New Zealand Wine and Scenery with James and Aina, part 2 (July 10, 2012)
by James Harbeck
We pick up from part 1 at the end of our sojourn in Wellington.
Next morning: up bright and early to catch the ferry to the South Island. Not very crowded. We sat next to a chatty woman who often takes her own boat across. The ferry trip across can be rough; not this time. No sinking either. It's a scenic passage in its way, but not on the order of the scenery we would encounter in the next couple of days. We landed in Picton and looked for lunch. Tried takeout fish again. But we were disappointed this time – it was tough and not very flavourful either.
And then we took the Coastal Pacific down the coast to Christchurch. We blew through Marlborough without stopping – yes, it's New Zealand's most famous wine area, but we had only ten days and I was interested in experiencing wines that one mostly doesn't get in Canada.
South of Marlborough, there was plenty of cloudy, even stormy, dramatic seashore, which Aina loves, but it didn't always make for great photos. They did have a viewing car, but it's an open-sided thing that seems made to shake and bump much more than any other car. So you're cool and windblown and even a bit damp, and you can't manage to get a decent photo. We spent more time in the dining car chatting with the crew and eating french fries with a Monteith's Original Ale for me and a Brancotte Estate Chardonnay 2010 for Aina.
By the time we got to Christchurch it was after dark. According to the maps I had, the distance from the station to our motel was walkable – actually, that's why I booked that one: close to the station but also close to the centre of the city. As it happens, it was about a mile away, and much of that felt like the big-box suburbs of some American city. We even found ourselves dragging our bags over a gravel path in the park across the street from our motel.
But, hey, it was a park, and it was nice enough. Which was good, because our motel was definitely basic. Cheap, to be sure, but also freezing (the Kiwis have a British attitude towards heating bedrooms – they don't much believe in it), and with that sort of wood panelling feel that just tells you that the owners aren't minded to invest a lot in upgrading the property.
But oh well. I'm sure Christchurch has taken quite a hit since the earthquake. We walked to the city centre. Much of it is fenced off and dark. It's quite something to see these tall buildings entirely dark, towers looming against the cloudy night sky. (It's also something to think that some of those were nice hotels that we would have stayed at instead of the Hitchcock special we were in.) There were cranes working away, even on a Friday evening, taking down what could not stand. Somewhere in there was what was left of the city's eponymous church.
But they haven't given up. Resourcefulness shows itself in the mall that has appeared on a street just south of the central exclusion zone. This mall is made of shipping containers. Sounds sad and ugly? Think again.
We did have to eat. Where? We looked for a restaurant. Noisy crowded pub? No thanks. Civilized-looking place where the last table was given away to the party that arrived just in front of us, and there would be a 20-minute wait at least for us? No. We walked back past the motel towards where there were supposed to be other restaurants. Thumping nightclubs with bouncers and assorted youth who looked like they were on their way to reality TV tryouts? Nnnoooo. So Burger King it was. I regret to report they had no kind of wine list at all, and no beers on tap either.
On our way back to the motel, a helpful bus driver explained to us how to get by bus from our motel to the train the next morning (Kiwis are generally friendly and helpful), but when we checked it out the stop was not where he said it was. So in the morning, we dragged our bags back to train station for the TranzAlpine, our train across the plain and over the mountains to the west side of the island.
For breakfast on the train, we had some kind of eggs Benedict thing (Aina ditched her English muffins) with a little bottle of Lindauer. Again: good with breakfast foods. No orange juice required. It was a very scenic trip, even before we got to the mountains, and there was some amusing commentary throughout by one of the crew.
Once we were into the mountains, it was lovely, but not something you could easily photograph well, because you were in the scenery. You'd need 360° surround to do it justice. I used the outdoor viewing car only occasionally. What's the point when it's so windy and shaky? Faced with a choice between photographing window reflections and standing in the torture car, I stowed my camera and soaked in the scenery.
The train ends in Greymouth, which is actually a more charming place than I had been led to believe. But we didn't spend a lot of time there. We picked up our rental car and headed south. As luck would have it, the car we got had the signal and wiper switched – that is, they were on the sides a Canadian would expect. And this after I'd more or less gotten used to the other sides! No matter. Not a big problem to get back to the way I've always done it.
The highway from there down the west coast of the South Island and over the Haast Pass, by the way, is all two-lane, except some of the bridges – 30 of the bridges between Greymouth and Queenstown are one-lane bridges. Including one so long it had two pull-over sections in it for passing. But we almost never had to yield to opposing traffic, because the road just wasn't all that busy.
We didn't drive all the way to Queenstown that day, just to Franz Josef, a small town composed largely of motels and restaurants and a hot pool complex, and named after the nearby glacier. Our motel was the Alpine Glacier Motel, and it was lovely. The room was new and palatial and had big windows. But it was cold again. Just to make sure that it wasn't too warm, the door and windows had been left open too. It was quite the thing to get it up to a temperature we could deal with.
But first a hike to the toe of the glacier before it got too dark. You stroll through rain forest, then across a wide plain, and then there you are. Well, it's not the first glacier I've seen, but the rain forest is novel.
Supper was at a place called the Alice May, and it was lovely. I had bangers and mash and a nice dark beer; Aina had some kind of salad-type thing. You know, you take a photo of it and think you'll remember. But you don't. Afterwards, we went to the local hot pool spa establishment. The pools were outdoors but had a nice fabric covering overhead, so the rain that was hosing down was no more than an occasional distracting mist.
The next morning I managed to get in a nice (if short) run before we loaded up the car and headed on the way. First stop: the Fox Glacier. Its toe is actually pretty much in a rainforest – well, there's the usual amount of treeless turf around. My toe, for its part, was in one of the streams on the way to the glacier. They have a helpful sign at the beginning of the trail: "You will get wet." Yup.
And then the long drive over the Haast Pass and down to Queenstown. The pass itself is less scenic than you might expect, but also less nerve-wracking. We stopped in Haast for gas (Scotch would have been cheaper, but we had neglected to buy any) and lunch: a whitebait sandwich, which meant lots of teeny baby fishies in an egg patty served between two slices of boring white bread. Aina got the same thing minus the bread and paid the same as I did. The sandwich was OK, but surely someone somewhere else must do something more interesting with whitebait.
Once we were into the Central Otago, we were out of the trees and above the lakes. There was quite a lot of roadway high above lakes. It's very scenic, but if you have an obsessive fear of smashing through a guardrail and tumbling down a slope into a freezing lake, Otago may not be for you.
We did land in the drink, though. Fortunately, the drink in question was wine. We made it in time to stop at Carrick, in Bannockburn. They were very impressed that I knew Tony Aspler. We tasted (at last, another wine tasing!) the following:
- Pinot Gris 2011: pear; maraschino, caramel/burnt sugar
- Sauvignon Blanc 2011: green beans on nose and palate, on top of the usual
- Off-Dry Riesling 2011: baked apples; crabapple sauce
- EBM Chardonnay 2009: nose: light caramel, delicate whitefish with butter; palate: buttered popcorn, turnips
- Unravelled Pinot Noir 2010: fresh, fruity, friendly
- Bannockburn Pinot Noir 2010: tight, somewhat tannic, young
- Excelsior Pinot Noir 2007: rich, sweet nose like a late harvest, but dry and elegant on the palate, with strawberry tea
Carrick is in a lovely location, so we just had to treat ourselves to glasses of wine outdoors.
We also stopped across the road at Akarua, but it was almost closing time, so I didn't take the time to take notes. But their wines were nicely made and elegant.
Then we hit the road to make it to Amisfield – I had it in mind to eat at their bistro. We took the scenic route via Arrowtown (actually, I just turned too soon, but take it as it comes). Arrowtown is a lovely place it would have been nice to have had the time to stop in. Maybe next time. If there is a next time.
Amisfield has some lovely wines – we tried:
- Blanc de Blanc 1999: nose toasty, blue cheese, malolactic; lovely dry and well balanced
- Dry Riesling 2010: minerally, light sweaty nose; minerally palate with light cilantro notes
- Fumé Blanc 2009: complex nose with grapefruit and pineapple; Chardonnay-like palate with butter and caramel and toast
- Amisfield Pinot Gris 2010: light perfumey nose; fruity, simple
- Lake Hayes Pinot Noir 2009: rhubarb pie
- Amisfield RKV Pinot Noir 2006: old nose; delicate, layered palate, rich
Then we had supper in their bistro. Went with the prix fixe menu. First: beet-cured gravlax, very pretty, nice flavour, not as sweet as gravlax often is. Then gnocchi in a well cooked butter sauce. I can still remember the beautiful flavour of that gnocchi and its sauce. I wish I were as rich as that sauce. Wouldn't have to stay in sketchy motels ever again.
Next: salad of radicchio, beetroot, walnuts, house cheese. Then terakihi, puy lentils, fennel. And then pork belly, apple, watercress. You know what's coming when you see pork belly. You will not leave there hungry. For dessert, some nice multipart chocolate and cream construction with an almond in candied sugar. And after that we still had to make it to Queenstown!
Fortunately, it wasn't far. We were bound for the Copthorne Lakefront Resort. Just for confusion, they have two Copthornes on opposite sides of the main road into Queenstown. Of course we stopped at the wrong one first. But our room (when we got to it) was comfortable, and warmed up quickly enough, and the place was not at all seedy.
Our plan for the next day had been to drive to Milford Sound. But we decided to book a bus tour instead. I wanted a break from driving (and sciatica), and when you consider the cost of the gas plus the cost of the boat tour, it came out to about $40 extra per person, which to my mind (and Aina's) was well worth it. Especially since it's about 300 km each way.
How was the trip to Milford Sound? Milford Sound is the most beautiful place I've been, and I've been to a lot of beautiful places. Look, I'll let the photos speak for themselves. You can find out a little more about Milford Sound at Sesquiotica and see more photos in my flickr album.
The Eglinton Valley, on the way
A kea on a bus
Heading down into the Cleddau Valley to the sound
On the way there, I had a steak and mushroom pie at Miles Better Pies in Te Anau. I had been told that pies are a big thing in New Zealand, and this is true. On the boat in the sound, we had a light lunch and I had another beer that I forgot to write down or take a picture of. But I should say that New Zealand beers are pretty good in general.
We had a little adventure on the return trip. Our driver pulled over on a pullover spot on a mountain road and checked the engine, then came back and told us that our bus wasn't going any further and we'd all have to hope to catch a lift on another bus – him too. So here's a tip: don't be on the last bus out of Milford Sound. We weren't, to be sure; a half-full bus came by within a couple of minutes and we were on our way.
We made a little stop at a store in Mossburn, which is now the farthest south I've ever been. I picked up a Bendaberg Lemon Lime & Bitters soda (a bit reminiscent of mincemeat with Becherovka and some lime thing) and Eta Kettles Roast Lamb & Mint chips. I thought the latter tasted surprising much like salt and vinegar and not much like lamb & mint.
Back in Queenstown for dinner, we discovered Hell Pizza, a nice place (part of a chain, as it turns out) that can serve you a very palatable gluten-free crust. Why can't Canadians make good gluten-free crusts? Come to Toronto, Hell! The toppings were quite good too. The names are amusing and go with the theme – 7 deadly sins, for instance. We had Trouble. I washed it down with a bottle of Speight's Old Dark.
The next morning, we went for a walk around Queenstown to see it during daylight and buy some souvenirs. Aina managed to find the ice rink (it's a natural homing instinct), but she didn't have her skates with her anyway. Then we drove north to catch a little bit of wine tasting before our flight.
Our first stop was Chard Farm. I had seen a picture of this winery and knew that I had to see it. (The fact that it was on a list of wineries worth seeing that Robert Ketchin had given me was also a plus.) It's in a very scenic location. What the photo did not make clear to me was that the access is a one-lane dirt road hacked into a cliff. It has occasional half-lane additions for passing, such as just when you're making a tight curve around a promontory. Oh, yes, it's scenic, heh heh heh. And people are supposed to drive this after wine tasting. Clearly it reduces the desire to taste too many. Our host at the tasting bar told us it used to be the main road into Queenstown. These New Zealanders are crazy. (The turn off to the road is right by the original and still active bungy-jump bridge, which goes over the river that has jet boat tours. I rest my case.)
We tasted the following wines:
- Closeburn Chardonnay 2011: light mineral, peach and apricot; flowery, candy flavour
- Judge & Jury Chardonnay 2010: more oak and tar on nose; clean, mineral, good cheese wine
- Pinot Gris 2011: light lychee and candy; lean and dry
- Gewürztraminer 2009: lychee! Peach and apricot on palate
- Riesling 2009: talcum powder, light petrol; medium cereal palate
- Vipers Vineyard Riesling 2010: like a Pinot grigio on the nose; sweeter on tongue
- Mata-Au Pinot Noir 2009: caramel nose, flowery, soapy, betel nut, nicely made
- The Tiger Pinot Noir 2010: still young and tight, with potential
- The Viper Pinot Noir 2009: mineral and sweat; acidic and peppery, finishing with tea
After succesfully navigating the return trip on their nightmarish access road without landing in the river, we made a quick dash over to the also picturesque but less hazardous Peregrine.
Didn't have time to take notes – we were pushing it to get the car back in time – but we did buy a bottle of their 2011 Charcoal Creek Riesling, lovely, late harvested, some botrytis. Had to have it.
Queenstown International Airport is small, quaint, and very scenic. The gate area is something not to bother going to until you have to; the good part is the public area café, wide open with big windows. I had a lamb and mint pie. Would you know, it tasted just like the chips I had bought the day before.
The flight to Auckland was scenic – lovely view of the mountains all the way up the South Island – but not luxurious. A bit more like a bus. No free Lindauer, not this time.
At Auckland Airport, we were looking for the stop to the bus into town. Aina asked one of the guys standing around with the limos for hire. He directed us to the far end of the platform. This was the exactly wrong place to go. He did it on purpose, too; the woman selling bus tickets, when we actually found her not too far from where we had been in the first place, confirmed that the limo guys do that. Women wonder why guys don't like to ask for directions? That's one reason. Signs and maps at least don't spitefully misdirect you.
Our hotel in Auckland was the Langham, which is the exact opposite in every way of the sketchy motel in Christchurch. It's plush, with amenities of various sorts laid on, and yet the price per night (for an off-season weeknight) was under NZ$200. And the rooms are even warm. We were offered a discount upgrade to the club floor – a mere NZ$120 extra per night. We took a miss on it. It did come with free food and bev, but we decided that we probably weren't up to ripping through that much food and bev by this point on the trip. But even though we said no thanks to that, we got a free upgrade to an executive floor. Great room, lovely, posh. Nicer than any Fairmont we've stayed in (if not quite as historical and majestic), and cheaper than the Days Inn we had booked for San Francisco a few days later on our way to Sonoma (I'll talk about that in another article).
We toured around Auckland a bit in the evening. This began with a stop by a Chinese grocery just a block and a half down Karangahape Road, which is a pretty interesting street. Then down, down, down the hill to the heart of Auckland (which generally feels like a cross between San Francisco and New York), to find a place to eat some lamb and have a beer – this we did in a pub by the harbour. After that, we managed to catch the hotel shuttle back up, up, up the hill to swim and steam and so on in their rather nice pool and spa.
Our next day was our last day of wine touring. Destination: Waiheke Island, a rather nice place about 40 minutes by ferry from Auckland. I had it all planned out: there's a place where there are four wineries right next to each other. We took the bus there. It was quite scenic – mostly built up, but all hilly and quite appealing. We arrived to discover that, in spite of posted information, two of the wineries had decided to close for the season and a third one was closed for a private event that day (can I tell you how many things I've planned and looked forward to and had thwarted by private events?!).
The one that was still open was Stonyridge, and we certainly went in there. It's a very tropical-looking winery and vineyard. They do tasting by orders of small or large glasses, rather than the taasting bar experience; you just have it at a table, not the classic lean-and-chat tasting bar experience. Better than closed, though. We ordered some scallopsto go with the wines. They were lovely but quite pricey given the quantity. Here's what we drank:
- Chardonnay 2011: pale; crisp, light stone fruit; light toasty, flowery; shortbread and creamsicle finish
- Airfield 2010: rich red berries and fruit on the nose, with light dust and pepper; young, a bit tannic, still developing
- Hawkesby Malbec 2009: medicinal, dry cider nose; tannic, some red fruit, lots of white pepper
- Stonyridge Pilgrim 2010: delicate, flowery nose; pencil eraser and schoolbook on palate, grippy tannins, still young
We caught a lift with a fellow who was just leaving – he was doing some work there. He took us to Rangihoua Estate, where he also works; they make olive oil and have an olive oil tasting bar (they do not make wine). The oils were very nice, but we determined not to buy any just because of the nuisance of taking it back (small suitcases; returning via Australia and the US).
Then we walked back to the bus stop and caught the bus, aiming to chuck it in, go to the ferry and return to Auckland. But as we passed through the Oneroa town centre on Oceanview Road, I spotted a place advertising wine tastings. Naturally, we hopped off. For a small fee we got a lovely tasting in a back room of a wine store with a view of Oneroa Bay (I neglected to take tasting notes, but it was Passage Rock Syrah 2010, Passage Rock Sisters 2010, and Man o' War Pinot Gris 2011, plus some nice olive oil). The proprietor told us how easy it actually is to get to a couple of other wineries on the way to the ferry.
So, since we had a bit of time, and we wanted to salvage what had been a bit of a low-wine day, we walked to Cable Bay Vineyards for a bit of a quick swirl, sniff and sip with a view of distant Auckland, guided by a young gentleman from Germany.
- Waiheke Island Chardonnay 2009: campstove, rice crackers
- Central Otago Pinot Noir 2010: maraschino and tequila nose; prune/plum palate
- Waiheke Island Five Hills Merlot/Malbec/Cabernet 2008: pepper vodka nose; tannic, red fruit palate with some peppers
We walked to the ferry and caught it in good time. Back in Auckland, we strolled over to and down Ponsonby Road, their hip shopping street (it was mostly just after closing time for the shops), and then on back to the hotel.
Aina had it in mind to have pizza in the room for supper – with a gluten-free crust, of course. We had noted two pizza joints on Karangahape Road. Would you know, neither of them did gluten-free – might as well have been back in Canada they way they basically failed to understand the question. Crisis. Fortunately there was a Hell Pizza about a 20-minute walk south of the hotel, so we ordered one and I went and got it (it was a weird custom combination of toppings, I can't even remember); we consumed it in our room with such beverages as we have on hand. Then a swim and a steam.
In the morning: a nice run (at last!) around the hilly Auckland Domain. I had been itching to get some nice punishing hill runs in. Better late than never. Nice and scenic, too. Then we headed out on the town for some sightseeing. Which in this case meant, first, the Auckland Art Gallery. Admission is free. They believe in supporting their cultural heritage.
After that, some rushed souvenir shopping. And then, on the way up the hill back to the hotel, lunch from Burger Fuel, an inventive burger joint that has gluten-free buns. I got a charming number with jalapeños called the Ring Burner.
And from there to the airport to Sydney overnight and then a flight from hell (the screaming demon child and its feckless parents, on an old 747 where you have to watch the movie they choose when they choose or not at all, and the flight attendants are sobriety police) to San Francisco. But San Fran and Sonoma are for another article.
So... should you do New Zealand? You bet. The scenery is excellent and varied. The roads may be twisty and narrow, but there are no moose or bears to hit. The wineries are all worth a visit, and you will discover quite a lot of wines you simply don't see from New Zealand up here in Canada. Should you do the whole country in ten days? Well, it depends on your stamina and basic senselessness. But I wouldn't want to have missed any more than we had to, and there are only so many days in a row a working stiff can take.