Kelly J. Hayes: WineInk | AspenTimes.com
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Kelly J. Hayes: WineInk

Kelly J. HayesAspen Times Weekly

Tasting a wine, reading a wine label or seeing a story on a particular wine region can send your mind to places that you have either been to, or hope to visit one day. So it was on a recent rainy Saturday morning that two unrelated incidents conspired to put me on a journey in my head to the east coast of New Zealands North Island on a summer day.The first trigger for my virtual trip came when I picked up my mail and found in the May edition of Food & Wine Magazine a feature story by Ray Isle on the Gimblett Gravels region of Hawkes Bay. Not more than 15 minutes later, I stopped to buy a bottle of wine for dinner and spied a bottle of Sileni Estates Sauvignon Blanc on the shelf, also from Hawkes Bay.I picked up the bottle, with its clean, contemporary label and began to reminisce fondly about a trip I took a few years ago to that very winery. I had tasted some wines from New Zealand back in the 1990s, but it was hardly a blip on my radar as a serious wine-producing country. And I had never heard of Hawkes Bay, much less the Gimblett Gravels. It was only when I traveled there and saw how beautiful it was and how sophisticated the producers were that I climbed on board the bandwagon.My trip to Hawkes Bay resulted from an invitation my wife (a travel writer) received from an enterprising winemaker named Graeme Avery. Avery grew up in the farm town of Hastings in the heart of Hawkes Bay, but left for the big city (Auckland) as a young man to create a medical publishing company. He became what the Kiwis call a tall poppy, i.e. a hugely successful entrepreneur. After selling his company he returned to his roots and started Sileni Estates Winery, building a state-of-the-art facility and producing distinctly New Zealand wines using French varietals ranging from Semillon and Chardonnay to Syrah, Merlot and Cabernet Franc. Knowing that press attention was one brick in the road for a region hoping to promote itself as a wine destination, he set out to bring American journalists to Hawkes Bay.Count me in. The trip was both a whirlwind and a revelation. The location is stunning. Think Santa Barbara facing east in the southern hemisphere. There are miles of untouched beaches that rise into miles of mountains that ring a fertile valley. Hastings and Napier are the two big towns, but the heart of the valley remains rural with blue skies, clean air and exceptional soils for growing fruit. Especially grapes.During the trip, we met a number of winemakers and drank some great wines, especially the Bordeaux varietals that are not usually associated with New Zealand. Favorite stops included Alpha Domus, a family winery run by Dutch immigrants who make a terrific pair of Merlot/Cabernet blends called The Navagator and The Aviator; Te Mata Estates, a hillside vineyard that was originally planted to grapes in the 1890s and today produces what is New Zealands most acclaimed red wine, Coleraine; and Craggy Range, whose winemaker Steve Smith is a well-known Master of Wine and a great promoter for the region.Today, despite both Graemes and my efforts (I wrote a bit about it following my trip), Hawkes Bay is still not the most famous wine region in New Zealand. For those who know a little about Kiwi wines, Marlborough is probably the most familiar because of the clean, green, grassy Sauvignon Blanc from the South Island. Central Otago, also on the South Island, is likely the next most recognized area as they are exporting more and more of their cool-climate Pinot Noir to these shores.But that may soon change. Ray Isles story was headlined New Zealands Next Great Wine Frontier and it was clear that he was smitten with the rocky Gimblett Gravels appellation that was formed by a huge flood in the 1870s that left, well, gravel, in its wake. Other wine magazines have also taken note, and today the wineries of Hawkes Bay are producing their best wines yet.Graeme Avery had it right. Hawkes Bay is a great place to take a trip, virtual or otherwise.

Kelly J. Hayes lives in the soon-to-be designated appellation of Old Snowmass with his wife, Linda, and a black Lab named Vino. He can be reached at malibukj@wineink.com.


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