The Rakaia River is calling my name: it's hot inside the car. From my window, I see a line of jet boats skimming across the river's metallic-green surface. A family have gathered at the river's edge for a picnic. I want to do that, too. But we must press on. Our goal is to drive to the Waipara Valley, taking in a chunk of the Alpine Pacific Touring Route, one of the country's newest touring routes. We'll start in Amberley, then spend two days in Waipara, sampling some of the best food, wine and accommodation North Canterbury can offer.
Amberley to Waipara Valley
It's a brief stop in Amberley for a takeaway pale ale from Brew Moon Brewing Company on Markham St. My tummy is rumbling, but the clock is ticking so we forgo Brew Moon's delicious-looking pizzas, being devoured by punters outside, and instead pick up a $7 bag of fresh, juicy apricots from a roadside stall on our way out of town.
Biting into the sweet, furry flesh, I make a mental note to return to this small, rural town on a Saturday to catch the Amberley Farmers' Market. Apparently, it's a top spot for more of the region's fresh produce and prized delicacies such as goat's cheese, Waipara honey and – in midwinter – homegrown truffles.
Black Estate B&B
At 5.15pm we arrive at Black Estate's home vineyard on Omihi Road. The winery's leafy green vines are lush, while the surrounding Waipara hillsides have turned dark plum and shades of caramel in the evening sun. The striking black barn that houses Black Estate's cellar door, award-winning restaurant and tonight's B&B accommodation looks shut. Pretty soon though, we're greeted in the carpark by accommodation manager Heike Bauer, booked in for a wine tasting and lunch the following day and shown our plush digs for the night.
Black Estate is one of around 90 small-scale, family-run wineries in the fast-growing Waipara Valley wine region of North Canterbury. Just an hour's drive north of Christchurch, Waipara is rapidly getting a name for its award-winning, mostly organic wines (riesling, pinot noir and chardonnay, particularly) – as well as its outstanding winemakers and winery restaurants.
Our accommodation is perfect for two. There are bedside reads and a fridge chock-full of local beers (more Brew Moon), karma cola and other soft drinks, which are free to enjoy, and Black Estate wines, ranging in price from $30 to $80 a bottle. We splash out on a bottle of chilled chenin blanc and tuck into the complimentary sourdough, and cheeses we picked up from the supermarket earlier in the day.
Sitting outside, chomping down the last of our fresh apricots as the light fades, we plan to tackle a five-km section of the Hurunui Cycling Trail early next morning. The trail's a little-known back country route that takes cyclists and hikers from Kaikoura to Amberley through the Waipara Valley.
Black Estate wine tasting
"You've absolutely come to the right place if you want to drink an amazing range of wine and meet the people behind it," says Black Estate sales and marketing manager Missy Bennetts the following morning. It's 11.30am and Missy's giving me her spiel on Black Estate's three hillside vineyards (Home, Damsteep and Netherwood) during a one-on-one wine tasting.
She's doling out the wine, while prompting me to describe its flavours. Soon she's on to the myriad reasons Kiwis should come to Waipara Valley. "Oh, look, it's wonderful. You won't ever see big tour buses here. We specialise in intimate tastings, truly innovative wine and amazing food. We're a tight-knit community dedicated to giving you the very best experience."
By 3pm, we've finished a leisurely wine-paired lunch at Black Estate and made our way to our next overnight stop. It's an entirely off-grid tiny house made of glass called a PurePod. Set atop Greystone vineyard, this serene bolthole for two provides panoramic views of the golden Teviotdale hills and the everchanging Waipara Valley.
Sitting on the deck, we watch people and machinery in the far distance and spy a hawk ducking and diving above our heads. Later, we enjoy a pre-made dinner of lamb shoulder, carrot puree, new potatoes, courgettes, snow peas and a mint salsa verde. Finally, it's goodbye to the yummy cherry and pinot frangipane tart before we turn in for a night of star watching from under the duvet.
Greystone wine tasting
By 11am the next day, we've hiked back down the hill and found a seat in Greystone's flash new eatery for our final wine tasting. As cellar door team Fergus Winters and Cat Croft set up for the lunch crowd, customers come and go, picking up bottles of Greystone's rose and award-winning pinot noir. Cat pours me a taster of 2018 riesling, while Fergus explains that despite the region's recent acclaim (Greystone, for example, picked up critics' awards for best winery and best winemaker in 2018), the wineries of Waipara are staffed with down-to-earth, knowledgeable teams keen to make their wines better known among Kiwis.
"We think Waipara offers wine anyone will find interesting and enjoy no matter what their tastes are. But more than that we want New Zealanders to relax in this beautiful place and to see this region as the special wine and food destination it truly is."
North Canterbury Wine & Food Festival
Next Sunday (March 7), Waipara is hosting the annual food and wine festival at the Glenmark Domain. Tickets cost $34.90. Both Black Estate and Greystone will be there. "It's one of the country's best food and wine festivals," says Black Estate sales and marketing manager Missy Bennetts. "It's super laid-back. Farmers turn up in their gumboots and moleskins. It's an amazing way to sample wines from producers with no cellar doors, talk to winemakers and eat amazing local food." www.ncwineandfood.co.nz
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