A Canterbury vineyard. Photo / Gilbert van Reenen
New Zealand’s craggy mountains and stunning rural scenery provide the perfect backdrop for a wine-tasting weekend away. With superb dining options, hundreds of cellar doors to explore, and more than 40 wine varieties to sample, there are plenty of reasons to pack your bag.
Raise your glass to a wonderful wine-tasting getaway.
Variety is the spice of life
Visit a combination of large and small wineries when you’re out tasting. Many of New Zealand’s smaller wineries are family-owned and offer a charming and very personal tasting experience. It’s not unusual for the winemakers themselves to take you through their range at the cellar door. Although larger wineries are usually more commercial, the tasting experience is just as enjoyable, plus there are usually more wines to sample.
Wine and dine in the one spot
New Zealand’s larger wineries often have restaurants with superb views. It’s a lovely to spot to enjoy the region’s cuisine with a glass of something from the vineyard outside.
However, it pays to plan ahead. Winery restaurants are extremely popular and walk-ins are often turned away, so book a table if there is somewhere in particular you would like to dine.
Make a call or two
Some cellar doors are by appointment only, especially the smaller ones, and opening hours may change seasonally. If you are keen to visit a particular winery, it is always a good idea to call ahead to confirm availability.
Even if you don’t need an appointment, a tip-off for the best time to avoid large groups is always handy. If you’re hoping to chat with winemakers, it may be best not want to visit during vintage as they’ll be busy harvesting and making wine.
Stay safe on the road
Book a private or group wine tour or agree on who is to be the designated driver in advance – one day on and one day off could work well for weekend wine getaways.
Even if you aren’t driving, don’t plan too many tastings in the one day – allowing one to two hours at each cellar door plus travel time between each location is ideal, because it’s simply more enjoyable to sample slowly than get sozzled.
For something different, try a walking tour – the 4 Barrels Walking Wine Trail in Central Otago takes you on a picturesque self-guided 8km stroll around four tasting rooms in Cromwell.
Keep an open mind
Trying wine varieties you may not have encountered before or perhaps didn’t enjoy the last time you had them is also worth doing. There’s a big difference between a well-crafted New Zealand rose and the pink sugar pop of the 90s. Who knows, you could be surprised.
And if you don’t like a wine? You’re never under obligation to finish your tasting or glass. A tactful, “This one’s probably not for me” is fine, and request a spittoon if one hasn’t been provided.
Wine tasting with kids
Visiting a wine region with kids is more fun than you might think. Lots of vineyards have huge outdoor spaces that are great for children – bring a football or frisbee for a play break between tastings.
Cycling between vineyards is a great way to see a local area and burn off energy. In Martinborough for example, hire a bike from Green Jersey Explorer Tours and go as you please along the region’s wide country roads. There is a bike to suit everyone, from retro cruisers and electric bicycles to four-seaters or a cycle rickshaw pedalled by a guide.
More than 20 family-friendly wineries are within easy cycling distance of Martinborough so you won’t have to go far to enjoy a glass of New Zealand’s best pinot noir or a refreshing cold drink and a snack.
Where to stay
If you would like to indulge in a wine-matched dinner, consider staying at a winery that also offers accommodation. Staying on-site means there is no need to drive or arrange a late-night taxi – which can sometimes be difficult in small regional areas.
Take comfortable shoes and a warm jacket and enjoy a stroll after dinner where it’s just you, the vines and the stars.
A taste of New Zealand’s wine-making regions
Hawke’s Bay is New Zealand’s oldest wine region, and second-largest, with its earliest vines dating back to 1851. The sun-drenched region can produce diverse wines, but some of its standouts are full-bodied chardonnay and aromatic syrah varieties.
There are about 35 cellar doors in Hawke’s Bay and more than 200 vineyards, with cycle tours a popular way of exploring them all. Some of them are by appointment only, while others are open daily, so do your research first about which ones to book in advance. The region has a temperate climate making it ideal for visiting year-round.
Wairarapa is a small, boutique wine-growing region, an hour north of Wellington. Vines were first planted in the region in 1883, although the region’s modern wine history is considered to have begun in the late 1970s.
There are three main sub-regions: Masterton, Gladstone and Martinborough. Martinborough is the most well known due to the number of small, boutique wineries all close to the main village square.
The flagship wine of this area is pinot noir. The Toast Martinborough wine and food festival is a great way to experience the region’s best wines, and is usually held each November.
The top of the South Island is home to New Zealand’s largest wine region. It is best known for its sauvignon blanc, whose grapes cover the majority of the Marlborough region, at 22,369ha. It’s a wine that matches well with the region’s fresh kaimoana.
The wine harvest takes place between March and April, which makes it an interesting time to visit, with sunny, dry days and cool nights.
North Canterbury has a cool, dry climate and its wines are known for their intensity. Pinot noir grapes make up the majority of vines, but the region produces good chardonnay and aromatics as well. On one side are the magnificent Southern Alps, and to the east, the Pacific Ocean.
The Waipara Valley – not to be confused with the other wine region of Wairarapa – is a boutique wine-growing region an hour from Christchurch, with a new cycle and walking trail that connects a number of cellar doors. Vines were planted there only in the 1980s, so it’s considered one of the country’s fastest-growing wine regions, currently home to about 80 vineyards and 25 wineries.
Most famous for its pinot noir, Central Otago has six different wine sub-regions, all producing their own unique flavours. It has a harsh climate with cold, frosty winters but hot, dry summers. Each season has its own unique feel, making it a year-round destination, as long as you prepare for the climate.
The region also produces excellent aromatics, including pinot gris and gewürztraminer, as well as chardonnay and sauvignon blanc.