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Looking for a good time, wine lover? Head to Hawke’s Bay

The 10-day Food and Wine Classic in New Zealand lets attendees get up close and personal with winemakers and food personalities.

Brian Culy

"There is a time and a place for every wine," says winemaker Alex Roper at Napier's Mission Estate, New Zealand's oldest winery. "This first one is meant for sitting at the table with a meal, not on a paddock watching a concert."

I and about 30 other food and wine lovers are sitting on converted pews in the estate's former seminary classroom for a five-course tasting menu paired from Roper's selections from the cellars, starting with a sauvignon blanc made chardonnay-style, the grapes picked ripe and fermented in oak barrels. With each selection, Roper tells the story of the wine and why he chose it, going into detail on such minutiae as how malolactic fermentation works while making sure there are tidbits of information for every level of oenophile.

I am at the second annual spring Food and Wine Classic – abbreviated as FAWC, which I realize only upon arrival rhymes intentionally with "fork" in Kiwi English – here to delve deep into the people and places that make the Hawke's Bay eating and drinking scene tick. The 10-day festival offers high-low appeal for all budgets – besides upscale multicourse pairing meals, the 60-odd events on the schedule include burgers in parking lots, cooking classes with celebrity chefs, even beer tastings – and lets attendees, many of whom are local, get up close and personal with winemakers and food personalities showcasing their Kiwi-casual hospitality and, let's be frank, their friendly sense of competition.

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It's this competitive spirit that comes into play one sunny Sunday morning in the town of Hastings at the Hawke's Bay Farmer's Market, where a huge circle of merchants surrounds a grassy field and, in the centre, a large white tent admits only those who managed to secure a spot in the sold-out Locavore's Lunch competition. The event sees eight teams of 12, each headed by a chef, competing to cook a meal using as many ingredients as possible from the market stalls.

Paolo Pancotti, our leader and the chef from popular restaurant Milk & Honey, sends me and my partner out to get garnishes – and verifying "we shopped here" signatures – from as many sellers as possible using the last $12. We turn down gourmet honey (too expensive) in favour of a tiny bag of granola to sprinkle on top of our blueberry ice cream, fresh herbs for the mushroom salad and a hard cheese to grate over grilled asparagus. Despite our economizing, our group does not win the case of wine for hitting the most vendors, but we do win when we sit down for a glass of rosé and our meal, admittedly gloating a bit at the envious looks from the spectators outside.

The next evening, we're at Deliciosa Tapas & Wine Bar in the little town of Havelock North for Wine Lies: We have to guess which of two winemakers – both of whom, it seems, come from a long line of talented liars – is telling the truth about a particular glass of wine. The other teams are made up of industry insiders, and our motley crew of writers, PR reps and one lawyer called up as an emergency fill-in feels exceedingly out of its depth, preferring to make calls based on body language and logical fallacies rather than what the wine tastes like.

And then one pair of whites comes up – sauvignon blancs both, the difference being in age and region. I take a sniff, then a sip, and am bombarded with the flavour of overcooked asparagus. I excitedly remember Roper's lessons at Mission Estate: This is a sign of a sauv past its prime. In the end, we place a respectable third-to-last, proud to have gotten at least one answer right based on facts, not guesswork. It does not matter, though – we're buzzed not just on the wine, but on the good company. And I can't wait to see who I'll meet tomorrow.

The Hawke's Bay Food and Wine Classic (FAWC) takes place twice a year: the four-weekend winter series in June – this year from June 6 through June 29 – and the 10-day spring series in November. For more information visit fawc.co.nz.

The writer travelled courtesy of New Zealand Tourism, which did not review or approve this article.

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