Back in March, during Easter Weekend to be precise, as part of the MG Car Club's combined Auckland and Wellington rally held in the neutral territory of Hawkes Bay, we visited Crab Farm winery for the final big night out. I hadnít been to Crab Farm before but I knew where it was because the Crab Farm grapevines are the first vines that visitors to Hawkes Bay, who travel by air, see on the road route from the airport to Napier. At the Napier end of the vineyard is the winery and restaurant, with a boat - of all things - at the gate.
It was almost dark when we arrived - and rain was bucketing out of the sky - not a great thing to be happening in the middle of vintage. As a result the staff were busy resetting the tables indoors as in the conservatory, where the tables were originally set, the deluge had caused the roof to leak.
Crab Farm is a low profile winery in the scheme of the bigger New Zealand wine picture and they donít appear to do much marketing, so I wasn't too familiar with their wines. And as it was a private function, wine tastings were off the agenda. So I played safe and ordered a Gewurztraminer as my pre-dinner tipple. I say 'playing safe' because I think the only wine I had tasted from Crab Farm before was Gewurztraminer and knew from that experience that I would probably get a richly flavoured, distinctly varietal drink. And I did. I liked it so much I had a second glass with dinner.
Neil was more adventurous and ordered first a Chardonnay, and later the Reserve Merlot. He commented favourably on both.
The food was platter style - and the platters kept coming. They got top marks from me for using bunches of freshly picked pinot noir grapes as a platter adornment, something that I had commented on the day before when we visited what is probably the region's biggest winery and got supermarket grapes with the cheese and crackers. Normally I wouldn't care but it was vintage and the region was awash with ripening grapes of one kind or another.
Crab Farm belongs to the Jardine family, with Hamish Jardine the winemaker. During the evening we were told a little about the land and its history. It seems that Hamish's grandfather (or possibly great-grandfather) was pursuing someone for a debt to be settled. The debtor settled the debt with a land deal and handed Mr Jardine the title. But when Mr Jardine went to see the land he found he had bought a piece of the Ahuriri Lagoon where crabs scurried around the rushes that grew out of the water-logged muddy sand. They jokingly called it Crab Farm.
The debtor was probably laughing about getting rid of his worthless piece of land but it was the Jardines who got the last laugh. You see, nature intervened. On February 3rd, 1931, Napier shook, rattled and rolled as the country's biggest earthquake ever, struck. Most of the buildings in the city were completely destroyed and, sadly, 258 people died. But the Jardine's land was part of the 2230 hectares that was raised. Suddenly Crab Farm was about 2 metres above sea level. And it was no longer worthless. The irony of the boat at the entrance became apparent.
Vines weren't planted until well over 50 years after the earthquake and the Crab Farm label made its debut in 1989. Young Hamish Jardine, who had been to wine school in Australia and worked some vintages there too, came back with great aspirations. But he knew he still had more to learn, so after each down-under vintage he went to the Northern Hemisphere to make wine there too.
The night was good and by the time we left the rain had stopped. The moon was out for the short drive back to Napier.
I found out how high Hamish Jardine's aspirations were when I placed a couple of the Crab Farm wines in my red wines tasting last week. If you've read last week's Wine of the Week, you will know that Matua Valley Ararimu Merlot Syrah Cabernet 2002 took out the top wine of the tasting but right behind it was Hamish Jardine's Pukera Terraces Malbec Merlot 2002. What had changed. Was it the incredible vintage? Experience? Or something else?
I think it is the location. The wine comes from the Pukera Terraces, which I cannot find on a map but I believe is near the Esk Valley terraces - in the hills to the north of the Crab Farm site. Itís a sunny north facing slope, sheltered from the chilling southerly winds, and perfect for ripening the Malbec and Merlot grapes.
Interestingly Crab Farm is only mentioned on the small print on the back label. The winemaker's name takes pride of place on the front. And, unlike the others wines from the company's portfolio, there is no picture of a crab.
Hamish Jardine Pukera Terraces Hawkes Bay Malbec Merlot 2002 is a very satisfying tasting full-bodied red. Itís dense dark purple-red in colour with crimson rims and opulent ripe berry fruit and sweet oak aromas. A firmly structured wine with sweet oak, ripe fruit, grippy yet sultry tannins and a long, full-bodied, juicy, rich finish. There's that intrinsic purple character of Malbec - violets and black plums - lots of spice, lifted acidity and a hint of chocolate. Nicely rounded throughout, it's very good.
It's a blend of 50% Malbec and 50% Merlot that was fermented in open stainless steel pots then left on skins for a further period before being pressed to new French oak to mature for 15 months.
What is its life span? Well, I opened this wine a week ago and it hasn't really deteriorated in the bottle. So while it is delicious now, it has heaps of life ahead of it.
Searching the Internet for notes on this wine I came across one of mine!!!! (And I hadn't remembered I had tasted it!!!!) It was a sample at a preview for the Hawkes Bay Charity Wine Auction in 2003. Then, the 1/4 barrique sold for the equivalent of $22.40 a bottle. The lucky purchasers got a bargain with an 'auction label' to boot. Today a 750ml bottle will cost $30.00. It's sealed with a screwcap too.
Where do you buy it? Well, from the Crab Farm Winery of course. And at selected retailers. Check out the Crab Farm website for more information.
© Sue Courtney
12 June 2005