Take me to Church: Church Road that is!
After a few days of cold and stormy weather in the central North Island of New Zealand; the day dawned bright, clear and hot: finally some heat on my summer holiday! After a quick breakfast in Taupo, My friend Marion and I head to the Hawkes Bay for what was to be the highlight of our week-long-North-Island trip. We are off to Church Road for a tour of their winery and a wine-paired lunch. To say that I was excited would be a serious understatement.
New Zealand wine, beer and cider have always been a patriotic favourite of mine. Although I try to drink local whenever I can, I cannot just walk past a nice bottle of Kiwi-made Sauvignon Blanc! Church Road wines do not export to the UK (although they will send there if you order off their website) and so their wines are a treat I cannot resist when I visit NZ.
As Marion and I approach the Cellar Door and Restaurant, we admire the immaculate lawn and vineyards in the distance. These lawns host weddings and a myriad of events in the summer months. In the past, they have seen the likes of Jack Johnson and Simply Red. I must admit that I am a little gutted to have missed Jack Johnson. Sitting there; on a sunny evening, with a glass of wine in hand: that would be a bit of bliss right there!
Inside we see that wines are sold separately at a spot called The Cellar Door, with the restaurant at the other side. We are then greeted by our guide for the day: Mitch, who hails from Winnipeg, Canada. Mitch is a great guide and takes the time to show us around and impress us with his knowledge of wine and his passion for Church Road.
It’s clear from the get-go that we have the sought-after guide. All the patrons know him by name and he happily chats with them as we get excited for whats to come.
Mitch hands us our weapon of choice (a glass of wine, of course!) and we head off. We start in the museum, which is behind The Cellar Door. Church Road was started by Bartholomew Steinmetz in 1897, making it one of the oldest vineyards in the Country. When he returned to his native Luxembourg, he left 14 year old Tom McDonald in charge and he then purchased the winery at the age of 19.
Tom then operated the winery for 60 years and with his passion for wine; saw a high-quality product produced. Today, Church Road is a tribute and a love letter to Tom McDonald. The “Tom” vintages are the winery’s elites and the only ones that come with a cork. Even the gorgeous event space is named after him.
Today Chris Scott is the current winemaker at Church Road. He started off working his summer holidays in the vineyard and at The Cellar Door before joining the team as a cellar hand in 1998. Since then he has worked his way up to winemaker and was even named New Zealand Winemaker of the Year in 2013. Under his direction, Church Road has won a number of awards: the most recent being Champion Wine of Show at the Air New Zealand Wine Awards last November.
After the museum, we head into the winery itself. I won’t give away all of the wine-making secrets; but I can say that Mitch is incredibly knowledgeable about how the wine is made and blended, different techniques used (Wild vs Cultivated yeast anyone?) and the reasons why different barrels and vats are needed for each wine.
I was fascinated by all of this; I perhaps did not understand it all, but was impressed by the care that went into nurturing the grapes in their journey from the vine-to-bottle and then to my table. Mitch tells us that there are six vineyards off-site and that each one has different characteristics. Most are selector-harvested except for the McDonald vintages which are still hand-harvested. We get to taste a few wines and learn to recognise the different flavours in each. We are told about a controversial Pinot Gris (unsurprisingly; as I love a bit of drama, I love this wine) It is also very sweet, which will always go down well in my eyes. As soon as I tasted it, I knew that a bottle of this would be coming home with me.
Church Road produces around a million bottles a year, with most being for the New Zealand market and a few exported to Australia. This to me, makes the wine that much more special. I can get a number of New Zealand wines in a London supermarket, but I have to travel over 24 hours to get Church Road.
After our tour, we head back to the restaurant. There were a number of parties celebrating, which I can envision to be the perfect place to spend with friends and family.
The tour includes wine-matching and Marion and I were both eager to try some more of the wine that we had learnt so much about. We started with Blanc de Noir, aka bubbles to cleanse our palate (I will be using this line often: I need bubbles to cleanse my palate, hurrah!) Next we tried some beautiful Sauvignon Blancs matched with prawns, delish Chardonnay’s matched with arancini, amazing Viognier served with olives and…I lost track it was all so good.
I would fully recommend taking this tour, if only to learn about how to wine-pair like an professional. Beforehand, my idea of wine-matching consisted of needing bubbles with fish and chips to cut through the grease. Now; thanks to Mitch, I can match a sweet Pinot Gris with a lovely blue cheese and enjoy both the wine and the cheese all the more because of it. My friends will be so impressed!
Finally; we finished off with lunch and a wine-pairing, which was a huge treat. Jenny Parton (Church Road’s head chef) has worked with Chris Scott to balance the food and the wine perfectly. The menu reflects New Zealand’s love affair with seafood and features distinct Asian flavours. I devoured delicately prepared Prawn and Coriander Wontons, followed by the Teriyaki Salmon. Mitch accompanied us and taught us even more about the wine and the team behind this magical place.
As we left Church Road; via The Cellar Door, I was truly impressed. I knew that I was going to love the tour; but what I did not expect was the team feeling that came through in the food, wine and service. Chris Scott says that wine-making at Church Road is a team effort and it shows. I really hope that I can be at the next Church Road concert, and will be asking my next visitors to bring me a bottle of that Pinot Gris as their koha.
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