When you head out to North Canterbury, keeping to a schedule is nigh on impossible. You’ll do yourself no favours to rush the experience of meeting those who create your favourite drops. Yet, we tried. We arrived in Waipara at a very civilised 10.30am, discovering you needn’t travel far beyond Christchurch’s city limits to find New Zealand’s Winemaker of the Year.
Award-winning winemaker Dom Maxwell has created many a flavoursome vintage at Greystone Wines, our first destination, though it’s his techniques garnering the most attention.
We ventured out on the Greystone Wines tour to get a feel for the environs. Soon, we were looking out across the 35-hectare vineyard from the top of the Teviotdale Hills. Each stop on our itinerary was duly pointed out, as well as an all-glass PurePod.
As we travel the dirt roads that wind through the vineyard-cum-working-sheep-farm, General Manager Nick Gill explains the ins and outs of ‘vineyard fermentation’. The term ‘wild fermentation’ is commonly heard in this region and refers to the use of the yeast that occurs naturally on the grapes – an alternative to purchasing commercial-grade, proven and predictable yeast. Greystone takes it one step further by letting this process (turning sugars into alcohol) play out the vineyard, in a 2000-litre black tank positioned among the vines. Depending on the season (and temperature), fermentation takes anywhere from 10 days to up to four weeks. “It brings the season’s weather into the wine,” says Nick. And for those of us drinking the resulting drop? Expect a wider range of flavours and complexity – detectable to even wine newbies, assures Nick.
The tour ends at the Muddy Water – Canterbury’s first certified-organic winery, under the Greystone Wines umbrella since 2011. I’m encouraged to stick my ear to a barrel inside the hand-built straw bale winery. Listening to the fizz gives you an idea of the action going on inside, but wrapping your taste buds around a chardonnay straight out of the barrel is something else.
Home, Netherwood and Damsteep are the three vineyards from which Black Estate creates its rather special drops. All are certified organic, with biodynamic practices at play to truly let the wine speak for itself.
On this summer day, it was hard to go past the 2018 Treble Rosé, made from five grape varieties from all three vineyards. One taste will prove this is not the typical rosé! The playful drop is a fruity, sweet number, with a distinctly candy scent on the nose. Its deep colour comes from the grapes spending 28 days with their skin on. It’s thick on the mouth, and more beaujoulais than rosé.
After a generous tasting session, we sat in the restaurant and gazed out on another truly magnificent Waipara landscape while exploring a broad range of entrees. From raw fish with avocado, radish, iceplant and oregano, to fried duck egg with cos lettuce, goat’s curd and za’atar, the tastes were as varied as the wines produced by the terrior.
Rosie is pulling at the lead when we arrive at Limestone Hills. We are almost an hour behind schedule and she had seen her owner, Gareth Renowden, get her treats some time ago. Beagles are motivated by food and she knows that every truffle she finds for us will result in a treat for her.
Truffles are a particularly special type of underground mushroom that fetch a price tag as high as $3000 per kilogramme for the bianchetto variety. Limestone Hills, where Gareth lives with his wife, was the first place in New Zealand to grow the white truffle, of which Rosie will unearth the most in May. In mid-winter, the black Perigolds will be coming thick and fast, but now, in summer, Rosie’s hunting out burgundy truffle.
Rosie has been finding this buried treasure since she was three months old, with her largest discovery to date weighing 500g. Her super sniffer is finely attuned to finding these odd-looking bundles, which spend their life developing the pungent aroma that will ensure distribution by animal – be it canine, boar, mouse, rat, or even fly. (In Australia, where the largest commercial quantities in the southern hemisphere are grown, truffles are a favourite of the long-nosed potoroo.)
It isn’t long before Rosie comes up trumps. Scratching at the ground to mark the spot, she’s rewarded by Gareth, who then unearths the culinary beauty – this one bound for Inati in Christchurch. Simon Levy tops of the list of requests on this day, but Pegasus Bay and Auckland’s Pasture will be hoping for their share of burgundy tout de suite.
A truffle will last two weeks in the fridge, where it must be stored in an air-tight container – unless you want all your high-fat ingredients truffle-infused. A 100g truffle can flavour a dozen eggs. Gareth had just finished his truffle-infused brie, but did share his truffle butter and made our mouths water with tales of carbonara made using truffle-infused eggs and slices of freshly grated truffle… He warns us not to be fooled by truffle oil, it’s not the real deal; the aroma has been artificially created, with not one truffle harmed in the process.
By the time we reach Pegasus Bay, we were nearly two hours behind schedule – what did I tell you? But the welcome is warm at this family-run establishment.
Winemaking started as something neurologist Ivan Donaldson did in his spare time, in the garage of his Christchurch home. The ever-growing passion led to the purchase of these 69 hectares, which had its first vine cuttings in the ground in 1986. That bare block was to become the award-winning winery and restaurant it is today.
It’s another stunning vista, but this time because of the established gardens, with a myriad of different rooms and an expansive water features. Wife Christine planted it all – from the herbs and rhubarb through to figs, olives and stone fruit, all of which can find themselves pride of plate in the restaurant, run by daughter-in-law Belinda.
Each of the four sons hold key roles, with Matt the winemaker, overseen by Ivan, who continues to be the master of all things viticulture.
We meet with son Ed (marketing manager), husband to Belinda, and the man ensuring the Pegasus Bay story continues to be heard around the world – the wine already drunk in more than 20 countries.
Riesling is the variety of highest production at Pegasus Bay (pinot noir take out the No 2 spot). Ed says it’s loved by the “wine geeks”, yet overall underrated as a variety – so we make a note to try all five types at tasting time.
Also produced here is the Main Divide label, which relates to wines made using grapes from growers around the region.
We get home two and a half hours later than scheduled – someone with only one bottle to savoir but many others marked as new favourites for another time.
At Greystone Wines + Muddy Water
Take the tour.
For $95 per person, you are driven around the vineyards before you get to sample wine straight from the barrel and enjoy an artisan platter.
At Black Estate
Go for the cheese.
The chef is a true cheese fiend, and our serving included a five-year-old Karikaas gouda and a Little River Brie (from Nelson), on a platter with locally sourced honeycomb, chutney and slices of apple.
At Limestone Hills
Buy that truffle.
With every tour to date having unearthed prized funghi, why not make a foodie weekend out of the experience?
At The Boneline
Take the walk.
Even if it’s just the five-minute wander down to the amphitheatre, where views showcase the rows of vines filed in military precision set against a dramatic hillside backdrop. Thought do consider carrying on to complete the 50-minute 2.1km self-guided amble .
Try the Bel Canto.
It will redefine your understanding of riesling – not quite as bone dry as the rieslings of Europe, but it’s close.
The North Canterbury Wine & Food Festival
Book it in.
Get to know 28 wineries in one beautiful swoop when this delicious festival takes over Glenmark Domain on March 10. There’s even a bus from Christchurch if you can’t wangle a sober driver.