edited by Sue Courtney
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Open daily from December to February only.
If you are in Hawkes Bay and really want a winery destination to visit, then Sacred Hill is the place. It's tucked under shady trees on a hillside way up the Dartmoor Valley, a pretty drive past grapevines neatly trimmed to expose their heavy crops, past citrus orchard and fields of corn, the bright greens a contrast to the brown rolling hills behind. Beside you all the way is the Tutaekuri River and its public domains where people come to play.
It's a hot day in the middle of January and as we start to climb the sacred hill where the tasting room and cellar door is hidden well away from the road, the shady trees look welcoming and cool. The cars are pleased to see the shade as well.
Sarah of the cellar door welcomes us when we arrive. She had called about an hour before to reply to the message I'd left on the winery's voice mail tape earlier that morning. I had rung to enquire whether Sacred Hill served food, for the brochures we had picked up at the hotel were confusing. One brochure said 'enjoy fine cuisine' while another did not mention food at all. Yet the receptionist at our inn on Napier's Marine Parade was sure that food was part of the package.
Indeed it was, but it was food with a difference. "We donít do ŗ la carte any more", said Sarah over the phone. "We're into picnics this year. We'll make your picnic and bake your bread while you taste some wines and when the picnic's ready you can sit on the grass or at a table under the trees and enjoy your food at leisure".
"What do you reckon?" I asked of our friends in our mini convoy of two MG's. "Sounds good to us", they said, so off we went, twisting and turning through the valley, the topless cars enjoying dancing around the corners before blatting down the odd short straight.
There's an interesting range of wines to taste at the cellar door. In the orange labelled regional reserve series there was 2002 Riesling and 2003 Sauvignon Blanc from Marlborough, 2002 Barrel Fermented Sauvignon Blanc and 2002 Chardonnay from Hawkes Bay and then the rather stunning single vineyard premium labelled Rifleman's Chardonnay from a vineyard a little further up the valley. The reds consisted of an earthy, mossy, hard and tannic 1998 Pinot Noir and a seductive, softly palatable and rather yummy 2002 Hawkes Bay Merlot Malbec.
The Riesling was dry and just what our travelling companions loved, so that's the wine we ordered to accompany the picnic. It cost $19 for the bottle, the only one in the range sealed with a screwcap.
The tasting finished rather timely, as the picnics were just ready. In midweek January in Hawkes Bay, the place is not overrun with tourists and we had all the tables to choose from. I chose a particularly shady spot where a slight breeze cooled the 28-degree C heat.
Sarah followed close behind with one picnic box and one of our travelling companions with the other. Each was a converted flat wooden wine box partitioned into two compartments Ė in one compartment a selection of bread and in the other compartment a raised shelf into which bowls of goodies sat suspended in holes, and below this shelf, a cheese board and cheese. There were cloth napkins, knifes and forks, red and white checked tablecloths and rather oddly, tiny paper plates.
We had ordered two picnics to take advantage of all the goodies, as each individual picnic was one choice from two options on offer for each food category.
Cold and Meaty was a choice of Marinated Mussels 'from the ocean' or Spicy Spanish Chorizo 'from the land'.
For the added Taste one picnic had the onion jam while the other had St. Andrews Lime and Date Chutney.
A Dip of Delight was Rocket Pesto in one picnic and Lentil Tapenade in the other.
The Olive Oil Marinades were either Roasted Red Peppers or Spicy Aromatic Mushrooms. The aroma in the mushrooms was wood smoke, delicious smoky mushrooms, the taste lasted for ages after lunch on the drive to Taupo.
Something Fresh was Potato Salad in one picnic and Poached Pears with Cream Cheese in the other.
A Slab of Cheese was a choice of either Tasty Hohepa Cheddar or Norsewood Creamy Goats but both cheeses looked the same and were rather tasty, obviously the Hohepa.
Accompanying the picnic was copious amounts of ice cold water. Everything was almost perfect, I just had to pop back to the kitchen to ask for some butter for our bread. There was so much food, there was even some left over when everyone had his or her fill.
How much does it cost? Our picnics for two cost $35 each. We could have had a picnic for four ($65) but the way Sandra explained it, there would have only been one choice of each food selection, so by paying the extra $5 and ordering two picnics for two, as Sandra advised us to do, we got to taste almost everything on offer with everything laid out to share.
In addition to the picnics, the blackboard menu listed a Cheeseboard ($15) and a Kid's lunch box of BLT, Crisps and Fruit (no price).
By the time we were ready to leave, other diners and a tour group had arrived. The latter were being taken through the basics in the barrel room. This may be an overflow for barrels as the Dartmoor location is now too small to handle the processing for the Sacred Hill wines. From tiny beginnings in 1982, the company is now New Zealand's 6th largest wine producer and the wines are made in either Hawkes Bay or Marlborough, depending where the fruit is sourced.
It's worth the effort to visit this piece of inland Hawkes Bay Wine Country. Itís relaxing for couples on their own, good for families and simply terrific as a destination outing for groups, especially for car clubs as there's an alternative and even more windy route through Bay View on the way back.
But there's only a small window of opportunity to make your visit. The tasting room and cellar door opens from 11am to 5pm from December until the end of February. You've got one extra day to visit in 2004, as it's a Leap Year.
Copyright © Sue Courtney
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