North Canterbury: Game of two halves

By Ewan McDonald

Ewan McDonald enjoys a few reds and Blacks in one of the country’s burgeoning food and wine regions.

Thyme for a drink - Herbs from the potager garden complement meals at Pegasus Bay's award-winning vineyard restaurant. Photo / Ewan McDonald
Thyme for a drink - Herbs from the potager garden complement meals at Pegasus Bay's award-winning vineyard restaurant. Photo / Ewan McDonald

LAMB, that's what they grew around here. Lamb and rugby players. Glenmark, home paddock for 10 All Blacks, is not so much a village as the church and store and domain by the Give Way sign off the highway through North Canterbury.

The range that shelters one side of the valley, and makes it a haven for farming or cropping or other things that we shall get on to, is named the Three Sisters. For the original three Deans sisters, one of the first families to farm the Waipara Valley.

Its role in life, or geography, or sheer bloody-mindedness, along with the Teviotdales on the other side of the valley, is to divert gusts from the east coast, just a couple of hundred metres away, and gales from the west, just a couple of hundred kilometres away, to the south, towards the old enemies, Otago and Southland. Doesn't matter whether you're talking weather. Or crops and herds or flocks. Or rugby.

People here, they chuckle over stories like the time the third team coach sat in the clubrooms on a Thursday night a couple of years back and ran through the side to play the next hamlet: "15, R Deans".

The Aussie World Cup coach, the All Black fullback, the Canterbury myth, the Glenmark legend, one of the family. Heck, Robbie was home for the holidays and there was a match to win. And he was only 48.

Here, they respect the soil. They know what it can produce and even better what it might produce with a little encouragement.

GIANTS walked this land. Way before Richard Loe or Andy Earl and an assortment of Deans brothers wore the blue-and-gold jersey of Glenmark's under-11 team or Grizz Wylie bought a farm just out of town.

In the 1930s a gentleman scholar filled his fountain pen and wrote in finest copperplate: "This chapter would be wanting in completeness, did I not offer a few notes on the now farfamed locality ... Glenmark is doubtless the spot which has furnished the largest quantity and variety of Moa-bones."

He cited the alluvial deposits of the Omihi River, the watercourses cut in limestone rocks, the river shingle of the Great Glacier period. For more than a century, the magisterial run-holders of North Canterbury couldn't have cared less about geology or giant birds that weren't around to cultivate anymore. They had been put upon this land to grow sheep. Wheat. And All Blacks.

EXCEPT THAT the 1980s came around. And a gentle prodding from the stock agent and the bank manager that sheep and wheat might not be doing as well as they once did. They're canny, here, or whatever the English word for that trait might be. They looked around, they brought in scientists, and they took their advice to plant vines. Smart move: the crop likes alluvial soil, limestone, fighting its way through river shingle. And sheep don't eat grapes. You can grow both on the same holding.

Don't stop. Think about tomorrow, which is what the families who owned the sheep estates that became the wine holdings did. And so did the folk who moved north from Christchurch and into the newly subdivided lifestyle blocks. But we are getting ahead of our story.

Corbans has produced grapes commercially from 1986, planting chardonnay, riesling, sauvignon blanc and cab-sav. By the early 90s investors were setting up projects and business models; while most of today's Waipara gems are family-owned operations, the big boys know a good thing when they sniff it. The wineries and labels are household and flash-restaurant names: Waipara's Summer Wine Trail (from Labour weekend to harvest) features Pegasus Bay, said to host the finest vineyard restaurant in the country by the arbiters of tastes in glossy magazines; Fiddler's Green, Terrace Edge, its restaurant and olive grove; Torlesse and Mud House. The winter trail (open all year) adds Mt Cass, Waipara Springs and others. The reserve selection (only open by appointment) is hosted by Allan McCorkindale, Muddy Water, Black Estate, Camshorn, Glenmark, Waipara Downs and Mountford. Among others.

IT'S THE sort of Saturday afternoon that you read about in Peter Mayle's books about Provence. Sun. Hot. Light mist over the vines in front of the terrace that doesn't stop until it reaches the blue-tinged ranges in the middle distance. Cheeses from the old lady from Middle Europe who lives just around the corner past the school bus-stop. Breads from the baker by the church hall. And a pinot from ... well, just over there.

Across the table is Nicholas Brown, winemaker at the Black Estate, only too happy to talk about his reds and whites and just as kindly disposed towards what is going on in his 'hood.

"The thing about Waipara, and Omihi, which are so close we think of it as one region, is that it's only 45 minutes up the highway from Christchurch airport. So if you're on the way to see the whales at Kaikoura, you've got to pass through one of the richest wine and artisan food districts in New Zealand. What better reason to break your journey?

"Or, say you're on a bike holiday. We've started a bike trail that can run around our vineyards, and the vineyard restaurants, and the local artisan food producers. By a stroke of luck all our vineyards are off the main highway, and we've found these paper roads that go all the way to Hanmer Springs ... "

His voice drifts off into the distance. Or perhaps as far as the vintage bike outside the door of his family business's newly built, architect-award-winning cellar door / cafe. Brown perfected his winemaking expertise in France; the perfect terroir to indulge his passion for cycling, too.

The range of delights grown and harvested in this little triangle between the hills and the sea is something that those long-ago settlers, those good English stockmen of wheat and Cheviots, could never have imagined. Fancy foods like venison, olives, figs, organic vegetables, heritage carrots and the like, artisan breads and ... I'll be damned, old chap ... black truffles, nurtured by Gareth Renowden and sniffed out of the oak-tree roots by his trained beagle.

THE NEW farmers of Waipara and Omihi gather these crops, bake and pickle and simmer these breads and preserves and conserves or concoct salamis and take them to the Amberley Farmers Market on Sunday mornings. From the ocean just over the hills others garner kaimoana: crayfish, crabs, clams, blue cod.

In March they celebrate the upcoming harvest with a festival. It used to be under the oaks and poplars beside tiny, beautiful brick Glenmark church but, as with so many things in this area, nature got in the way. After the earthquake the festival has moved to the nearby domain.

Where the rugby club plays. But the football season doesn't start until April.


Waipara Valley winegrowers, wine trail, accommodation

Waipara Valley Farmers' Market
Hurunui District Council grounds, Amberley, North Canterbury
9am-noon every Saturday, rain or shine

Waipara Valley Food and Wine Festival
24 March
Glenmark Domain, Waipara Valley


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