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Not many people will fly 9,000 miles around the world to look at gravel. On the other hand, I’ve come to understand that not many people are quite as obsessed with wine as I am. My destination was a wine region called Gimblett Gravels, on New Zealand’s North Island, and I was dead set on getting there because of a tasting I’d attended a while back at Manhattan’s Per Se restaurant.

The tasting was hosted by Steve Smith, a co-founder of Craggy Range winery. He poured his Le Sol Syrah, made with grapes from the Gravels, in a blind tasting against some of the greatest Syrahs in the world: Penfolds Grange, Chave Hermitage, Torbreck’s RunRig. His point was that Le Sol was in the same realm as these wines. Being a skeptic, I figured Le Sol would be perfectly OK, but essentially I went to the tasting to try the Chave.

And now here I was, on a plane somewhere over the Pacific, because I was still haunted by the scent of that New Zealand wine.

New Zealand Wines: Abalone

Local chefs love abalone. Photo © Mark Roper.

Rod Easthope, one of the Craggy Range winemakers, refers to the scent of Gimblett Gravels Syrah as “the blue-flower spectrum.” By that he means aromas like lavender, violet and sandalwood, which in the best Gimblett Gravels Syrahs—like Le Sol—are intoxicating. Possessing that kind of unique signature, for me, is what sets apart a great wine region from a good one.

On top of that, the area has a great story: It’s the only significant wine region I can think of that was once almost a gravel pit. Located in the Hawke’s Bay area, it’s a roughly rectangular, 2,000-acre block of vineyards inland from the town of Napier, bounded by vineyards on all sides. In fact, looking down at it from Trinity Hill (also the name of a local winery), it’s hard to discern where Gimblett Gravels starts and where the rest of Hawke’s Bay ends.

One defining characteristic of the Gravels is, appropriately, the gray-white gravel in its soil. Thanks to the complex relationship between grapevines and the dirt (or rocks) they’re grown in, this quick-draining gravel helps make wines from the Gravels, particularly Syrah, different from the rest of Hawke’s Bay’s wines: that blue-flower scent, the expressive tension of their structure, a density of dark fruit that somehow isn’t overly ripe and heavy.

Driving from winery to winery, I tasted terrific red after terrific red. Among them were Craggy Range’s 2006 Block 14 Syrah, which combines that floral note with peppery black fruit; Trinity Hill’s 2006 Homage, a powerful, meatier take on the same style; Mission Estate’s easygoing, grapey 2007 Syrah; and a host of others.

At Stonecroft Wines, one of the region’s first ambitious producers, I sat down with owner Alan Limmer in his low-key tasting room (it felt low-key partly because Limmer was barefoot) and heard the story of how Gimblett Gravels came to be. One of the few winemakers to understand the potential of the region early on, Limmer harvested his first vintage back in 1987. Then, as he tells it, “the guys across the way” decided they wanted to quarry the land behind his property—essentially most of what is now Gimblett Gravels. These men didn’t particularly care that the area might produce extraordinary wine; their plan was to dig down to the water table, selling the gravel as they went, and leave a giant pit behind. “Where Craggy Range is? That would’ve been a huge hole,” Limmer said. “It was a massive fight. They even hired other grape growers to testify that all this land was useless for viticulture. Spent a million dollars, hiring all these Judases for pieces of silver. But in the end, the judge ruled for us.”

Later, Rod Easthope of Craggy Range verified the story. “Before the mid-’80s, if anyone wanted to start a landfill or a go-kart track here, the council gave them a permit.” We were having dinner at Terrôir, the restaurant at Craggy Range. I’m not sure what kind of food is sold at New Zealand go-kart tracks, but I’d bet that the shift to winemaking has improved local cuisine markedly. I know I devoured chef Sara Simpson’s Provençal fish soup, served with an anchovy rouille and shredded Gruyère, followed by a plate of her smoky grilled mushrooms. And, on top of that, a large bowl of briny clams steamed in verjus. And several glasses of Craggy Range’s silky 2006 Les Beaux Cailloux Chardonnay.

New Zealand Wines: Mission Estate

Mission Estate. Photo © Mark Roper.

The next day, I visited Mission Estate. A former Marist mission that has produced wine since the mid-1800s, it’s home to a charming restaurant, too. I had a dandy time eating chef Andy Glover’s creamy asparagus-and-mint risotto and drinking Mission’s citrusy Sauvignon Blanc while I watched some elderly but lively priests down a bottle of Syrah with their lunch.

Odd moments like that are partly what make Gimblett Gravels—and Hawke’s Bay as a whole—a great place to visit. Scattered between vineyards are peculiar businesses like Opossum World, where you can contemplate dioramas showing the life cycle of the brushtail opossum, then buy yourself a trunkful of opossum-fur hats, scarves and gloves. Or you might find yourself at a winery on a Saturday night for a four-hour Billy Joel/Freddie Mercury tribute concert.

But its occasional quirkiness doesn’t dispel Hawke’s Bay’s flat-out beauty. In inland regions, like Gimblett Gravels, vineyards compete with kiwifruit and apple orchards, and in the spring and summer, the jacaranda trees drip with brilliant purple flowers. Then there’s the coast, the southern portions of which manage to make the vineyards seem mundane. There, jagged promontories rise hundreds of feet above the water, suggesting a less frigid version of Norway’s fjords.

The Farm at Cape Kidnappers, the region’s top resort, has 22 suites on a 6,000-acre working sheep-and-cattle farm, and every single one of them has spectacular views of those precipitous cliffs. That’s even more true of the golf course, where several of the holes involve firing one’s ball seemingly straight out into the ocean, thanks to the designer’s particularly diabolical sensibility. I took a lesson with a pro whose ability to humor the truly incompetent was Nobel-prize-worthy. At one point, peering over a short fence to the bottom of a gorse-filled canyon several hundred feet below, he said thoughtfully, “You know, there are thousands of golf balls down there.”

New Zealand Wines: Dale Gartland

Dale Gartland. Photo © Mark Roper.

In addition to its gold mine of lost golf balls, the Farm at Cape Kidnappers has the best restaurant for miles, largely thanks to chef Dale Gartland, a young Englishman with prodigious orange sideburns. I loved his seared grouper with its refreshing cucumber salad almost as much as I loved his approach to cooking paua, New Zealand’s blue-shelled abalone. After shelling the paua, Gartland says, “We just bash ’em on one side with a hammer, bash ’em on the other, and pan-fry ’em.” I can attest that this is a fine way to cook abalone—having eaten more than my share—and suspect that further study of this technique will require another trip to New Zealand, soon. After all, if I can fly 9,000 miles to look at gravel, I can certainly fly another 9,000 to watch a displaced Brit whack mollusks with a mallet.

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Published May 2009
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