While this column is usually about wonderful Nelson people, places and products Nelsonians do go on holiday so we are putting ourselves through hell to tell you about Christchurch and Central Otago.
Each year Sari and I visit at least one wine region outside Nelson and while I do arrange visits to some wineries in advance I also want to see how visitors are treated so to be sure we get the same experience you will get if you visit we don’t tell most places that I am going to write about them and we pay for almost everything ourselves so you can be assured comments here are not coloured by receiving special attention or free meals; the only exception is where we are hosted by a winery and I will tell you that.
This year we are travelling by road to Central Otago via Christchurch.
We spent three nights in Christchurch and had a day trip to Waipara to visit Waipara Hills Wines for lunch and a tasting, and I must say we were pleasantly surprised by the quality of the food and service at such a large visitor and function destination.
Even when a large group of about 40 travelling in a party bus turned up the service was very good, the only little hiccup was when Sari asked for a glass of rosé (they produce a very good example) she was asked if she wanted a still or sparkling wine, we didn’t know they made a sparkling rosé so she chose that only to be given a sweet imported wine, not what we expected but the staff changed it without question when we pointed it out.
A trip to Christchurch isn’t complete without a visit to Canterbury Cheesemongers to stock up with a small selection of premium cheeses and indulge in one of their evil but delicious cheese straws.
After three nights at the Randolph Apartment Motels on Riccarton Road, a place with large rooms and very close to town and good coffee outlets we headed to Queenstown and 11 nights at the Highview Apartments.
When we travel our preference is to stay in apartments so we can have a meal somewhere during the day and cook for ourselves in the evening, it also gives us a chance to cook local products if we find something special.
The first place I had arranged to visit on a more formal basis was Mt Difficulty Wines, one of our favourite Central Otago producers we have been buying their wines for many years and have got to know them reasonably well so when I arranged to visit them on a more formal basis they invited us to have lunch so that is the first declaration from me that we received something for free, a delicious lunch.
Regional Marketing Manager Greg Wilkinson was our host and while Sari enjoyed sitting in the sun I had a tour of the winery facilities, while I have been through many wine making facilities the investment made here is one of the key reasons Mt Difficulty can produce an excellent range of wines including exceptional Pinot Noirs.
Mt Difficulty Wines started as a partnership of Bannockburn landowners of which the Dicey family were one, the company is now privately held by about 12 shareholder entities including most of the original founding shareholders.
Robin Dicey was influential as viticulturist and his two sons, James and Matt have been involved in the business for many years, James is a director of Mt Difficulty Wines and runs the vineyard management company Grape Vision, the company that manages all of Mt Difficulty’s various vineyards, while Matt is general manager and winemaker at Mt Difficulty Wines.
The Mt Difficulty Wines group planted it their first vineyard, Long Gully, in 1992 and their first vintage was in 1998, the wines from this first vintage were made at Mt Edward winery before they built their own state-of-the-art winery and restaurant facility in Felton Road at Bannockburn.
Today it is the largest wine producer domiciled in Central Otago processing over 900 tonnes of grapes annually and produces a wide range of wines under two main labels, Mt Difficulty and Roaring Meg.
Under the Mt Difficulty label they also release premium single vineyard and grower series wines and I must say these are where you will find some of my favourite Central Otago Wines with the Long Gully Riesling and various single vineyard Pinot Noirs featuring quite strongly in our cellar at home.
It is also one of our favourite places to dine in Central Otago, with the restaurant and tasting room sitting high above the valley the views are stunning and the food is as good as any you will find in the region. Check out my website (neilhodgson.nz) for tasting notes on Mt Difficulty wines, comments on their food and photos of both.
As well as stopping at favourite places we also try and check out some of the newer producers and one very pleasant discovery was Wet Jacket Wines; owned by Greg Hay who, along with his brother was one of the very first to plant grapes in the region at Chard Farm before he moved on to establish Peregrine Wines.
We had driven past the signs for Wet Jacket Wines a couple of times but couldn’t find them in any local guide publications so turned to Google, I liked the look of what I read and because it is quite close to Queenstown we stopped in for a tasting.
Drive in and you are welcomed by an old tin shearing shed but when you walk in to the tin shed it opens up like a Tardis, with luxurious seating around a fire and a tasting table where you can sit on bar stools and chat with others while tasting a range of beautifully hand crafted wines.
As we talked with the very friendly, knowledgeable guy running the tasting room we discovered the philosophy behind Wet Jacket Wines, it appears Hay has had enough of the pressure of running a winery like Peregrine and wanted to make a small range of high quality wines any one can afford to buy.
As a very general observation there are some exceptional producers in the region but many of the average producers expect to sell their wines for the same prices as the exceptional producers so it is refreshing to find a winery that wants to deliver great quality at affordable prices; wines at Wet Jacket range in price from $25 for the Sauvignon Blanc to $39 for the Pinot Noir.
Consider that the $27 rose has just won a gold medal at the Air New Zealand Wine Awards, the Chardonnay sold out in just four weeks and the Pinot Noir is a 4 ½ star wine and you will find that the quality speaks for itself.
One other little thing about Wet Jacket Wines, you won’t find them in retail stores, they are only available from the winery and selected bars and restaurants around the country but I can assure you these wines are worth searching for.
We have visited a number of other places on our travels so far, have tasted some fantastic wines and eaten some wonderful food, food appropriate for the venue, be it fish and chips on the deck at the Beach Café in Sumner, Thai influenced food that is spicy but with incredible depth and balance to the flavours at Saffron in Arrowtown, Francesca’s Italian Kitchen in Wanaka where you will find truly authentic Italian food including the best polenta fries I have ever had or excellent restaurant food at Mt Difficulty.
If you intend to head to this majestic part of the world check out my website for more reviews and recommendations.