Gone Fishing (for Pinot) in Middle Earth

I began writing this right in the heart of trout fishing country, having spent three days at the spectacular Fiordland Lodge, perched on the southern end of Lake Te Anua with mesmerizing views across the water to Mt Luxmore and the border of Te Wahipounamu UNESCO World Heritage wilderness site of Fiordland, otherwise known as Middle Earth to many around the world and the location for filming several scenes in the Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit.

Travelling around New Zealand for three weeks with a schedule so action-packed, I have had little time to write and completely exhausted, or utterly intoxicated, at the end of every day.

Adding to ones fatigue is too much fresh air and oxygen; sometimes you feel almost intoxicated by the pristine, crisp air—giddy from inhaling inordinate amounts of totally unpolluted and seemingly energized air.

Moreover, the absence of humidity is most noticeable, for someone who resides in Singapore, and when the sun is out in full force you feel its restorative powers and the vitamin D right to your bones. Actually, you need to be careful of the intensity of the sun and its powerful UV in New Zealand; it’s like being barbequed as opposed to steamed in Singapore.

When you have olfactory senses as acute as mine, this change in environment requires a degree of calibration and assimilation with ones nostrils initially drying out to the point of irritation, and then overloaded with smells, scents and fragrances of the surrounds and the earth’s flora and fauna with such tactility this enhanced sense of smell is almost like you have the extra-sensory abilities of a dog.

Don’t worry, I wasn’t walking around the streets sniffing lampposts or peoples nether regions but these newfound canine capabilities crowd the senses; every building, every rock, river, tree, plant and field speaking to you in its myriad of nuances and trace elements.

A vivid example instantly comes to mind; standing Wharfside in the beautiful harbour-city of Wellington on a brilliantly sunny day with the air as crisp and steely as the Southern Alps, as you gaze down at the pristinely clear water with the seabed transparently visible and schools of fish darting about. Then you suddenly remember the antithesis; the diesel fumes and choking toxicity of Hong Kong streets, the suffocating humidity and stench of decay, Wharfside the brown water a cesspool, a lifeless swill of what was once - a beautiful harbour-city.

Perhaps it is middle age that has made me more aware of my environment, as ambition recedes and the search for ‘lifestyle’ becomes a bigger priority, but I also sense a stirring in my country-farming-bones, a crushing desire to escape the metropolises that have consumed me and deadened my senses and social-moral compass.

Actually, to be honest I am simply homesick, having left New Zealand 27 years ago, there is a strong force pulling me southward, like an Ocean Trout with a fixed bearing back to the spawning ground - am I destined to return!

There are so many wonderful experiences on my trip to share with you; exemplary produce, wholesome cooking and enticing dishes, unique wines with so much energy – my 9 year-old daughter captured this brilliantly when she described the bouquet of Milton Chenin Blanc as “Rise and Shine!”

The endless picturesque scenery and the hushed remoteness; we hardly saw a traffic light in the three weeks – imagine! My thoughts ‘Wander’...to the worlds march to urbanization, to evermore polluted overcrowded cities, to mediocrity...all in the pursuit of growth and GDP.

Are we going the wrong way or lost our way? Time to de-urbanize and get better organized...rediscover that spice of country life...chose rural as the new mural.

As an overview of my trip, I am fleshing out my itinerary with some brief comments and will expand in parts with full articles. I should also mention that this itinerary was actually part of my Golden Jubilee birthday celebrations and I was travelling with a good friend, supposedly on holiday, but the line between work and holiday—pleasure and pain—is completely blurred when you have an occupation like mine... with acute occupational hazards.

Jan 26th (Saturday) Singapore to Auckland on SIA overnight, arriving midday – an excellent flight with the impeccable Singapore Airlines in-flight service, managed to watch Lord of the Rings II and get a respectable sleep.

Jan 27th (Sunday) Straight off the plane, I headed directly to Zany Zues Diary to meet with owners Michael Matsis and his sister Meropi at their new retail store, 149 Randwick Road Moera Lower Hutt. I have written a little on discovering Zany Zeus yoghurt at Ruth Pretty’s click here inspiring me to meet the people and write more on this (in the pipeline) and it was such a great encounter.

Michael is an amazing guy and pioneer of organic dairy products in New Zealand; indeed he’s intrinsically responsible for the cafe culture in Wellington supplying all the best cafes and restaurants with his organic milk. The next challenge is get New Zealand (or should we call the country Fonterra) to look beyond milk powder; time to value add moreover actually be as ‘Green’ as the world perceives.

It was a glorious, sunny day in Wellington, indeed so warm that my taxi driver readily accepted my offer to shout him an ice cream, the temptation too much as we pulled up and he saw the hoards of people relishing in the very best organic ice cream in the country. Where else in the world would a taxi driver join you for an ice cream!

With an early dinner, I only had time to drop my bags and have a quick shower. I stayed at my favourite Wellington hotel, The Bolton, Corner of Bolton & Mowbray Streets, www.boltonhotel.co.nz This is a boutique-sized establishment that is friendly and personable, and the rooms or certainly my premier suite, brilliant with a kitchen and dining space and lounge separate from you room – essentially an apartment – for not much money. I highly recommend this hotel.

Dinner that night was with Matt & Karen Kramer, Brett & Erica Newell (Industry doyen), Sam Neill, Jacqui Murphy (GM at Two Paddocks) and Lisa Perrotti-Brown MW, at Floriditas www.floriditas.co.nz Essentially it was about getting the keynote speakers for the New Zealand Pinot Noir Celebration together in a relaxed venue with no strings attached.

Floriditas is certainly relaxed, that is it is aimed at being casual but man does this place go off; clearly the place to be in Wellington and packed with groovers of all ages…and its all day action, from breakfast, to brunch-lunch and dinner. It looks to me like the owners are obsessed bakers that killed them for breakfast and people just kept hanging around so long in such a conducive space; it stretched to lunch… then lunch became dinner and it’s full from sun up to sundown. Great local produce equals wholesome, tasty food, plenty of good wine choices, bustling ambience, excellent service, supreme hosts, James Peterson and Julie Clarke; what more could you want.

Jan 28th (Monday) to Jan 31st (Thursday)

I should not have hung around for that cleansing Ale at Floriditas, but I ran into Phyll Pattie & Clive Paton from Ata Rangi, and Grant Taylor from Valli; this of course happens constantly when a gaggle of winemakers infiltrate a town on mass.

We are all here for the Pinot Noir New Zealand 2013 Celebration http://www.pinotnz.co.nz/ - 4 days of pinot noir indulgence. “We invite obsessive pinotphiles from all over the globe to join us for four days of exploration, heated debate and just plain good Pinot.”

My wife is still unconvinced of the longevity of this gathering and how one could possibly justify four days of talking about pinot noir, professional or otherwise. And here I was thinking this symposium was reduced in brevity, given the enormity of the subject.

Like many ancient traditions, the social aspect of symposiums has been lost in our modern, puritanical era. The ancient Greeks new what a symposium was about, “to drink together”, and as far back as 375BC, Dionysus the God of Wine, describes proper and improper drinking:

“For sensible men I prepare only three kraters: one for health (which they drink first), the second for love and pleasure, and the third for sleep. After the third one is drained, wise men go home. The fourth krater is not mine any more - it belongs to bad behaviour; the fifth is for shouting; the sixth is for rudeness and insults; the seventh is for fights; the eighth is for breaking the furniture; the ninth is for depression; the tenth is for madness and unconsciousness.” (Source-Wikipedia)

The pinot noir weather gods were certainly looking down on us favourably for the whole four days with Wellington bathed in glorious sunshine and uncharacteristically gentle breezes and almost balmy early evenings—global warming?

My Canadian travel companion, a well-travelled veteran hotelier, was in raptures about the place and how beautiful the city was and with so many good restaurants and bars, “You can’t get a bad coffee here—Man, I’m moving here!”

It is a curious thing, whenever I visit Wellington with family or friends; it always puts on brilliant weather. If only they knew how damn miserable the weather is for the other 45 weeks of the year.

I won’t bore you with the details (yet) of the Pinot Noir Celebration but if you are interested check out the program http://www.pinotnz.co.nz/programme.php I will be expanding on this in a separate article, however I would like to say it was an outstanding success and immensely enjoyable.

Our keynote speakers delivered thought provoking and at times hilarious speeches. Matt Kramer from the Wine Spectator set the pace with his profound and provocative oratory—Sam Neill, actor and vigneron doing New Zealand proud with his intellectual wit with the audience captivated by his humbling of the countries winemakers or “Bastards of Pinot Noir”—Mike Bennie, Australian wine commentator, with his brilliant video rendition of the perception of New Zealand Pinot Noir in Australia, raw Aussie humour at its best—and Jasper Morris MW giving a insightful and highly professional delivery.

Also a special mention for Chef and master caterers, Ruth Pretty and her husband Paul (behind the scenes logistics whiz) for pulling off yet another incredible culinary feat, feeding 500 people (simultaneously) over four days, breakfast, lunch and dinner with food of unparalleled calibre and brilliant regional produce and wine themes—standing ovation please—and visit their website www.ruthpretty.co.nz

Feb 1st (Friday)

Depart Wellington for Blenheim - Marlborough, Air New Zealand 8.40am flight

Accommodation – Hotel d’Urville www.durville.com

You would have thought, after attending five successive New Zealand Pinot Noir Celebrations, that I would not be stupid enough to book an early morning flight after the grand finale, but here I was (again) bleary-eyed and with only 3 hours sleep thanks to an outrageous after-party organised by Sam Neill, boarding a flight to Blenheim.

Actually, it was like groundhog day as 3 years ago I was doing the very same thing and MJ Loza, then brand ambassador at Seresin Estate, resuscitated me as I poured off the plane after a nauseating rollercoaster 25 minute flight, pumping several lattes into me...and Colin Ross the estate manager walking me around the vineyards and sticking my nose in compost pits to sober me up enough before being immersed in a tank-sample tasting with winemaker Clive Dougall—If only people new the occupational hazards of an (undisciplined) wine writer.

I was however in much better shape this time, having drunk myself sober and though suffering from sleep deprivation, a relatively smooth flight over and a gorgeously sunny morning in Blenheim, I was reinvigorated and straight into it again with a full day visit scheduled at Villa Maria.

I have to say, our time spent with the Villa Maria crew and the enlightenment of tasting through many of their Single Vineyard and Reserve wines was one of the highlights of our trip. One of the take-home messages of the Pinot Noir Celebration was “New Characters and Being True to Oneself – The Person Not the Pinot”, with some brilliant video footage of ‘up close and personal’ interviews and short grabs highlighting the individual characters of New Zealand winemakers.

Here we were at the sizable Villa Maria Marlborough headquarters and winery, where ones impression can easily be prejudiced by the enormity of their operations and yet an archetypical example of how vital it is to understand the people behind the wines; the par example and antithesis of people’s perception of a large winery winemaker, Jeremy McKenzie, Villa Maria’s Senior Marlborough Winemaker.

One feels instantly relaxed around this affable bloke and in the complete absence of intimidation that one normally experiences in large wineries; you feel there is that intimate sense of a family winery—and that’s what Villa Maria is, a (big) family-owned winery, founded by Sir George Fistonich who recently celebrated his 50th vintage.

McKenzie is a fascinating individual, a former national level runner and rugby player he still competes (seriously) in Iron Man triathlons and is as fit and wiry as an SAS Soldier and feasibly as dangerous as one, when he’s hunting wild boar armed with just a knife and his dogs. If you’re lucky, you might even get to sample his cooking and some wild boar backstrap with a glass of Villa Maria Single Vineyard Taylors Pass Pinot Noir.

We tasted through some brilliant wines with McKenzie, the Single Vineyard wines made in mindboggling small quantities; 800 cases of Taylors Pass Chardonnay, 700 cases of Southern Clays Pinot Noir—crazily small quantities in the overall scheme of things and a revelation for me in terms of quality and individuality.

The connection of Single Vineyard wines was driven home by our tour that afternoon of the specific vineyards with Villa Maria Marlborough Head Viticulturalist, Stuart Dudley, who had a bottle of the said wine on-hand to taste when we walked through each vineyard—one of the most civilized journalist vineyard tours I have ever had. Well done Stuart!

We also managed to cover some of the 4WD track that we would be taking tomorrow with a collective of Marlborough producers, dubbed “The Marlborough Pinot Noir Safari”, fortuitously fording the Awatere River and having this knowledge, avoided getting bogged mid-river, as others did.

Around 4.30pm we arrived at Churton vineyard to spend the late-afternoon and dinner with Sam Weaver, my hero of the Marlborough region and organic-biodynamic champion. Sam is a veteran winemaker in these parts and has seen everything, consulting to numerous wineries and pioneer-winemaking over a couple of decades—basically he has forgotten more about Marlborough than anyone will ever know.

His property is unique in terms of altitude (the bulk of Marlborough vineyards are at sea level on the flat valley floors) at 200m above sea level on a spectacular Northeast-facing ridge between the Waihopai and Omaka valleys in the Southern Valleys area of the Wairau plain.

The soils of these hills are clay-like loess that has good water holding capacity and he is gradually moving to the vines being un-irrigated, which is unheard of in these parts. And you can see the results through the concentration and energy in his wines; the Churton Sauvignon Blanc is in my mind, the very best in the region but not in the style the mass market would fully appreciate.

Churton Pinot Noirs are gentle and fine with silky soft textures, although their best performing block, ‘The Abyss’ has considerably more weight, “amazing, creamy, layered-caressing texture of the wine, and incredible intensity of these plush layers. It was so rich and dense with a perfume that was completely hedonistic…” as I wrote in a review of the 2008, click here

After a stroll through the vineyards with Sam and his son Ben who works the vineyards, we had a fantastic tasting of Churton wines going back to 2003 (more on that separately) then retired to the lawn, sprawled out watching the sunset and sipping sauvignon blanc, all of us including the Weaver clan, somewhat weary of the last four days at the Pinot Noir Conference.

We soon got our second wind though with the roasting smells coming from the Weber and were treated to a huge rib of beef—biodynamic grass-fed from their own herd—that had been sizzling away since we arrived. What a feed; I can still taste the beef now!

Feb 2nd (Saturday)

Pinot Noir Safari – 9.00am to 4pm - Dinner that night organised by the wineries at Bell Tower, Dog Point Winery

With the aspects and diversity of New Zealand Pinot Noir regions the hallmark of the four day Celebration, the most significant impression I took away, and I am sure a consensus amongst all wine journalists there, was the exponential lift in quality across the board in the Marlborough region.

There is a seachange taking place here with the realisation that pinot noir cannot be treated like sauvignon blanc—as the region has done in its naivety and commerciality —and there is a distinct understanding of what seems to be a logical preference for pinot noir vines to have their roots in clay and loess type soils, as opposed to the gravelly-bony soil structures of the valley floors.

Altitude is also playing a part and essentially anyone that is aiming to be a serious pinot noir producer in Marlborough is heading for the hills, as we did that day, travelling by 4WD through the Awatere, Brancott, Omaka and Waihopai valleys taking the back country routes to discover the special sites that are putting Marlborough Pinot Noir on the map.

It was a great day—full of adventure and discovery—and plenty of camaraderie and bonding between both wineries, wine trade and press. Actually we also made history as this is the first time that so many Marlborough wineries have played in the sandpit together and there was a palpable sense of achievement; that this newfound cohesiveness would drive progression in the region. I will be writing in greater detail on this.

We gathered that evening at the Bell Tower, Dog Point Wineries stunning lodge and had a marvellous feast of local lamb and beef (if I am repeating myself about the brilliant local produce everywhere we went, it’s because New Zealand is starting to realise the huge importance of provenance and artisan farming) and some excellent bottles out of the producers cellars—a particularly good 2005 Dogs Point Pinot Noir I recall... a heroic Fromm La Strada Pinot Noir out of magnum to which I can’t exactly remember the vintage...I think 2003...and a seemingly endless bottle of Churton Abyss Pinot Noir 2007? It all started to blur towards the end of the evening.

Feb 3rd (Sunday)

Fly Blenheim to Christchurch – depart 12.00 ETA 12.50pm – collect hire car

Pegasus Bay Winery – tasting and dinner - Accommodation at Pegasus Bay

We afforded ourselves a well-needed sleep-in and a full breakfast at our excellent lodgings, Hotel d’Urville. I have written a separate article on recommended accommodation in Marlborough click here and I can say with personal experience now, the Hotel d’Urville is excellent with very friendly and personable and the manager, Chris, looking after us admirably. It’s a wonderful ‘Old Public Trust Building’ converted with taste and my d’Urville room spacious and very comfortable.

Arriving at Christchurch, we picked up our hire car and drove north to the Waipara Valley to Pegasus Bay winery, only 45 minutes or so from the airport. We had pre-planned a duck curry cooking demo for winemaker Matt Donaldson with his brother Paul (GM at Pegasus) and wife joining us for dinner later.

As we prepared the ducks and cooked the curry, Matt had a steady flow of current and pre-release wines for us to taste; rather civilized when I think of it—doing a wine tasting and cooking duck curry—continuing the tasting out on their front lawn soaking up the late afternoon sun and luxuriating in the wonderful surrounds.

The duck curry turned out well and we washed it down with liberal amounts of Pegasus Bay Pinot Noir and their Gewürztraminer which was also an excellent match. We turned in for a relatively early night; yes I know, imagine Matt Donaldson turning in early but we were all still suffering fatigue from the Pinot Noir Celebration and more than happy to head for bed.

As familiar as I am with Pegasus Bay winery, I’m glad we visited; it’s a special place and their wines are consistently excellent if not always improving and at the cutting-edge of New Zealand’s evolution.

Feb 4th (Monday)

Vineyard visits – Bell Hill followed by Pyramid Valley

Depart Christchurch for Queenstown - Air New Zealand 4.50pm flight ETA 5.50pm

Accommodation Eichardt's Private Hotel & Lakefront Apartments

This was another full day arriving at Bell Hill winery at 10am. It’s only a 15 minute drive from Pegasus Bay inland through the Weka Pass and yet the geography is a world away. This is one of the few places in New Zealand where vines are planted on limestone and there is nothing to compare it with, not even Pyramid Valley wines only 15 minutes down the road which also have limestone soils but distinctly different in both soil structure and winemaking.

Essentially Bell Hill is the most unique ‘Appellation’ in all New Zealand and to my mind—and palate—make the most purist and ethereal, textural chardonnay in the country with the infused minerality and poise of a Grand Cru Chablis. Their pinot noirs are stunning, so incredibly fragrant and redolent in berry fruit, I could smell their wines 10 metres away above all others at the Pinot Noir Celebration regional tasting.

This was my first visit to the Bell Hill vineyards—a revelation—pure joy and inspirational to see and share in Marcel Giesen and Sherwyn Veldhuizen dream; their obsession and painstaking work to produce a thimble full of wine unparalleled in complexity, minerality, silky texture and incredible energy and intensity of flavour and acidity.

You almost feel guilty tasting out of barrel here; only 2 barrels of chardonnay and 4 barrels of pinot noir from the 2012 vintage and such a privilege as the pipette only goes into the barrels for very few people. We continued tasting in their vineyard cottage with their 2010 Chardonnay and 2010, 2009 and 2005 Pinot Noir that I will post detailed notes on separately.

As we drove off I felt a sense of absolution; that our visit to Bell Hill was such a great experience it justified the whole trip.

Conversely, I wish we had been able to spend more time with Mike Weersing and our hour of intense conversation and tasting through his wines an uplifting and inspirational experience, more so for a wine writer.

Mike is certainly an extraordinary and charismatic person, singlehandedly pushing the boundaries of New Zealand wine, challenging the status quo and making unique wines that are an X-Ray of the soils and their individual vineyard blocks. And who else would have a picture of the weeds that are prevalent in each vineyard block on their label and name some of their cuvees after these weeds.

When you have an intimate conversation with Mike it all seems perfectly natural like every aspect and approach at Pyramid Valley, natural and painstakingly following organic and biodynamic principals. These folks care more about the land than themselves and what’s in every bottle is the toil of Mike and Claudia Weersing “Muscles aching to work, minds aching to create - this is man.” ― John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath

You can extrapolate all the marketing and hype, all the dissection and hypothesizing of the New Zealand wine industry, but the path to ascendancy and supremacy on the world wine stage is right here—at Pyramid Valley—the paragon of what New Zealand vignerons need to embrace. Imagine an entire wine industry having a marketing platform of the whole country being completely organic... surely a natural course for a country like New Zealand.

I wish we had allowed ourselves more time at ‘Appellation Mike’ and had chance to walk through the vineyards again, even if it was raining. We did however manage to get a sneak preview of new wine in their range; a field blend of all their vineyard blocks comprising chardonnay, pinot blanc, pinot gris and pinot noir co-fermented in a clay vessel and was the most exciting, extraordinarily energized and unique wine we tried on our whole three week trip. Man, is this wine going to rock in restaurants, I can see the sommeliers frothing at the mouth; it’s not a white wine, not a red wine, and not rosé either...make sure you look out it.

Our next flight should have been the most spectacular of our whole trip, the Christchurch to Queenstown flight path tracking the Southern Alps with stunning views all the way; well that’s if it’s not clouded over and raining.

What a buggar; I was so looking forward to my travel buddy experiencing this, what’s more he had a religious moment when we came into land at Queenstown with storm conditions and we were the last flight in before they closed the airport. You should have seen the look of certain death on his face as our plane veered violently in the cross-wind and bottomed out with ones stomach around your neck on touch-down and careering all over the runway. I think he thought he was about to be buried here before seeing the place.

We were greeted with icy gale-force freezing winds as we stepped onto the tarmac; so much for my prediction of gloriously sunny weather and the warmest place we will visit on our trip. We headed straight for our hotel, Eichardt's Private Hotel & Lakefront Apartments www.eichardts.com and settling into our spacious, luxurious apartment right on the lakefront in the heart of Queenstown, we soon forgot about the weather.

Actually, it was Eichardt’s Bar that obscured the elements, housed in a beautiful old historic building that has been a favourite watering hole since 1867, ensconcing ourselves in this plush and intimate, very groovy space and working our way through their brilliant tapas menu and a bottle of silky, warming Mount Edwards Morrison Pinot Noir 2010.

We hung out in Eichardt’s Bar over the next five days...well it was our house bar after all...but it was not until the next day when the weather had totally cleared up and in the bright, sunny crispness of morning (breakfast was served here as well, just in case you thought we were hitting the bottle early) you can see why it was awarded ‘Top 10 Bars in the world with a view’ Times of London, UK - Oct 2010, with a panorama across Lake Wakatipu and the surrounding mountains.

Eichardt’s is certainly a very cool place and the ultimate in boutique luxury accommodation; very happy with our digs and greatly appreciate the introduction from the folks at Mount Edwards winery.

Feb 5th (Tuesday)

So, here we are, at the gateway of the Central Otago wine region. We hit the wine trail first thing in the morning and a drive to the Bannockburn region through the Kawarau Gorge with jaw dropping views of mountains, ravines and the wildest of countryside has my travel companion enthralled. He is now under the Central Otago spell—a place of unparalleled contrasts and vertiginous spectacle against a backdrop of impossibly blue sky—it’s almost inconceivable until you have seen it yourself and instils a wanderlust, and a perception that everything (wine and food) has to taste good.

Our first scheduled tasting is with a group called Artisan Winegrowers of Central Otago, www.awco.org.nz. With such small production levels, these vignerons have banded together to achieve a budget for marketing themselves, which highlights the growing pains of artisan winemakers and the imperative of achieving economic sustainability, as much as environmental sustainability. Actually, there’s a whole lot of vineyards in New Zealand that need to grow bigger, and some that should grow smaller.

We tasted through their wines at Georgetown Vineyard in a tiny old, gold mining days blacksmiths hut, adding a unique element and certainly the smallest cellar door I have ever been in! It’s a commendable and cohesive effort and we enjoyed our tasting and it’s good to understand more about the wines in the region that are under the radar, more detail on this separately.

It was then on to Felton Road in Bannockburn for lunch, only howitzer direct shoot distance away visible from the Georgetown vineyard across the Kawarau River.

Felton Road and Nigel Greening—the Avatar of pinot noir—is irrefutable proof that great terroir exists in New Zealand, moreover vindicates Romeo Bragato’s recommendation back in 1885 that Central Otago was highly suited to the pinot noir grape, even if it took about 80 years for that to sink in.

This is an annual pilgrimage for me; it’s like visiting the Dalai Lama seeking spiritual enlightenment except this is the bodhisattva of pinot noir and Nigel Greening an “Ocean of Wisdom”. If it were not for the fact he is way too nicer person to be a politician, he should be running the country. It is also my way of cleansing wine industry disillusionment, the cynicisms that pervade ones thoughts and motivation—to write—and I always come away from here reborn.

And there is always something new going on here; you can guarantee Greening has something new and inspirational, and tasting through the new wines with winemaker Blair Walter always refreshing even if we invariably end up drinking someone else’s wine, or beer! Altruism is the foundation of Felton Road; what goes on here reinforces the whole region and they genuinely care for their fellow vignerons and progression of the industry as whole.

As it turned out, our visit was perfectly timed for an exciting event; the release of a rare New Zealand Falcon or Kārearea, the countries only endemic bird of prey; not to be confused with the Australasian Marsh Harrier. Actually, an interesting fact, New Zealand used to have a massive eagle, the Haast’s Eagle, the largest true raptor known to man, even larger than existing vultures, but now extinct.

This Falcon, or “Caz” as it has been affectionately named, is part of the ‘Falcon for Grapes Program’ partly funded by the Ministry of Forestry and Agriculture and will trained to take up residence in the vineyard, as the most natural way of scaring birds away from eating the grapes during the ripening season. Furthermore, an effective means of combating the relentless rabbit problem.

It was a very special moment to witness the Falconer releasing the bird and watch it sweeping around the vineyard and surrounds surveying its new territory, swooping down like a jetfighter, or raptor as it were, with all below in awe of its power with pesky starlings darting for cover.

A sacrificial rabbit had been nailed to a perch in the middle of the vineyard encouraging the Falcon to return here and to make its home. This would be repeated over the next few days with desirable birds and rodents to instil a territorial domain. Greening reports that Caz has indeed made herself at home and that they see her regularly so all is going to plan. I took a whole bunch of pictures of Caz on that day, click here

We had a fantastic lunch at Felton Road with all the produce fresh out of the vineyard garden with incredible flavour, and the best roast goat I have ever had coming from Greening’s own herd that grazes on the wild, thorny Scottish Rosehip bushes and tussocks in the hills above the vineyard. Greening beams with satisfaction emphasizing that they aim to be truly self sufficient and that there’s not much that comes through their front gate other than, glass wine bottles, oak barrels and people.

It is an incredible property; a true biodynamic entity self-sufficient in its own dynamic eco-system and microbial biodiversity with all the manure, composts, mulch, organic treatments and teas coming from the property and a lot of toil from Gary King, Felton Roads viticulturist.

More on Felton Road biodynamics and a review of their Cornish Point Pinot Noir 2011 coming up…

We drove back to Queenstown in the late afternoon and had dinner at Rata, chef-partner Josh Emett’s excellent new restaurant. Man, is Queenstown lucky to have a chef of this calibre and talent. I have known Emett since his days in Melbourne at Est. Est. Est. where he worked (doggedly) with Donovan Cooke, one of the toughest chefs I know. Emitt has trained with the very best; the likes of Marcus Wareing, Gordon Ramsey and has certainly earned his Michelin stripes.

It’s a lively, airy open-plan dining room with an engaging floor to ceiling picture of native New Zealand forest and Rata trees taken by photographer Daz Caulton. It certainly sets the tone; that everything is natural, pristine local produce, well local in the sense much of it is sourced from the South Island—Wild Otago Rabbit, Marlborough King Salmon, Wild Vension—just some of the main course offerings. Actually the menu layout is very user-friendly with ‘Bites’ for the graziers and ‘Feasts – larger cuts for the whole table’ that really bring out the best in Emett’s skill and talent—Whole baked red snapper, Roast crispy skin Canter Valley duck, Braised coastal spring lamb shoulder—get the picture.

There’s a congenial casualness about the place, a good balance between informality and slick service, a snappy wine list with good local depth and plenty of wines by the glass and overall, incredibly good value. Actually I would go as far to say, considering the quality of produce and cooking, this is some of the best eating value on this planet. And the locals have been quick to appreciate that with the place brim full every night, so make sure you book in advance, especially during the holiday season...which is all year-round in this place! www.ratadining.co.nz

Feb 6th (Wednesday)

Waitangi Day – a day off, that is from winery visits or anything that might resemble work?

We had Intel on the best breakfast place in town from Duncan Forsyth and let me tell you folks, Motogrill is the place to go in Queenstown—for the best coffee, best breakfast grills, uber-cool hangout—even Sam Neill hangs out here. It has the requisite retro-daggy fit-out, indeed minimalist and completely lacking in any design and the service is local-relaxed-sociable, sort of like arriving at a hut on the tramping trail where everyone knows the routine and there’s that ‘everyone’s home’ feel about it. Great place, brilliant coffee, very friendly cooks!

When then decided to go for a drive to Glenorchy at the northern end of Lake Wakatipu. It’s only a 45 minute drive but what a spectacular drive it is on what was a brilliant sunny morning. It’s the gateway to a lot of the wilderness trekking in these parts bordering Mount Aspiring and Fiordland National park with access to the famous Routeburn Track and many others like Greenstone Track, Caples Track, Kinloch and Dart River, but the only trekking we did was straight to the Glenorchy Hotel for a pint!

We called into the legendary Blanket Bay Lodge http://blanketbay.com on the way back having a good chat with the general manager, wishing we had time to stay a few nights here!

Driving back through Queenstown, I wanted to show my travelling complain some real mountainside so took him for a drive up to the Remarkables Ski-field, which is something of an eye-opener in the summer and makes you wonder what posses people to drive up these hair-raising, gravel roads in the winter.

My companion broke out into a cold sweat the whole way up and in parts just had to close his eyes, as we crested hills with no road visible until you are right upon it; looking out over a thousand foot drop and the road winding ever-steeper as we crawled our way up to the chair-lift summit.

There were several religious moments for him both on the way up and down but once back on flat ground he said it was the most amazing experience he has ever had. I didn’t want to spoil his sense of thrill-seeking adventure and tell him that’s just one of our baby mountains.

Dinner that night was at Sam Neill’s place and his wife Noriko cooked an amazing meal—freshly-shucked Bluff Oysters, Milford Sound Crayfish that was caught that morning and I completely gorged myself having 3 whole crayfish, and brilliant local lamb—all washed down with copious quantities of pinot noir—of course.

We star-gazed under a perfectly clear night with the sky a blanket of stars, millions of sparkling lights that you feel you can almost touch, a phenomenal sight with the southern stars luminous and Jupiter glowing bright orange yet to think 830 million km away.

A most memorable and very special night of great conversation and feasting.

Feb 7th (Thursday)

A slow start to the morning with breakfast at Motogrill again; a big fry-up and a gallon of cafe latte. We then drove to Two Paddocks Redbank vineyard and home-base in Alexandria and another spectacular drive through the Cromwell Gorge, Lake Dunstan, the Clutha River and Clyde Dam. You never tire of the exhilarating scenery, it’s so dramatically rugged and the water the brightest of blue.

We had a long stroll around the vineyard and orchards then a good yarn with Sam as he talked us through his art collection at the cellar door. I could say a lot more about Two Paddocks, but the humbleness of the proprietor has worn off on me presently; he doesn’t like to go on about his wine too much. I will however say, the Two Paddocks Pinot Noir 2010 will be released soon and is possibly the most profound and silky wine they have made to date; a ‘Vintage Year’ in Gibbston and their First Paddock Vineyard and the humble Pommard Clone 5 showing its pedigree.

Heading back to Lake Dunstan and taking in the view at Felton Road Cornish Point, and a little further down the road, we should have called in to see the folks at Bald Hills, another excellent producer, but we simply did not have time. Read more on Bald Hills – click here

Following the eastern side of the lake on towards Bendigo, taking the Old Bendigo Loop Road, we drove up to the old gold mining sites and early pioneer dwellings then back down the hills past Quartz Reef vineyard. I am huge fan of Rudi Bauer and his wines, but again time constraints meant we did not make an appoint with him, but you can read plenty on Quartz Reef – click here

Driving back along Lake Dunstan the view across to the west takes in the Dunstan Range, Pisa Range and the Sugar Loaf carved flat by glaciers and forming the Lowburn Valley, now a significant sub-region of Central Otago wine region. Indeed one of the most promising new producers here, Burn Cottage, is making impressive wines already from young vines and championing biodynamic viticulture. I had the pleasure of talking at length with proprietor, Marquis Sauvage; this guy has the mojo and I have the distinct feeling we are going to see some great pinot noir from here. www.burncottage.com

Our next winery destination, Mount Edward, also have vineyards in Lowburn; their own Morrison Vineyards partly the source of their stunning rieslings and new plantings of gruner veltliner, along with their two Grower Vineyards, Pisa Terrace Vineyard and L’Attitude Vineyard. www.mountedward.com

We were rendezvousing with Duncan Forsyth, Winemaker/General Manager at their home-base winery and cellar door in Gibbston... and this has to be the coolest cellar door in all New Zealand, actually more a lounge complete with sofas, groovy music, laidback tasting and Duncan’s legendary pig charcuterie. Hurrah!

Tasting through the Mount Edward current releases is always palate-expanding; the wines seemingly just get better and better every year, and that’s coming of a really high base – I selected their three individual pinot noir cuvee 2009s as my ‘New Zealand Red Wine of the Year’ – click here for full review. Then along comes the brilliant 2010 vintage in Gibbston, a must-have for the cellar.

Forsyth walked us through his 2011 Pinots and in his inherent relaxed and totally candid manner dismissing the negative noise about this cooler, and yes difficult vintage. And I agree with him in terms of his wines; they were all impressive and had a savoury, earthy complexity, wonderfully silky with a semblance of restraint. His 2012 Rieslings were knockouts – full notes on these soon.

We then met up with John Buchanan, Forsyth’s business partner and the money behind Mount Edwards, for dinner at his property with views to the Remarkables on one side and Coronet Peak on the other; a truly remarkable panorama. We were treated to Forsyth’s barbequed marinated pig belly and sausages and an endless flow of Mount Edwards Pinot Noir; a great evening of lively conversation and wonderful hospitality.