Cycling among the New Zealand Wineries:
A Taste of Napa 30 Years Ago
By Kathy Chin Leong
Suffering can be sweet.
For vines planted in Central Otago, the Napa of New Zealand, roots must struggle for survival among the rocky, nutrient-laden schist. The result from all this stress is wine so luscious that the Kiwi viticultural area is regarded as one of the top three pinot noir producers next to Oregon and Burgundy, France. The southern island's terroir boasts pitch perfect pinot conditions: cold temps at night, mist in the mornings, and 16 relaxing hours of daylight in the summers.
The most exquisite experience is to travel by bicycle from artisan winery to winery on the Lake Hayes to Gibbston Valley paths. At least ten wineries are stationed on this route with over 50 in the entire region. Given that I don't ride that much, my husband Frank and I selected the Charge About Electric Bike company which is very service oriented. Having an electric bike and charging stations along the route was really fantastic, and we never needed to charge our bikes, either.
These 35 round trip miles are never crowded and deliver purple mountain and turquoise lake vistas beyond all imagining. The rattle of gravel between whirling spokes and the warmth of the Central Otago sun on your back are scenes travelogues are made of. And to touch the pinot skins sticky with sweetness helps the budding oenophile understand how giddy winemakers can get at harvest each March and April. However, come to the area at any time to appreciate the bounty. Do consider renting an electric bike, for hilly portions may feel insurmountable. Plus, if you are not an experienced rider, a boost of power from an electric bike may help sustain you if you plan on going out for an entire day.
And before you begin your trek, some essentials are in order. New Zealand tasting rooms are called cellar doors. And while pinot noir is king, you can purchase award-winning sparking wines and white varietals including chardonnay, sauvignon blanc, pinot gris, and riesling. The Central Otago wineries we visited do not ship to the United States, so drink while you are there or be prepared to carry some home in your suitcase.
As for cost, some cellar doors charge for tastings; others don't. And some wineries feature restaurants, all with an emphasis on locally, sourced farm-to-table cuisine. By the time you are through tasting and noshing, you'll be thankful you cycled to torch a few calories.
Small batch WineriesThe journey commences at Amisfield Cellars where its flagship pinot noir is big, bold, and redder than sin. Like others in Central Otago, this boutique business handpicks grapes and painstakingly blankets its vines with mesh nets to protect them from birds. An increasing number of wineries are also using screw top bottling instead of cork to shave costs.
Opened in 2002, Amisfield Cellars is a copper-roofed farmhouse with stacked gray schist stones, giving it that aged look. But don't let that fool you. Inside, pulsating techno music and modern artwork draw millennial to this watering hole in record number. Sips are about $8, and the fee is waived when you stay for a meal. And a memorable meal it is especially when you select lunch from the "Trust the chef" tasting menu, a five-course meal that runs $70 per person to $120 with wine pairings. On a recent visit, Chef Vaughan Mabee wowed guests with a mozzarella foam appetizer drizzled with balsamic vinegar and olive oil, followed by a lamb loin topped with slivered bok choy and a dollop of wild mushroom pate. With stellar cuisine, stunning architecture, and wine to match, it is no wonder that England's Kate and William stopped by for wine tasting and lunch last April.
Off the beaten path
While you'll want to visit as many cellar doors as possible, be prepared for many, many distractions along the route. Distraction Number One is the Thomas Brown Gallery. This vine-covered vision of cottage quaintness is too tempting to pass up. Brown came to New Zealand from Montana more than 25 years ago to paint, and he eventually purchased this former cheese factory, and turned it into his studio.
Brown gives visitors tours of his artsy digs where his $10,000-and-up paintings include customers such as David Letterman and captains of industry. His landscape oils keenly capture natural light, and, according to Brown, he was once commissioned to paint the portrait of the king of Tonga.
Riders often have to tear themselves away from the storied artist, for the trail beckons. It pulls travelers across a dozen bridges or so, while the scenery morphs from dense, parkland foliage into open fields. Each bend yields a gift of sheep, then deer, then cows.
Arrowtown, an historic mining village, suddenly comes into view with bakeries, restaurants, and shops selling lambs wool souvenirs. Making this site distinct is the former Chinese gold mining camp where some of the dwellings remain from the mid-1800s.
Soon enough, cyclists encounter the Kawarau River Gorge where bungee jumping originated. No doubt about it, everyone stops here to witness the silliness of human beings who've paid $200 for the privilege of hurling their bodies off a 141-foot high bridge. Onlookers can walk on the bungee bridge to observe the participants suiting up with jumpsuits, helmets, and body padding. In one case, a Chinese tourist has started crying because she realized this decision was a terrible mistake and slinks off the platform in shame. Meanwhile, a 72-year-old grandpa waits his turn and smiles, holding up his ticket to fly as his peers snap his photo.
Back on point
Riding from the Kawarau River Gorge, cyclists can pump up an arduous zig zag hill to Chard Winery, most recognizable for Lola, its larger-than-life grapevine sculpture of a biker chick with a wild mane. During a tasting, Mitch Backhouse, the cellar door manager, explains that the deep red pinots are poured in extra wide glasses to allow them to fully release their flavors. She also adds, "We don't charge because we don't want people to worry about it. We just want them to enjoy our wine."
The most popular stopover is Gibbston Valley Winery which started the industry in Central Otago in 1987. The red roof farmhouse surrounded by flower-filled wine barrels is the Disneyland of cellar doors offering a slate of activities such as bicycling, dining, cheese tasting at its cheesery next door, and cave touring of its wine cave, the largest in New Zealand. The winery offers a selection of tastings from $5 for three pours to $12 for Burgundian-style classics.
Down the road is Peregrine Cellars. Its tilted translucent white roof of industrial sheathing is reminiscent of a wing of a peregrine falcon in flight. Surrounded by ponds and an historic woolshed, this signature element was aptly called a "blade of light" and has snagged several international architectural awards.
There's a monastic ambiance in the soft lit cellar door as people speak in hushed tones. One Indian couple whispers that the weather is getting so chilly that they don't know how long they will last on their bicycles. The pourer nods and slides them a menu for a free tasting. On the list of its "wines with altitude" are riesling, pinot noir, and pinot gris.
In a mile is yet another sipping opportunity at the Waitiri Creek Winery, formerly a church. In 2000, the owners relocated and remodeled historic Wangaloa Presbyterian complete with a peaked roof and curved glass windows. Inside the hardwood floor sanctuary, guests can pay $8 for a tasting and order lunch as well. It will be one of the few places where you can order a lamb pizza made from scratch. A small gift cupboard sells local farmer bounty such as quince and white nectarine chutney.
The weather is fickle, so it is best to leave Pinot-ville by late afternoon. Take note that the seasons in New Zealand are flipped compared to ours. Our summer is NZ's winter, and so on. Cellar doors are open throughout the year and close by 5 or 6 p.m., at the latest.
To complete the circuit gliding over suspension bridges, touching weeping willows, and spinning past wild flower groves and wheat-colored grasses is an accomplishment. The Remarkables and Crown mountain ranges in the distance seem to swallow riders up in one gulp as the taste of pinot lingers on the tongue. Blessed is the visitor who can appreciate New Zealand's prized nectar and appreciate the distractions along the way.
Fly into Christchurch International Airport (CHC) in Christchurch, New Zealand. Rent a car. The drive will take you about four hours to get to Central Otago.
Bike Rental Companies:
Charge2Charge: 800 324 536. www.chargeabout.co.nz
Gibbston Valley Bike Centre: (64) 03 442 6910 www.gibbstonvalley.comAround the Basin: (64) 27 952 5801. www.aroundthebasin.co.nz
Most bike companies will deliver bikes to your hotel or arrange to meet you at a starting point. Plan on spending $80 for a half day rental to $119 for full day for a traditional bike or electric mountain bike.
Amisfield Bistro & Cellar Door: (64) 3 442-0556. www.amisfield.co.nz
Chard Farm Winery: (64) 03 441 8452. www.chardfarm.co.nz
Gibbston Cellars - (64) 03 442 6910 www.gibbstonvalley.com
Peregrine Cellars - (64) 03 442-4000. www.peregrinewines.co.nz
Waitiri Creek Wines - (64) 03 441-3315. www.waitiricreek.co.nz
Where to stay:
Millenial Hotel Queenstown: (64) 3 450 0150. www.millenniumhotels.co.nz.Classic four-star property offers spa and restaurant, and is walkable to downtown Queenstown. Rates start at $91.
Where to eat:
Amisfield Bistro & Cellar Door: (64) 3 442-0556. www.amisfield.co.nz
Gibbston Cellars: 64) 03 442 6910 www.gibbstonvalley.com
Waitiri Creek: (64) 03 441-3315. www.waitiricreek.co.nz
New Zealand Tourism: www.newzealand.com
New Zealand Wine: www.nzwine.com
Kathy Chin Leong went to New Zealand in March to celebrate her 30th wedding anniversary.