Chris Reed enjoys a taste of the high life in Central Otago.
Winter was clinging to the top of the Pisa Range when our helicopter landed at lunchtime on the final Saturday in October. From short-sleeve weather at Wanaka to layers almost 2000m up.
Under broken cloud, the Airbus H125 put down on a plateau of exposed rock and tussock. Looking west, over Lake Wanaka to the Main Divide, the patches of earth pock-marking the snow increased in size and frequency until taking over altogether.
Somewhere to the left was Cardrona, behind us and down a long way, Lake Dunstan and Cromwell. There was no one else around. It was too late for skiers, too early for trampers.
Shoulder season on top of this bit of the world. A geology fieldtrip dream of a landscape.
Invigorating chill and a buffeted glee.
My wife and I were flying from Rippon to
Mt Difficulty, two of the finest wine producers in Central Otago.
We were on the Rees Hotel's Ultimate Queenstown Heli Wine Tour. Most people do it with the hotel's wine director. We were with the charming director of operations, Roman Lee-Lo. I felt special, not least because he complimented me on my trousers moments after greeting us at Queenstown airport.
The Rees is a five-star hotel on the shores of Lake Wakatipu, a short drive from central Queenstown.
After our visit, Roman sent me a long list of features to remind me how good it was. They are what you might expect from a place that was, in September, named best New Zealand hotel for the second year running at the HM Awards for Hotel and Accommodation, the "leading industry awards" for Australia, New Zealand and the South Pacific. Buzzwords on the hotel website include "sophisticated", "luxurious" and "exceptional". They are not misused.
The Rees has 60 hotel rooms, 90 apartments and five lakeside residences — essentially three-bedroom, two-storey executive homes.
We were in one of the residences. At 164sq m, they are twice the size of our house and have many more features. Our house isn't that bad.
The view from the open-plan kitchen and lounge, with its access to the en suite master with walk-in wardrobe and yoga mats, and to the large upstairs balcony, was across the Frankton Arm and up to the jagging reach of The Remarkables.
Downstairs, a garage, the other two (en suite) bedrooms, a laundry, a hot tub. You can see the lake and the mountains from every bedroom.
When we arrived, the smell of bread baking in the kitchen was everywhere. There were separate jars of honey and jam and a relish made at the hotel. There was a fridge containing "gourmet breakfast provisions" (replaced daily), including strawberries and salmon and cheese. There was a card with a recipe ("Cardrona lamb meatballs, tomato sauce and spaghetti") written by executive chef Ben Batterbury — and all the ingredients required to make it.
We wanted for nothing. Should you wish, you can pay extra for a butler, a chauffeur, a personal chef, wait staff, a yoga teacher.
That afternoon the temperature was down and a southerly was ripping up the lake. The underfloor heating in the residence was on high. I didn't want to go outside ever again.
But there's no such thing as a free luxury weekend, so we did the 20-minute shoreline walk into town.
Queenstown was protected from the early evening chill by a large number of primarily foreign tourists. Every bar and restaurant that had outdoor tables and was open looked busy. Liquid was sloshing around a bar on a boat. That southerly.
We strolled around town for a while and had health drinks to offset the wine tour. We popped into the Four Square with its primarily foreign checkout staff. But the main attraction was the residence.
As we argued about whether to listen to music through the Bose Bluetooth speaker that came as standard or to watch the All Blacks' turgid win against Los Pumas on the posh
telly that came as standard, we cooked the meatball dish in the luxury kitchen and drank local methode traditionelle. Later, I nodded off in a comfortable chair as Justin Marshall, or someone, squealed.
I felt bad the next morning. We were flying home at lunchtime and I hadn't had a look round the rest of the hotel. I was fixated on the thought that I was supposed to be trying out one of the hotel's new e-bikes.
Outside the front door was a big basket of freshly baked breads and pastries. It was like a challenge.
The residences are below the main building, down a sharp drive and next to a beast of a retaining wall. It's a breeze walking down. They'll pick you up if you can't or won't make the journey in reverse.
After walking up to reception I had a rest to stop sweating. Then I got a lift down to the lower floors, which were only just above the residences. I couldn't face looking in the gym but I poked my head into the restaurant, True South, which had expansive views and an appealing menu. I would have had "Havoc pigs head croquette, chimmi churri, black bean salad and pumpkin bread" ($22) followed by "Havoc pork loin, beer braised shoulder, prosciutto, white bean cassoulet" ($39). I like pig.
Everywhere staff were really friendly and helpful. I'd already rung reception to ask if I could have a go on an e-bike. When I got there they were poised.
I wanted to do it, not just because I was full of carbs and sugar and self-loathing, but because one of the Rees' latest "bespoke" offerings is for people arriving by plane. Called "Cycle The Rees", staff meet you at the airport to guide you along the mostly flat and consistently pretty lakeside cyclepath to the hotel for a welcome drink. Your bags are driven there and in your room before you've arrived.
You can cycle under pedal power alone or with e-assistance. I plumped for the latter.
Because we had to leave, I had to do the journey in reverse. A lovely Italian showed me how the bike worked and warned me not to cycle down the steep Z-bends to the lakeside.
He needn't have worried. I was prepared. It was all downhill from there.
I'm only occasionally ashamed to admit I don't know much about wine.
I mugged my way through a tour, in Spanish, of a winery in northern Argentina a few days before a predictably mad cycle tour of the vineyards around Mendoza, 1000km south.
Closer to home I visited a few places in Marlborough while backpacking almost two decades ago. It was not an experience replete with nuance.
Thanks, then, to the good people at Rippon and Mt Difficulty, who proved idiot-proof hosts.
Rippon has been in the Mills family since 1912, when it was part of the massive high country Wanaka Station.
Now it's 15ha under vines and 20 more of family and farmland. Death and taxes.
Major planting started in 1982, early for Otago. From 30 grape varieties, it now focuses on six.
They don't buy in fruit and the operation is biodynamic — a concept derived from Rudolf Steiner's agricultural lectures. Essentially it advocates a farm being a self-sustaining whole.
"All we're doing is to create something that speaks of where it's from — it's the French notion of terroir," says Jo Mills, who married Nick Mills, from the fourth generation of the family.
Rippon is in the rain shadow of the Main Divide between Otago and the West Coast.
Inside the tasting hall, Jo gave us five wines — osteiner, sauvignon blanc, gamay, mature-vine pinot noir and mature-vine riesling.
It was my first try of the former, "a bit of a curio" says Jo. She doesn't like to talk flavours but says it's "quaffable". I got a grapefruit tang at the finish.
The sav was fuller than some New Zealand versions, the gamay from only 11 rows of grapes. Their mature pinot is their "most important wine — it seems to be distinctly of Rippon". For an Englishman raised on the horrors of hock and Blue Nun, the mature riesling was another reminder that this is, in the right hands, a fine and flexible variety.
Over the Pisa Range into Bannockburn, and below the scarred, abandoned goldfields, Mt Difficulty is a bigger operation, with grapes at multiple owned and leased sites in the area.
Like Rippon, it has a microclimate, several if you factor in the number of vineyards. It is the warmest of the sub-regions in central Otago.
Mt Difficulty has two major ranges — Roaring Meg and Bannockburn. The former is easy drinking, the latter more food-friendly.
Over a platter on the restaurant terrace ("smoked Stewart Island mussel pate", "Merguez sausage, piquillo pepper & baby rocket with a dill yogurt dressing"), the Cellar Door Manager, Jacqui Rose-Anderson, poured four wines.
The Bannockburn Pinot Gris was a sunburst, the Bannockburn Pinot Noir lingering dark fruit. The Bendigo Ghost Town Syrah, from grapes grown at a single vineyard with a short but crucial period of extra afternoon sun, was a rich black sensation with a spice kick. To finish, the Bannockburn Manson Farm Late Harvest Pinot Gris, a dessert wine. Sweet but not cloying.
Mt Difficulty, the bluff that gives the winery its identity, got its name after an explorer and surveyor found it impassable while driving sheep from Oamaru to his station at Glenorchy. He had to go via Wanaka and the Crown Range, adding three weeks to the trip. He's regarded as the founder of Queenstown. His name was William Rees.