Venture just 45 minutes north of Christchurch to discover vineyards worthy of a flag on our South Island gourmet map, writes Anastasia Hedge
Cantabrians love their wine. Central Otago and Marlborough are close enough to sip their way through pinots and sauvignon blancs during a weekend jaunt. A wedding might even get them cycling through the vines in Martinborough or Hawke's Bay, returning south with a bottle or two for their efforts. Yet, very few venture just 45 minutes north of Christchurch to do the same.
It's a conversation sparked during a trip out to Waipara, a region once described by well-known wine critic Bob Campbell as the "one of the unsung heroes of the wine industry".
Last year, one of Waipara's family-owned wineries, Greystone Wines, made the Robert Parker Top 100 Wine Discoveries, for its 2017 Vineyard Ferment Pinot Noir. Despite the accolade, it remains a bit of a secret. Much like its ferment, its local visitors to its cellar door are a small batch, but they keep coming back time and time again. General manager Nik Mavromatis puts it down to a lack of awareness. "People think about Hanmer Springs in North Canterbury and don't realise it is less than an hour's drive to most of the wineries."
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Advertising, or lack of it, also plays a part. North Canterbury, being so dry, is an expensive area to grow grapes, and most wineries are family-run, so they don't have the big budget those in other areas have to splash around on promotion.
Greystone offers the locals a Day in the Vineyard every year around harvest, complete with a pick-up, drop-off service from Christchurch. Visitors get out into the rows and see and taste the ferment, which remains in vats near the vines like small volcanoes. Plunging the grapes is encouraged, as they bubble away. So are silly questions, there's no pretension, just a lot to learn about organic processes and dry farming. The wines on offer during the day, which also includes a four-course lunch made by chef and licensed forager Mel Wright, are the very best: Erin's Chardonnay and Thomas Brothers' Pinot Noir - some of which haven't yet left the winery for the mainly foreign market.
Greystone is also on the Waipara Valley Vineyard Trail, a 14.5km trip that includes Waipara Springs and Black Estate. Although, Direct to Consumer and Wine Club manager Fergus Winters says the signs might need to be bigger and yellow, like those ones on the roadside directing people to campgrounds. No one seems to complain if they go off track, Waipara's not that big and they'll find a cellar door soon enough.
The weather in Waipara is also a drawcard. This year North Canterbury had one of the driest summers in 30 years. Mavromatis says it's great for those wanting to escape the cold or the Canterbury nor'wester. "It's a lot sunnier and hotter than Christchurch. It always surprises me how big the temperature difference is – I guess it's like San Francisco and Napa Valley, with cool sea breezes versus hot sunny valleys."
But perhaps the biggest gripe, which is all too common among city people, is transport or, more specifically, finding a designated driver. Mavromatis proposes a train, stopping at the Waipara railway station. A wine train - from the city to the Napa of the South Island; what a wonderful thought. Until then, Waipara might remain unsung but will stay a local hero.
DETAILSThe Waipara region is less than an hour's drive from Christchurch. Tour operators offer day tours that will pick you up from central Christchurch.