I think we have made New Zealand's unluckiest wine," says Ben Coles of Waipara's Crater Rim winery. "We made a 'Black Friday' pinot noir to commemorate the winery fire, which was then bottled on February 22 at Burnham in Canterbury."
That was the day, just over six months ago, that Christchurch and its surrounds were rocked by its most destructive earthquake to date. Bottling continued when the tremors subsided, but since the dust settled on this double whammy for Crater Rim - and shake-up for wineries across Canterbury - it's become clear that the most significant damage wrought by the quake on the region's wine industry are the deep cracks it has left in their important local market.
"The effect on our businesses has been significant," says Angela Clifford of Waipara's Greystone. "Christchurch is the biggest market for many of our wineries and an important one for us all. This, combined with the loss of visitors to the region and the opportunities the Rugby World Cup games would have offered, has meant it's been a very challenging time."
Cellar doors, along with other tourism operations, have taken a major hit. "After the quake in February, we noticed an immediate drop-off in cellar door visitor numbers, as tourists simply stopped coming to Christchurch," says Robert Lindsay of West Melton's Tresillian.
"Sales have predictably dropped hugely in Christchurch, particularly on-premise, as many restaurants were based in the CBD," observes Paul Donaldson of Pegasus Bay. "What we have seen is a shift by the Christchurch people from eating and drinking out to supermarket buying and eating at home."
Sadly, Christchurch has lost some of its best and most wine-focused restaurants. A neat pile of bricks is all that can be seen at the former Saggio di Vino site, while Restaurant Schwass is being demolished. Both owners hope these will rise from the rubble; meanwhile restaurants in the less quake-affected north and western suburbs are doing a brisk trade and being joined by refugee establishments from the city.
With a significant part of the CBD cordoned off since February, plans were afoot for the establishment of a temporary entertainment hub allowing hundreds of quake-hit bars and eateries to reopen in tents or shipping containers. However nothing has yet come of the idea.
But it's not all doom and gloom in the Canterbury wine scene. Business has been booming in suburban restaurants. And though Waipara Winegrowers were forced to cancel their annual food and wine celebration, scheduled for just after the quake, a new independent Christchurch/South Island Wine and Food Festival, with which I've become involved, is now planned for Hagley Park in December.
As the city's hospitality industry gets back on its feet, the region's wineries have been forced to explore new avenues. "Wines of Canterbury have begun working on promotional plans to reposition our members in terms of the local market," explains Murray Irvine, president of Wines of Canterbury. "It is very important to the industry to get locals drinking local wines as being a way of helping Canterbury rebuild."
Waipara Valley Winegrowers in conjunction with the Hurunui Tourism Board have just announced a collaborative marketing programme to raise the profile of the Waipara Valley, its food and wine, to both national and international markets, managed by Clifford.
"It's a fantastic initiative from a community still recovering from the events of the past 12 months," says Clifford, "and an indication of our ability to focus on what's important."
LUCKY FOR PINOT LOVERS
The Crater Rim Black Friday Waipara Pinot Noir 2009 $44.90
A propitious pinot emerges from this wine's unfortunate back-story; with dense and brooding back cherry and plum fruit and hints of florals and freshly roasted coffee, underpinned by gamey savoury notes and a tight spine of acid and mineral. (From Fine Wine Delivery Company, Caro's, La Barrique, Scenic Cellars.)
Georges Road Block Three Waipara Riesling 2010 $23.50
Beautifully floral example of Waipara's flagship white variety from the new label of Sandihurst winemaker Kirk Bray is silky textured and layered with notes of orange zest, stonefruit and honeysuckle and a hint of mineral. (From Point Wines, Bacchus Cellars.)
Waipara Hills Waipara Gewurztraminer 2009 $20.90-$22.90
While only a few Waipara wineries make gewurz, the appeal of rare examples like this, with its notes of rose, spice and kick of quinine, suggest it's another variety with potential in the valley. (From Glengarry and the website above.)