The middle of the South Island

In 2014 everyone flew from Blenheim to Queenstown (which actually involved flying to Wellington first), thereby ‘flying over’ most of the South Island.  A few hundred km in a coach avoided, but missing out on wine regions that offer a complete contrast: North Canterbury and North Otago.

Christchurch, the most ‘British’ of Kiwi cities, is surrounded by plains that are home to prosperous farms.  Vines were not really planted here prior to the 1980s, and the region remains distinct from much of the rest of New Zealand, distance seems to have have protected – a fair amount of vines that are on their own rootstocks.  While there are vines planted on the Banks Peninsula, the volcanic caldera to the east of the city, the majority of vines are to the north, around the town of Waipara. 

Waipara Omihi hills from Black Estate
Setting off on my vineyard walk

Here the foothills of the southern alps are divided from the flatter land by the Waipara River, which has created terraces of varied soil types, and while there are vineyards beside the main State Highway 1 that runs  down the eastern coast of the South Island, many of the best sites are away from the road and closer to the river.  The movement of the water and slightly sloping topography reduce the risk of frost, which can be a significant challenge here.  I was able to see the terraces close up on the vineyard walk (guided by a very helpful labrador) at the Boneline.

Terraces beside Waipara River
My guide saying it’s time we headed for home

Hot and dry seems to sum up the climate, though thanks to maritime exposure there nights are cool, and so grapes take a long time to ripen – harvesting takes place well in to April.  As with most of New Zealand outside Marlborough, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir are widely grown, but there is a lot of interest in Bordeaux varieties.  And of course the aromatic varieties that Kiwi winemakers are increasingly planting, in a concerted effort to encourage their compatriots to be more adventurous with their wine drinking and food pairing.

Further south, on the Canterbury Plains, there are very few wineries.  The climate is more marginal – cooler, more frosty, but they are still making some fabulous wines – I had a really interesting visit at Straight Eight Estate, which one might drive past by accident on SH1.  In their self built winery they are making wine from grapes originally planted by the Seifrieds (of Nelson, see previous post), and their Cabernet Franc took me back to the elegant, lighter Chinon I remember from the 1990s.

Straight 8 Estate, this guide resting

Across the region wineries are small and family run, winemaking is at small scale with a focus on smaller plots of vines and expressing individual vintages.  The big wine companies have vineyards here, with signposts advertising their presence, but the experience is definitely one of meeting people passionate about winemaking in their unique environment.

Torlesse Winery
Vines at Georges Road
Garden at Pegasus Bay

Pegasus Bay is probably the most famous of the wineries in this area, unfortunately their cellar door wasn’t open on the day I popped in but I took a walk through their beautiful gardens – created at the same time as the vineyard and an oasis of colour and texture in the generally arid countryside.  However the other Waipara wineries I visited: Boneline, Georges Road, Torlesse and Black Estate were all fascinating, this is an area we should definitely visit in our next New Zealand tours.

My final visit to a wine region as I headed south was to the town of Kurow, a drive of 3-4 hours from Christchurch.  The Waitaki River flows from Lake Benmore near Mount Cook to the coast,and is becoming a popular tourist destination, with fishing, hunting and a procession of luminously clad bike riders doing a 5 day trail from mountain to sea (and stopping for welcome refreshments at the cellar doors in Kurow).

Grapes have been planted there for a few years, with a lot of the big players creating vineyards to explore the potential of the relatively cool climate thanks to a combination of altitude and some sea breezes making it up the river valley, and also the limestone soils, a rarity in New Zealand.  There are currently only a couple of wineries open to the public, but it was particularly exciting to find that Grant Taylor of Valli has not only bought vineyards and opened up for tasting in the old post office in Kurow, but has actually moved to the region – a sign of great promise for the future.

Valli tasting room in Kurow
Vines at River-T

Grant was a great host when Tim’s groups visited in 2014 (why not read the blog), and this would be a wonderful opportunity to find out how things are progressing.  Grapes are still shipped up to the winery at Cromwell, but there are vineyards to visit, and some fabulous wines to taste.  The cooler climate and limestone soils mean Chardonnay and Pinot Noir are the key grape varieties, though at River-T, just down the road from Valli they are also growing aromatic varieties.

It was a shame to leave another exciting wine growing place, so picturesque with its vines stretching towards rugged mountains, but I was nearing the end of the trip and needed to get further south.   The drive to Queenstown took me past a series of dams that are providing hydro power, and then through the beautiful Lindis Pass.  The familiar sight of Cromwell’s big fruit (it’s a major fruit growing area as well as a sub region of the Central Otago wine region) told me I was nearing the end of my journey, and while I didn’t visit any wineries in Central Otago it was fabulous to see the vines flourishing as I drove through Bendigo, Bannockburn, and the Gibbston Valley.  Queenstown as amazing as ever, but a flight to Sydney and the prospect of the Hunter Valley was now my priority.