As the well-known wine critic Bob Campbell puts it, “Canterbury’s stunning Waipara region is one of the unsung heroes of the wine industry.” By Kayte John
It has become the fastest growing wine region in New Zealand with around 80 vineyards in the Waipara Valley, covering more than 1,200 hectares of plantings. There is no surprise that it has quickly become one of the great wine capitals of the world. Waipara has become synonymous with fine wine and great food and it’s right on our doorstep!
Only a 40 minute drive north of Christchurch, Waipara’s wineries currently produce in excess of 250,000 cases of wine each year (and growing). Warm summers with nor-west winds and sloping terrain harness the sun, which provides ideal conditions for growing grapes.
In 1981 Waipara River Estate, formerly known as Glenmark Wines, planted the first vineyard. The 80 acre farm grows grapes, raises beef cattle and now hosts a luxury bed and breakfast, Annie’s Loft and Studio. Since then an array of vineyards have opened giving the valley its true title – the world’s greenest wine region.
It’s not difficult to persuade me to have a glass of wine especially in Waipara as it produces some of my favourties. It’s a miserable day but that doesn’t stop me from grabbing my umbrella and heading out the door.
Waipara has more than 15 wineries with cellar doors that are open to the public. Here you can drop in, taste wines and at some, enjoy a meal, a lunch platter or a coffee. As I arrive the rain has vanished and the sun emerges through the dark clouds encasing the vine-covered hills.
My first stop is the impressive Pegasus Bay Winery where I meet marketing manager, Edward Donaldson. The family run business is famous for its award winning wines and renowned world class restaurant.
It’s a Wednesday afternoon and I expect the place to be fairly quiet –I was wrong. The restaurant is full for lunch and a flock of tourists have assembled in the tasting room. Donaldson explains that tourists are still visiting and the locals are making up for the short-fall. He also explains that Pegasus Bay has a large international market and a sizable percentage of its wines are imported all around the world. As I leave a family from Seattle tells me they came all the way from the US to taste our fine wine – leaving me and Donaldson smiling.
Before I head to some of the smaller wineries I make sure I pop into The Mud House Winery and Café – always a great place for lunch and to sample its broad wine list.
The manager, Jenny Anderson is very welcoming and the staff is more than happy to talk you through the wines. As I walk outside with my chilled riesling a helicopter gracefully lands and a couple emerge looking very eager to have lunch. Anderson explains that heli lunch tours are very popular with tourists and even locals, as it provides a quick way to Waipara from Christchurch.
Wineries not open to the public offer tastings by appointment only. This shouldn’t stop you from getting in touch and booking – and it’s happily advised by the owners. Crater Rim, Muddy Water, Black Estate and Dancing Water are just a small handful of these boutique wineries. It would be a sin not to visit some of the smaller wineries as they offer a personal touch and its wines are truly out of this world.
I visit Greystone’s/Muddy Water’s cellar door and sip on a pinot noir, savouring its silky plum taste. It’s easy to get caught up in conversation as I did with Jacinda Amer, the cellar door manager. I was even given a tour by their viticulturist, Nick Gill who explained the grape types and gave me a little history about the vineyard. Last year Greystone won the 2011 Winemaker of the Year award – a true testament to their hard work and commitment that goes into its wines. Many visitors will be keen to visit the Waipara Valley not only for tastings of superb wines but also for the excellent food that’s also on offer. Wineries such as Waipara Springs, Mud House and Pegasus Bay all provide a great lunch menu. Last year, Pegasus Bay was voted ‘Best Winery Restaurant’ in New Zealand for the fourth consecutive year running.
As I visit my last winery, Waipara Springs, owner Jill Moore explains that business has been great regardless of the continuous quakes. The Rugby World Cup last year saw droves of tourists in their cars and campers visiting the area in between matches. Waipara Springs has a great outdoor area surrounded by trees and shrubs, where you can sit and relax with a glass of wine and feel like you’re a million miles away from civilisation.
The Waipara Valley also hosts some of the best food and wine events of the year. This year the Classic Hits Winery Tour takes place on February 18. A day to relax and enjoy the Kiwi sounds of Gin Wigmore, The Mutton Birds and Avalanche City. You can bring your own food to the event and food stalls will be on site. The event is fully licensed with wine, beer and soft drinks available.
Another event not to be missed is the Waipara Valley Wine and Food Festival. Taking place on March 3, it’s one of the most exciting wine and food events in New Zealand. More than 20 wineries and many local food producers will come together serenaded by music from Herbs, Wellington International Ukulele Orchestra and Christchurch Pops Choir.
As I leave Waipara with my proud purchases and friend who joined me as my designated driver (thank you!) I realise that we have committed the sin of many travellers to New Zealand – underestimating our time.
One day is simply not enough to experience the wonders of the Waipara Valley. I’ve only visited a handful of the wineries here. Guess I just need to go back for another visit – wine and food festival anyone?