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New Zealand Wine and Scenery with James and Aina, part 1 (July 4, 2012)

by James Harbeck

I'll start with the conclusion: Is New Zealand worth seeing? Yes, it's full of beautiful stuff, though of course not all of it is stunning. Is it worth drinking your way around? You bet. Is the food good? Yup. And how is getting there and back? Umm... well, it keeps the crowds down a bit.

To be fair, although our return trip was unspeakably hellish (no fault of New Zealand's; the couple with the demon child on the 13-hour flight were Aussies, and the airline was United), our trip there was lovely.

My wife (Aina) and I flew out of Toronto on May 5. Our first leg, YYZ–LAX, had no free food or alcohol, so there's nothing to talk about. But after we connected in LAX to Air New Zealand, we found ourselves much luckier: a half-empty flight on a new widebody jet. We took over a row. We had two glasses of wine each with dinner, poured simultaneously (no North American airline I know of will do that, not in economy class – one at a time, you disgusting alkie, is the usual attitude). Aina actually like the Pinot Noir, which is not usual for her; I neglected to write down the name. The food was quite acceptable, the movie selection very nice.

And after watching Breakfast at Tiffany's, I – and Aina – had breakfast with Lindauer fizzy. (On the trip back after leaving NZ, we asked the attendant on United Airlines if there was sparkling wine with breakfast. No, we were told, with the subtext "you disgusting alkie"). Don't turn your nose up at Lindauer just because it's inexpensive and popular. It goes very well with bacon. And flying for twelve hours in economy.

We arrived in Auckland before sunrise – May is like our November there – and by the time I picked up the rental car, the sun was just coming up. My first experience of driving on the left – ever – involved having the sun right in my eyes. Right. In. My. Eyes. For about ten minutes. We survived. Even with my turning on the wipers every time I wanted to change lanes.

Our first day's itinerary took us to Rotorua, but we had no need to go directly there. We had lots of time. So, after driving through a lot of farm country and a very scenic twisty ravine, we stopped by Tauranga, a beach resort town. We were introduced to New Zealand's national coffee: the flat white, which is sort of like a stronger version of a latte. I had a very sweet snack with mine.

Aina wanted to go to a beach at least long enough to dip her feet in the water. My wife is that woman who loves to be on the beach wearing a long flowing black dress. We went over to a beach near Mt. Maunganui, which is an extinct volcano on a peninsula. It was very nice and very scenic. As we were leaving, some dude was heading down with a white bucket of assorted fish parts to do I don't even know what with.

Maunganui beach


Rotorua is a very popular resort town on a lake. It is popular because of its hot springs, and there are some outdoor activities available too. But it is not really the most wonderful town anywhere ever, in truth. The most salient thing is that those hot springs and associated mud pots and so forth cause the whole town to smell like sulfur and impolite things more or less all the time, though in varying intensity. Beyond that, it's not as upscale as some tourist towns. In fact, some parts of look kinda sketchy. Even the main touristy area is more like the secondary streets of some tourist towns. Perhaps this makes it more "authentic" or something. To be fair, the museum and gardens are nice.

gardens in Rotorua

mud pot in Rotorua

After checking into the Millennium Hotel, we head out to buy some food and bev for the room. We pick up a bottle of sparkling Sauvignon Blanc (I-Forgot-to-Write-It-Down Vineyards) at a store with a friendly little clerk who didn't know a whole lot about wine and was distracted by making sure that a quartet of local brutes didn't purloin anything. Then to Pak'nSave for some snacks and breakfast foods. Finding gluten-free breakfast cereal for Aina was a bit of a hunt (she loves wheat products and can't have them), but we found some with a bit of help from the cashier. Also some rather good local cheese. They have a lot of that. But I was still jet-lagged and wasn't in the habit of taking notes yet. Wait for it, they're coming.

There are two places to take the waters in Rotorua. One is the Blue Baths, which opened in the early 20th century as a public unisex bathing spot. Claims to the contrary notwithstanding, it did not appear to have been renovated any time since about 1927. It was not all that large, not all that pretty, and not all that clean-feeling. We did not stay all that long.

The other one is the Polynesian Spa. It's the real place people go to. They have three mutually exclusive bathing options. We went for the adult pools, which are a ring of seven pools at different temperatures (36┬░C to 42┬░C) and two different kinds of water (more alkaline and more acidic) with views of the lake and, as the name says, no children. We spent two hours there. Yes, two hours, hopping from pool to pool. And no working water fountain anywhere. Very relaxing, but I sure was thirsty by the end. Once dried off, I went to the cafeteria and discovered Lemon & Paeroa, a nice not-too-sweet soft-flavoured lemon soft drink, another NZ specialty.

The next day's plans aimed us straight towards wine country (after a nice, brisk run around the gardens for me). We did not go there without stopping; we halted at a geothermal site called Orakei Korako, where you take a ferry across a lake and hike a ring through a number of hot springs, mud pots, and so on. A very lovely and scenery-dense place, much lusher than Yellowstone, to say nothing of anywhere in Iceland. Of course there's that smell... but it's worth seeing.

Orakei Korako

South from there took us past Lake Taupo, where we didn't stop, though there's plenty more scenery for those who want it. But we wanted to make it to the wineries in Hawke's Bay in time to do a bit of tasting and, we hoped, have some lunch.

Heading south from Lake Taupo, onto a highway that has basically no turn-offs, we passed a sign telling us – after we'd missed any turn-off to a gas station – that the next gas was in something like 170 km. We were on a quarter tank. I was hoping it would be mostly downhill...

It was classic NZ driving. There are three things that roads in NZ are not: flat, straight, and wide. You live for the occasional passing lane. And the scenery can change very rapidly. It is really quite something, especially on the hilly parts of the North Island, such as that road from Taupo to Napier we were driving on: you can see palm trees, deciduous trees (in fall colour), and evergreens in the same sightline, and quite close together.

We made it to a gas station with a comfortable half litre left in the tank. And we made it to Elephant Hill winery by 2:30, just in time for lunch. ("You just made it," our Dutch waitress told us.) We had a lovely lunch outside on patio overlooking vineyards and Hawke's Bay.

Elephant Hill

Elephant Hill

I had a yummy fish, the name of which I was sure I would remember but I was wrong; Aina had an excellent risotto with smoked tomato and mushroom. She had a Syrah, I had a Gewurz. I highly recommend Elephant Hill for lunch if you're within a few hundred kilometres.

And then we tasted some wines. Here are my notes on the Elephant Hill wines I tasted:

  • Gew├╝rztraminer 2011: sweet, good acidity, nose of light lemon and candied violets; soft sweet lemon, lychee, a little grassy; pale greenish yellow
  • Syrah 2010: rich ruby; strong pepper nose, lightly flowery; pepper, betel nuts, a bit of lychee, mild tannins; a little surprising, nicely structured
  • Chardonnay 2010: pale; creamy oak, toasty caramel, a little mineral
  • Ros├ę 2011: A 1980s shade of pink; strawberry rhubarb nose; a mouthful of strawberry rhubarb pie
  • Pinot Noir 2011 (grapes from the Central Otago region of the South Island): pretty standard, decent
  • Merlot 2009: meaty, olive, herbal nose; mild tannins, fairly standard
  • Reserve Syrah 2008: a little flowery, herbal
  • Rania 2009: gold; 7% alcohol; botrytised; lovely intense late harvest style nose, but intensely sweet and not very acidic

Following this, we had an anfractuous drive through convoluted scenery in search of Craggy Range winery. We got there and it was closed. So on to Te Mata.

Te Mata

Notes on Te Mata wines:

  • Woodthorpe Sauvignon Blanc 2011: a little toasty and creamy; standard
  • Woodthorpe Chardonnay 2010: toasted rice, cream; peachy, a little petrol
  • Zara Viognier 2010: clingstone peach right up the middle – lively, lovely, fun, a bit acidic
  • Woodthorpe Gamay 2011: tequila nose; medium acidity
  • Woodthorpe Merlot/Cabernets 2009 (I didn't make any notes on it)
  • Awatea Cabernets/Merlot 2010: peachy and dried cherry, fresh

After this, we tried to catch Black Barn, but we were too late. So we continued on to our B&B in Havelock North, Havelock House. It's another place I would recommend highly, and not just because it was the only place we stayed at in all of New Zealand that had unlimited free wi-fi. It's a very large house on a hillside, hosted by a very friendly Englishwoman. We had a lovely big room, and she served us tea when we arrived.

We went into town for a bit of food and, at a pink place called Pipi's where the furniture is rustic and you fetch your own beverages out of the fridge, discovered for the first but not the last time that in NZ they know how to make good gluten-free pizza. Ours had mushrooms, pepperoni, olives, feta. I washed it down with a Cooper's.

The next day, after an excellent breakfast (our best in NZ), we went back to Craggy Range and Black Barn, both very scenic – Craggy Range in an austere way, a cool modernist structure seated in a valley at the bottom of a treeless hill; Black Barn a bit more friendly, on a lush promontory overlooking vineyards.

Black Barn

Here are my notes on the wines:

Craggy Range:

  • Te Muna Road Vineyard Riesling 2011 (Martinborough): OK (that's all I tapped into my iPhone; I guess it was OK)
  • Te Muna Road Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc 2011 (Martinborough): lots of guava, some fresh red berry, plus the usual NZ Sauv Blanc stuff
  • Kidnappers Vineyard Chardonnay 2010 (Hawke's Bay): lean, a bit toasty
  • Gimblett Gravels Vineyard Chardonnay 2010 (Hawke's Bay): medium oak, apricot, caramel popcorn
  • Zebra Vineyard Pinot Noir 2010 (Central Otago): fresh, full, not too grapey
  • Te Kahu 2010 (Hawke's Bay): dusty and young, but sweet candy marshmallow notes
  • Syrah 2010: young, peppery, herbaceous and softly floral

Black Barn:

  • Pinot Gris 2011: fairly sweet and simple
  • Tuki Tuki Sauvignon Blanc 2010: tomato nose; red Kool-Aid flavour
  • Viognier 2010: oak; toasty, creamy, clean perfume
  • Barrel Fermented Chardonnay 2010: apricot on nose and palate; buttered popcorn and almonds
  • Pinot Noir 2011: lovely garnet colour; tart rhubarb
  • Syrah 2011: pepper nose; perfume on the palate
  • Merlot Cabernet Franc 2011: young and tannic, should develop into something nice in a few years – signs of future sweetness and harmony

Then we drove a little farther inland to the Gimblett Gravels area, a triangular plain with some good soil for wine growing. We arrived at Ngatarawa just at the start of tasting hours – actually, we drew one fellow away from their brunch, but he was happy to come and serve us. I love tastings where the person pouring is one of the people who make the wine. You can really have a good conversation and learn some interesting things just leaning there chatting at the counter. Of course I was taking notes on my iPhone too, but I had Aina there to be charming and pleasant and distract from my sipping and tapping.


Ngatarawa are actually quite an important and well-established producer in the area; they have four lines of wine: Alwyn, Glazebrook, Stables, and Silks. I tasted:

  • Farmgate Sauvignon Blanc 2009: tarry nose; lean but sinewy, brown butter palate
  • Glazebrook Viognier 2010: flowery, fruity
  • Cellar Door Riesling 2010: big petrol nose; quite sweet, but balanced
  • Alwyn Chardonnay 2010: good apricot and poppycock
  • Glazebrook Pinot Noir 2011: brownish; caramel and herb nose; tannic, structured, mild flowery - well made
  • Glazebrook Merlot 2010: structured, harmonious
  • Stables Late Harvest 2010: delicate and subtle
  • Noble Chardonnay 2009: pale; balanced and not overriding

Next was Trinity Hill, nestled at the foot of a hill:

  • Sauvignon Blanc 2011: good example of Hawke's Bay style ("pleased to meet you, I'm guava")
  • Viognier 2010: caramel and watery minerals
  • Chardonnay 2010: cinnamon/allspice nose; rich medium-oaky butter and caramel, mineral
  • Tempranillo 2008: cherry and spice cake nose; raisin on tongue, tannins, decently balanced
  • Syrah 2011: peppery; young
  • The Gimblett 2008: Bordeaux style blend; tight; needs air

After this, a stop at Sileni, where the woman at the tasting counter was very friendly indeed, a former nurse from the south of the South Island; she gave us a variety of tips for our further travels, including a heavily annotated map. We tasted:

  • Sauvignon Blanc 2011: good acidity, peach and apricot jam, guava
  • Chardonnay 2011: fermented in a tank with oak chips added; lean, minerally, light and delicate but firm
  • The Don Riesling 2009: petrol, new car, eucalyptus nose; nicely layered "palate cleanser"
  • Pinot Noir Cellar Selection 2011: merlot-like
  • Pinot Noir The Plateau 2011: pleasant, not at all grapey
  • Syrah 2011: very merlot-like
  • Redmetal Merlot 2010: rich plums, a bit of tomato

After all that, we made a stop at the Hastings Golf Club in Bridge Pa for tea and a scone. Caught them just before closing time (and after a detour to the wrong golf club first).

tea and scone

And then we made the long drive south. Not so scenic, really, especially on a rainy and cloudy day. Plenty of sheep on hillsides; plenty of slow trucks to try to get past... It's called a motorway but it's still one lane each direction with occasional passing lanes, as well as stop lights in towns and so on. We were hoping to make one last tasting stop in Martinborough. But we did not make it in time – it was nigh on 5 pm, and most of the wineries had closed an hour or two earlier.

So we took the road over the mountains to Wellington in the dusk and drizzle. If I had known what the drive would be like, I would have asked Aina to make a video of it. That assumes, of course, that she would have been able to hold her hand steady and let go of the seat and the car door. This road is painted onto the side of a crenellated cliff. You go around a curve approximately once every five seconds. We were on the mountain side, not the drop-off side, so there was just the risk of our wheels sliding off the edge of the pavement and causing our door to be gashed against the rock – not so bad compared to the possibility of sliding through the guard rail and tumbling down a thousand feet or so. The road was very busy, and all the cars were whipping around the wet curves at a speed that suggested that they hadn't noticed that death was a mere flinch away. Charming. Something to tell future generations about. As a cautionary tale.

I was obviously very glad to get down into Wellington and drop off the car, and then catch a cab to our hotel, the James Cook Grand Chancellor. I was even gladder to get a free upgrade to a high-floor corner room. Nice view towards the harbour. It almost made up for the fact that one gets only 20 minutes of free wi-fi a day, and only in the lobby. This turns out to be almost generous in New Zealand. Even Starbucks has no free wi-fi.

I took a photo of the four bottles we had bought for consumption in our rooms as the trip progressed. You can see which ones we were particularly taken with (and were thus particularly taken with us): Ngatarawa Glazebrook Pinot Noir 2011, Sileni "The Don" Riesling 2009, Craggy Range Sauvignon Blanc 2011, and Elephant Hill Syrah 2010.

four bottles

We headed out to find some supper. Central Wellington is quite walkable, so we got to see a fair bit of it while looking for a place to eat. The sidewalks were neatly rolled up, as it was after 6, but we did manage to find the area that had actual restaurants. Meanwhile, the authentic New Zealand rain found us. Fortunately, we also finally found a brew pub, which is what I was after: the Mac's Brewbar, right down by the harbour and near Te Papa, the national museum. We split a nice fish with a risotto. Lovely. I thought I would remember the name of the fish. I was wrong. (Terakihi? Monkfish?) I had a pint of their Sassy Red. Quite agreeable.

Jet lag can be a wonderful thing if you're trying to maximize daylight hours. No waking up at 10 just because we're on vacation! Although I was meeting someone mid-morning at a bookstore, we still had the time to take the cable car first. The cable car, which in this case is a straight-line funicular railway ("cable car" is a very ambiguous term), has its lower terminus on Lambton Quay a few doors down from the lower exit to our hotel, and its upper terminus at the Botanic Gardens. I made sure to take my own instance of the stereotypical emblematic Wellington photo.

Wellington Cable Car

We wandered around the gardens, which are lush and hilly and, on this morning as many, irrigated by a celestial mist – as we were too. They're lovely. But I couldn't help but say, "I came halfway around the world to end up in Vancouver?"

In the Botanic Gardens

A stop for a flat white, a pastry, and an enjoyable chat with Janet Hughes (a fellow editor) at Parsons Books. I left with a copy of her book on New Zealand English usage, and she with a copy of my Songs of Love and Grammar (salacious verse on English usage). From there we headed towards Te Papa by way of a pint of dark at the Fork & Brewer. And Te Papa made an interesting afternoon of New Zealand history and nature (including a tank with a perfectly enormous dead squid).

We also stopped into the Museum of Wellington City & Sea. It has a nice big display on the wreck of the ferry Wahine in 1968 – an interisland ferry plying the same route we were to take the next day. Rationally enough, from there we proceeded to the old Anglican cathedral – a lovely wooden building, resistant to earthquakes. After that we went to the new one, but very quickly: it's an ugly cold stone box.

Old Wellington Cathedral

Ah, what to do about supper? An answer presented itself as we strolled back along Lambton Quay: Wellington Seamarket, a fishmonger that also sells it fried for takeout. They will do up any fish they have for you. So we got battered fish for me, grilled for Aina. We went with the daily special: blue warehou (I remember this because it lookes like warehouse minus se, but for a moment I was thinking blue gara), eaten on our desk in our hotel room with the Sileni Riesling.

Wellington Seamarket

fush n chups

After, to the Mac's Brewbar again for a Pavlova and a pint.

In part 2: the South Island, and then Auckland and Waiheke Island.




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