Posted by: Anna | August 22, 2011

New Zealand Wineries

August 8 is my Mom’s birthday, and we celebrated in Queenstown, New Zealand. We started our morning with Tommy’s Birthday Sandwiches (bakery white bread, buttered and toasted on both sides, filled with bacon, a fried egg, iceberg lettuce, sliced tomato, mayo, mustard, and sliced avocado). We then packed up the car and headed out to visit the Gibbston Valley area of the Central Otago wine growing region, about 15 – 30 minutes from Queenstown. Dad had planned ahead and emailed a local Central Otago Valley wine blogger for recommendations, and I had acquired a very basic map from the tourist office. We were ready for our winery road trip.

After some confusion about which way to go based on the rudimentary map, we finally got ourselves to the first recommended spot, Amisfield. It was beautiful as we approached, with the tasting room and restaurant located in an elegant stone building, very European-inspired but still modern. The setting was absolutely stunning, surrounded by jagged snow topped mountains – even if the vines were all brown and dead. Unfortunately, although we had planned to eat lunch at their highly recommended restaurant, it was closed on Monday.

We settled on a tasting instead. Mom and I tasted ten different wines, ranging from Chardonnay and Pinot Gris (a common grape in the region) to the area’s famed varietal – Pinot Noir. The Gibbston Valley is on the same parallel, the 45th, as Burgundy in France, home of famous Pinots. The cool climate and hilly, rocky soil are well suited to the finicky pinot noir grape. We even tried two delicioius dessert wines, which generally neither of us like much. The Noble Sauvignon Blanc was sweet with the flinty taste of Sav Blanc in the finish, an interesting drink. Tommy was a fan of two of the three dessert wines they make, making those the first (non-champagne) wines he’s ever deigned to like. Our tasting was conducted by a charming and knowledgeable hostess named Viggi (interesting name!), who gave us further recommendations for the day including a spot for lunch.

This was the winery. Looks like a fake photo, but really, this is what it looked like!

When we got back into our car, everyone was hungry, so we headed directly to our recommended lunch spot. I cannot imagine that the Amisfield bistro could have been any better than the restaurant at Gibbston Valley winery. We all shared a simple appetizer of bread, olive oil and balsamic vinegar. You might think – eh. I did too, until I tried it – the fresh, yeasty bread, the olive oil bursting with fruit, and the vinegar was sweet and complex. We ate it up! Mom and I shared the harvest platter – a giant platter of yumminess. The smoked salmon was fantastic, the pate rich, the hummus surprisingly citrusy and refreshing, the frittata delicious, the cheese assortment delightful. Best of all, however, was the pickled fruits and vegetables, featuring an intriguing pickled cherry. It still filled your mouth with a simultaneous burst of cherry flavor and tangy pickled-ness. Sounds weird, but it was great.

Check this out - I'm hungry just looking at the picture!

Dad had a fantastic rabbit dish, and Jack went for the venison ribs over polenta; both were great. Tommy had a pasta dish that somehow I never tried. We enjoyed wine with our lunch to serve as our tasting at the Gibbston Valley winery, and it was good too. The Gibbston Valley tasting room had a much more corporate feel than the other wineries we visited, with less passionate servers than each of the others. I was glad in the end that we had that fantastic lunch, but also glad we didn’t waste our day and our palate on their wine tasting, just because I don’t think the experience would have been all that special. By all accounts, the wines are quite nice.

Silly pic of us fat and happy after lunch!

After lunch, Tommy, our designated time keeper, moved us along to our next stop, Peregrine. The Peregrine falcon is a rare and endangered bird, and in addition to making wine, the winery supports conservation of a few rare birds. The winery baffled us initially with its modern, minimalist design (we couldn’t find the entrance, and wandered around the grounds asking each other pointlessly, “Is this the entrance?”). We finally found it (right where we started looking and dismissed the possibility of it being with great confidence), and by then, we were all cold and quite glad to get inside. The interior was very different from the others we visited, turning completely modern. The server, Chris (a flirty cute guy – who doesn’t like one of those on their birthday? – with an obvious passion for wine), explained that since the winemaking region of the Central Otago Valley is young, the owners opted for a modern tasting room over a room that harkens back to the classic wineries of Europe. I thought the wines written up on minimalist chalk boards behind the plexiglass bar were charming, and a nice softening touch to the harshness of the space.

You can see the harsh modernity of the architecture - chaneling an airplane hanger, perhaps? Anyway, we were cold and soon happy to be inside and fed delcious wine.

We did a tasting of pretty much everything at Peregrine – we originally opted for our favorite whites first (me – Sauvignon Blanc, and mom – Chardonnay), but Chris persuaded us that we had to try some of the Rieslings and aromatics. I am NOT a Riesling fan, and although I admit one of the Rieslings didn’t completely seem to me like a traditional make, I still don’t love it. Mom liked it enough to take home a bottle. The Gervustraminer was interesting, and I can see how it would work well with spicy Mexican or Thai food, a difficult pairing for me to figure out sometimes (I tend to opt for a sparkling – the do-all wine in my house). I wouldn’t want a glass just to drink – it needs food to be truly enjoyable.

We also tried our favorites – SB and Chardonnay – and both were nice. We then moved on to the Pinot Noirs, the specialty of the region. Peregrine had one of the two best we tried all day, and I could definitely drink a barrel of that! Mom had to have a bottle of that too, and if I were going home, I’d do the same. Unfortunately, she didn’t have any extra liquor allowance to carry extra for me in December.

Chris assured us that Peregrine wines are available all over the US – ask your local wine store. After finally discussing our favorite wine books (we are truly wine nerds) with Chris, he offered us the chance to wander around the barrel aging area. We did – but our time keeper reminded us that if we were going to make it to four wineries (our goal), we had to get a move on. We took a couple more quick photos and we were off.

Viggi (Amisfield) had recommended Brennan, and when we mentioned it to Chris (Peregrine), he made a face. Up next – Brennan. I can see why Chris made a face. Ug – terrible. I mean, maybe not terrible, but certainly nothing special, and not worth a whole stop.

Our last stop had been recommended by everyone from the wine blogger to every server with enthusiasm – Chard Farms. The road to get to the winery takes you by some Lord of the Rings shooting spot (and of course I don’t remember which one). It’s certainly a beautiful and winding gravel road drive up there, with several funny signs.

The host at Chard Farms was my favorite of the day – not as cute as Chris, and not as professional as Viggi – but Dave was chock full of charm. The wine was delicious, at least I thought so after four other wineries! To be completely honest, I remember less detail about the individual wines, and just was left with a happy feeling that we had made it there at all, even if it was only twenty minutes to closing.  Another wine pusher – convinced us to try more aromatic whites – and they were interesting as well. It motivates me to work harder to expand my repertoire of wine drinking to suit the meal I’m eating. The more I learn about wine, the more I love it, and the more I realize all the simple little things I can do to enjoy it more without spending more.

Chard Farms had another fabulous Pinot Noir, and Mom and Dad splurged for another delicious bottle as a (very) quaffable souvenir. I don’t think they made it home with any souvenirs of any significance except New Zealand wine. I only hope there’s a bottle left for me to share (hint, hint).

I hope Mom had a great birthday – I know it could have been my birthday since I had so much fun and there are few things I would rather do than visit wineries. We had a great time, enjoying the unique scenery, crisp weather, and charm of the Kiwis who poured our wine. Plus, there was lots and lots of good wine – did I mention that?

Aren't my parents cute? (from Amisfield)



  1. I agree that it sounds like a fabulous way to spend one’s birthday – and both couple pictures were so cute!

  2. It truly was a perfect birthday. I really enjoyed tasting a lot of wines that don’t typically make it to the US and to talk with the knowledgeable, friendly and charming Viggi, Chris and Dave. They made the day as did the fabulous lunch. And that I got to spend it with Anna, Jack, Jerry and Tommy was the most perfect part of all.

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