenchoak barrels and had the typical full bodied characteristics.

Pinot Gris 2013
First impression is of a sweet wine, but there’s excellent acid balance and a depth of pure fruit with a persistent finish. This was fermented in large oak casks and had extended lees contact. Excellent.

Syrah 2012 McDonald Series
This wine had won the prestigious Air New Zealand Trophy for Syrah just a few weeks previously. It had a very peppery nose which followed through on taste, but was light bodied and lacked oomph in mid-palate.

Grande Reserve 2011
A blend of 75% Merlot and 25% Cabernet Sauvignon, this wine had spent 21 months in French oak barrels so it had only recently been bottled. Thus it was tight, with a wood finish showing coconut. Rather austere with wood overshadowing fruit this wine demands ageing.

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Peter F May is the author of Marilyn Merlot and the Naked Grape: Odd Wines from Around the World which features more than 100 wine labels and the stories behind them, and PINOTAGE: Behind the Legends of South Africa’s Own Wine which tells the story behind the Pinotage wine and grape.

Disclosure: Peter F May paid in full for all his travel, tastings and wines.

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