Beth wanted to hit a couple wineries before our 11:30 lunch reservations, so we got up way earlier then we had really had to. Packing up the car went pretty quickly and we were off on our drive up to the Gibbston region of Central Otago. Since we had left so early, we arrived in Arrowtown (the town on the southwest of the region) around 9:15am, when none of the wineries opened until 10. We headed into downtown Arrowtown to find the brewery that was supposed to be there (in the vain hope it might be open early for breakfast), but it apparently had gone out of business. Huh. So we wandered around Arrowtown a bit aimlessly, until we stopped a French cafe. I was suspicious, but as we walked in we heard the waitress and owner talking with each other in French, so we figured it might be authentic. We got savory buckwheat crepes filled with egg and cheese and some green tea—a most satisfying breakfast.
By the time we were done eating, it was just about 10, so we headed back to the car and drove up to Peregrine. Peregrine had a beautiful tasting room, including a lovely stone cottage outside that they used for weddings (we saw a lot of couples today that were looking at venues). They also sponsor the raptor rescue program up in Rotorua (that we’ll be visiting later) and recent released two NZ falcons onto their winery grounds, where they seem to be settling in fine. We tasted their full range of wines—Pinot Gris, Sauv Blanc, 2 Rieslings, a Gewurztraminer, 2 Pinot Noirs, and their late harvest. Our favorite was still the Dry Riesling we had had the night before, so we picked up a couple bottles of that. At only 4 grams of residual sugar per liter,, it was incredibly dry for a Riesling, but that really let the flavors from the grape and the soil shine through. We are both usually fans of sweeter Rieslings, so we were surprised at how much we liked this wine.
From there we worked our way back towards Arrowtown and Amisfield Wines. The next stop was Gibbston Valley. This was a bit more of a commercial winery with a variety of different tasting flights available for a fee. I opted for their 4 Pinot flight. I liked several of them, including their ultra-super reserve one with was over NZ$100, but Beth was not particularly enamored of any, so we left without buying anything. We would have bought at least a bottle of the Reserve Chardonnay we had had the night before, but they were sold out of it. Right next door was Gibbston Cheese and we enjoyed our tasting there more, walking away with two different local cheeses, a smokey one that Beth loved and a garlic-chive Gouda that Beth also loved.
It was a smidge after 11 so we drove back to Amisfield. We did a pre-lunch tasting which included a really good Champagne style sparkler and the usual Rieslings and Pinots. Nothing jumped out to us as must have, though we were definitely going to get the Fume Blanc which we had had the night before. We were seated out in their beautiful garden for lunch and despite Beth’s misgivings about doing another tasting menu, we went with their 4 course lunch with dessert and a glass of wine. Naturally we got the Fume Blanc as our wine. The first course was a potato and garlic puree served cold with charred sourdough toast. Despite it confusing me greatly (since it really looked like something that was served warm), we really liked it. The second course was even better, house-made pasta in local olive oil and topped with heirloom tomatoes. Beth had been craving pasta ever since our unfortunately gnocchi the night before so she was super pleased.
Our first main was their lemon cod with black grapes, walnuts, and a raspberry vinaigrette. Awesome. And this was followed by their house-smoked salmon served with a salad of mixed lettuce leaves with a honey dressing. Once again, delicious. They brought us two different desserts. The first was a honey and thyme pannacotta served with some roasted apricots and nuts. The other was an almond and chocolate torte served with vanilla bean ice cream. We were very pleased with both, with Beth declaring the chocolate one her favorite, though in the days to come she would talk more about the pannacotta. We picked-up a couple bottles of the Fume Blanc on the way out and left extremely satisfied.
We made one more stop in the Gibbston area, a small family owned place named Chard Farms that was located at the end of the long, windy gravel road. We choose them over the other places in the area because someone had mentioned that they sold shipping boxes and we needed a couple to start packing our wine acquisitions up (the plan being to take back 2 cases as checked luggage). We did their full tasting, which included some interesting experimental wines, like their Judge & Jury Chardonnay and a Dry Riesling, but nothing really wowed us. We did buy two empty shipping boxes from him before retracing our drive down the gravel and back onto Highway 6.
From Gibbston we had about a half-hour drive to the next concentration of wineries in Bannockburn. Mount Difficulty had been recommended to us by the Kiwi ladies on the Routeborn, so we stopped there first. They had a wide selection to taste and we went through all of it (8 wines in total, including 3 Pinot Noirs). They were the first winery we ran into that made a Chenin Blanc, so we were excited to taste a white that wasn’t one of the traditional area wines. They also had an excellent Pinot Rosé and we ended up with a bottle of each. Some of you may be getting concerned with the large amount of wine we had been tasting combined with the driving, but at all the places we went we only got a single-tasting for the non-driver and the driver contented themselves with tiny sips (so that we could agree on purchases). Today was my day to be the passenger, so I was getting nicely happy by this point. From Mt. Difficulty we went on to Akarua which is probably the largest vineyard in Bannockburn. 6 wines to taste here and we ended up with a Chardonnay and their non-reserve Pinot (finally a Pinot that Beth liked). I was consistently surprised with how good the Chardonnays in Central Ortago were, since I usually despise pretty much all Chards. It helped that the NZ wine-makers either excluded oak altogether or just lightly oaked the grapes, so that you you never got that board-chewing flavor that I tend to associate with California Chardonnay. We ran into some Americans there that Beth wasn’t a huge fan of, so we checked-out quickly, which gave us a chance to hit Ceres wines on the way out of Bannockburn. Smaller, family-owned place with only three wines currently tasting and we weren’t a fan of any of them.
It was getting a little later in the day and Beth wanted to make sure we got to Wooing Tree before it closed so we headed across the river into Cromwell. Tasted everything they had at Wooing Tree and loved all of it, top to bottom. We ended up walking away with only three bottles which was a testament to Beth’s sense of restraint (since I would have just bought all the wine)–their Beetle Juice Pinot Noir, the Blondie (a white Pinot Noir) and their Chardonnay. It was getting closer to closing time, but we figured we might be able to slip in one more tasting and made it to Aurum just in time. Aurum had a beautiful grounds, with the cellar door surrounded by a fragrant flower garden. The wine was also excellent and while we didn’t love it as much as Wooing Tree, we did end up with another two bottles, including their 18 karat late-harvest desert wine.
Nine wineries in three different divisions on Central Ortago. We were pretty pleased with ourselves, but it was not time to rest yet. We had more than two hours more to drive up to Lake Tekapo. The town was not particularly interesting, except for the fact that it is regulated dark-zone with a giant observatory on the hill above (supposed to be best star-gazing in NZ). They had an evening event that we were planning to go on, but had not booked (since there were no refunds in case of clouds). And of course, for the first time in our trip, clouds rolled in for the evening. We were glad we hadn’t booked the tour, but sad that we were going to miss the chance to see the incredible southern sky through their fancy telescopes. We got dinner at Kohan Restaurant, a Japanese place that was apparently the only decent eatery in town. The food was pretty good (a Soba Noodle soup for me, and a salmon sashimi don for Beth). After my long day of wine-tasting I opted out of any further drinks, though I did have a little green tea after the meal. We were staying in a cute little backpackers a couple minutes outside of town and we drove back up there after dinner. Bedtime can soon after. Beth woke up at 4am to go outside and look at the stars, which she reported as great though no better than what we had seen up in Abel Tasmin. I chose to sleep.