Beth Eggers' winery in the Upper Moutere Valley may be among the smallest in the country but it does have its own chapel. Modelled on a church Beth saw in the Black Forest, in Germany, it sits high on a hill amid vines and apple trees, surrounded by the grazing sheep she has trained to prune the vines - "I vary the level of leaf trimming by selecting the height of the sheep allowed to graze among the vines" - with magnificent views over the Nelson countryside.

Inside there are three rows of pews, able to seat a dozen people, and a small altar with a cross and a magnificent altar cloth made by a friend.

"I know it's a bit unusual," she says, "and it isn't used for services very often, but it's very peaceful, a great place to sit and feel ... gratitude for all this" - and she waves her arm in a gesture which embraces the tiny tasting shed decorated with bottles of her Himmelsfeld wine, an array of international awards and the parched hills outside with their neat pockets of trees and vines.

"Now," she adds, "would you like to try some of the '04 chardonnay? I've only just released it. But it has won a silver medal at the Vins du Monde in Paris."

So, we sit and sip some excellent wine, listening to Beth's story of how she had a childhood dream to own a vineyard, and achieved it by working nightshifts as a nurse at the local hospital, while spending her days planting vines on 10ha of bare land she bought in 1991.

"When I planted the first vine," she says, "I said to myself, 'One day I'll make wine that will win a gold medal in Paris'."

She won bronze, then silver and then in 2003 her noble chardonnay struck gold at the Vins du Monde. "I haven't entered any competitions since then. After all I've done it ... Now would you like to try some of it?" Oh yes. Very much. Oh yes.

It's experiences like that which make a tour of the wineries in the Nelson region so special. The industry is so young that most of the places are small and owner-operated so you get to chat with the person who planted the grapes, made the wine and bottles it, and to hear their stories.

In fact you can even meet the man who literally founded the wine industry not just in Nelson but in the whole of the South Island, Hermann Seifried, who is still actively involved in running his vineyard.

When Hermann came to Nelson in 1971, having been brought to New Zealand by the old Apple and Pear Board to make fruit wines, the received wisdom was that you couldn't make wine from South Island grapes and there wasn't a commercial winery in the whole island.

"The official view - of the Department of Ag and Fish in those days - was this was the place for hops, apples, tobacco, pine trees ... and good fishing ... and that's all."

But, having learned during his training that land that was suitable for hops and tobacco was suitable for grapes - and there was a lot of hops and tobacco grown in the Nelson area in those days - Hermann believed there was great potential for winemaking.

"Dad was told he was crazy when he wanted to see grapes planted for wine," says eldest daughter Heidi, a dentist who these days works in the family business as a winemaker. "No one was interested in planting grapes and no one would loan him the money to establish a vineyard himself."

Hermann recalls that "the government bank, the Rural Bank, wouldn't even give me an appointment to discuss a loan because the manager thought it wasn't worthwhile seeing me."

Convinced he was right, and that Nelson and the South Island could produce good wine, he borrowed money at high rates of interest, bought some land in the Upper Moutere Valley, planted several varieties of grape, used his skills as a welder to build his own tanks ... . and the rest is history.

Since the first vintage was harvested in 1973 Seifried Estate has been hugely successful commercially and has won many awards. I've long enjoyed their wines, especially the wonderful gewurtztraminers, but during a tasting at the winery I discovered they also produce a very nice sauvignon blanc - "less extreme than Marlborough's", Heidi says, accurately and with parochial relish - and a fascinating wine called wurzer produced nowhere else in New Zealand

and hardly anywhere in the world. It was so good we had a bottle with lunch.

But the real revelation was the Winemakers Collection series - particularly the sauvignon blanc, chardonnay, gewurtztraminer and riesling ice wine - which I hadn't tried before because they are only made in small quantities aren't widely available. These are great wines and it's no surprise they've won gold medals.

Hermann's success, which proved beyond doubt that the South Island is wine-growing country, has sparked the development of a huge wine industry which has spread well beyond Nelson.

Today two thirds of New Zealand's commercial vineyards are in the South Island, the sauvignon blanc grown over the hill in Marlborough is the mainstay of wine exports, pinot noir grown further south in Central Otago is a rising star, and Nelson where it all began has 26 wineries and, as local winemakers proudly boast, "per hectare of vines planted, Nelson consistently wins more trophies than the other regions".

As you'd imagine, Hermann is quietly pleased at the achievements of his own winery and even more so at the success of those who followed him. "It's great to see," he says. "There is a lot of very fine wine being produced here by many people.

"What makes our wine in the South Island so special and so unique is our climate. The South Island really has the weather that is good for white wines especially. Nice cool climate with lots of sunshine. It's just what you need to make good wines."

Sipping a final taste of Seifried's wonderful dry reisling I can only agree. It's superb. Not bad for an area where wine isn't possible.

Jim Eagles visited Nelson with help from Air New Zealand and Grand Mercure Nelson Monaco.
GETTING THERE:

Air New Zealand offers up to nine flights a day from Auckland to
Nelson with fares starting from $95 per person one way. Visit airnewzealand.co.nz or phone 0800 737 000.

WHERE TO STAY:

The boutique four-star Grand Mercure Nelson Monaco offers a range of accommodation including apartments, with rates from $129 per night. For bookings and information visit accorhotels.co.nz or phone 0800 44 44 22.

WINERIES:

Himmelsfeld Vineyard is on the web at himmelsfeld.co.nz.
Seifried Estate is at siefried.co.nz. If you want to try
Seifried's Winemaker's Collection wines try Kingsley Wood at First
Glass in Takapuna. Standard wines are widely available. For information on other Nelson wineries see wineart.co.nz.

FOOD:

The Nelson Market is held 8am to 1pm every Saturday morning in
Montgomery Square. See NelsonMarket.co.nz.

FURTHER INFORMATION:

For more about Nelson see nelsonnz.com.