Much is made of the taste of wine – people devote entire careers to this facet; and then there is also the creation of wine, with a worldwide industry that creates, promotes and distributes globally.
What then, of the culture of wine? Or the spirit of it? People who take a journey through the ‘world’ of wine get different things from it. One place, the Smith & Sheth Studio, and Cellar door in the centre of Havelock North is a location to talk about and learn more about the pleasure, culture and craft of wine. The experience is a major part of wine tasting. Whether that is a Cellar Door with breathtaking scenery like Domain Thomsen or Brancott, or simply the care and attention of the person taking you through the wines.
Smith and Sheth is a family of wines – including Pyramid Valley and Lowburn Ferry, and lends itself to a journey around New Zealand through wine as well. The way that journey is presented is quite memorable – a definite ‘experience’ that will leave a lasting impression. You enter an ‘oenotech’ called the Heretaunga Studio, a cool, dark space that is fitted out like a 5-star Hotel, to a welcoming karanga by a local Ngati Kahungunu.
Building the room over 18 months, the idea grew that they would challenge what the ‘traditional’ wine tasting was. This is more multi-dimensional than walking up to a bar and being presented with a string of wines to try. More like a theatre of wine – a room specifically created for telling the stories behind the wines. There are barrels in the room, and that is part of the tasting – to try the wines in development.
The furniture is made from a Matai tree that was recovered from a river in the South island and created for the room. Even the spittoons next to the seating are made by a local potter using clay from the vineyards in North Canterbury. These things that you can touch and use are all part of the considered experience at play here.
Part of Smith and Sheth is Steve Smith, a Master of Wine who started Craggy Range with the Peabody family. He met Brian Sheth in 2012 and they decided later that they wanted to do something together. The idea was whether to do something new, or take on something established. It took a couple of years to buy the established wineries at Pyramid Valley and Lowburn Ferry, so in the meantime, Steve decided to use his contacts to find great parcels of land from which to make great wine.
They do an Albarino, and three Chardonnays – a ‘fun’, ‘funky’ and ‘serious’ one. If you haven’t tried your hand at a “Wine Thief” to get wine out of the barrel, this is your chance, as they have barrels in the Studio, and it’s part of the experience. We tried Chardonnays from the barrel, and it is really interesting for visitors to try an ‘unfinished’ wine – a 2020 tried in June, is as far from a finished wine as I’ve tried before. One of them is the ‘funky’ one, and usually a winemaker is happy to show you a wine that’s not too far from being bottled – but this is raw – and fascinating.
Tasting some of the wines that were ‘bought’ into the stable – two Pinot Noirs from Pyramid Valley, and a Central Otago one from Lowburn Ferry – all small volumes, but crafted in a special way that fits into the ‘exceptional wines’ ethos. These are a pleasure to drink, and you’re inspired by the audio-visual to link the land to the wine. The journey through differing terroirs is fascinating – and you’re accompanied by wines that totally reflect this. These are wines that are made in the vineyard, and so specific to each location, that that is what you get in the glass.
The tutorial that you’re exposed to in this session is quite something – tasting exceptional New Zealand wines, but also putting them in context with the visuals and stories alongside. It’s glib to say that it is rare to taste rare wines.. but it is, by it’s very nature. These are not everyday wines, and this not your common wine tasting. You do get to discover the small percentage difference that really makes these wines special, and apart from the rest.
I’d always recommend to a tourist to go direct to the source, and visit winery Cellar Doors. However, if you only have a short time for one wine-related activity to the region – your time will be well spent with a visit to the Heretaunga Studio in Havelock North.