Rows of old barrels lined the walls of the cave tunnel leading back to a cool, moist cellar. There, sitting atop a red tablecloth, were glasses filled with wine; and two more bottles waiting to be poured. Our group stood among the barrels, waiting for our first tastes of some New Zealand wine. The perfect antidote to the chilly, cloudy weather outside.
It was raining and miserable on our first day in Queenstown, but it didn’t kill the vibe and spirit of the city, considered to be the adventure sport capital of the world. And there were certainly extreme sport operators riddled throughout town. At 12:30, a bus picked us up for our scheduled New Zealand wine walk, where we were meant to take a trail between vineyards. However, given the rain, we opted for the guided tour instead, so we could stay in the comfort of the bus.
Our first stop was Gibbston Valley Vineyard, where we got to enter one of the largest wine caves in the country. One of the workers at the vineyard handed each of us a glass of Sauvignon Blanc, and we happily started sipping away. He explained to us the process for making the variety, and the flavors and textures we should have been picking up. I will admit, I’m no sommelier, but I would like to think that I have a pretty mature palette when it comes to wine. The next one we tried was a Pinot Gris, a variety of which I have never really been a fan. But I took a shot on this one, but found it just didn’t have an appealing flavor. Next was the Pinot Noir, the variety the region is known for, and it was delightful, just light enough that it could be enjoyed mid-afternoon, but with a flavor profile that was still bold and complex, perfect for food pairing.
After our tasting in the wine cave, we hurried through the rain to the restaurant, where we enjoyed a wonderful lunch complete with squash soup, bread, hummus and veggies, and cheese and crackers, and, of course, a glass of wine. We conversed with the other members of our tour group, most of whom were from North America or England.
After a brief visit to the gift shop, we hopped back on the bus and made our way over to the second vineyard, Waitiri Creek. The tasting room was actually an old church transported from Wangaloa, another region of the south island. We sampled about five different wines: a Chardonnay (phenomenal), a Pinot Gris (not so much), a Riesling (pretty good, not too sweet), and two Pinot Noirs (both delicious).
The third winery we visited was Mt. Rosa, located further up the hillside and in a much more modern warehouse style facility. We squeezed into the room, which felt a little cold and cramped, but the array of wines in front of us certainly made up for it. We tried about eight or nine wines—and yes, you can bet I was feeling it a bit by now. We tried some of the standards—Chardonnay, Pinot Gris, Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling and Pinot Noir—as well as some other varieties that were a little different—Gewurtztraminer and Chenin Blanc.
It was here that we learned a little bit more about the wine industry in New Zealand, and how it is made up of many small, boutique wineries, and perhaps two or three large ones with high distribution. Since many of their operations are so small, it is difficult to produce enough wine to send to larger countries, and the regulations on trade and export make it very expensive. This is why many of these fantastic wines cannot be found in the U.S., which is a real shame. (But maybe if you ask your local liquor stores to stock them, there is a chance they could get enough demand to expand distribution.)
The final stop on our wine tour was Amisfield Wine Company, considered to be a much larger establishment than some of the others in the region, but still exceptionally good. We met with one of the seasoned wine experts, who took us down into the wine cellar for a quick lesson on the wines, how they were made, and a tasting of about four varieties. A Riesling, a Rose, a Pinot Noir and a Pinot Gris. By this point, I had disliked all the Pinot Gris varieties I had that day, but I decided to take one more chance, convinced that this one would disappoint, too. To my chagrin, it was great! I had finally found a Pinot Gris I liked, so much so that I dropped $30 for a bottle—yes, that is expensive for someone who usually keeps her wine purchases to under $10 per bottle.
As we left the vineyard and headed back to our hotel, a sense of sadness started to creep over me. It quickly rippled through my body before settling as a tiny marble-sized ball in my throat. The trip would be ending soon, only a couple days left, and I would be heading back to Chicago, back to the daily grind of work. Goodbye means a return to routine, to the acts of the every day, where you know life will never be as exciting as what you just experienced.
New Zealand held nothing but good memories, strange experiences and some of the most elaborate landscapes I had ever seen. That evening, I sipped a glass of local wine, letting the liquid linger on my tongue, the taste settle on my lips. I would be going home, but I would take the taste of New Zealand with me.