When town starts to get claustrophobic and the slow-driving, crane-necked tourists start getting up your nose, it’s a good idea to get out of Queenstown for the weekend.
Having cruised the Catlins many times, rambled in Riverton and wandered in Wanaka, it was time to cover new ground, to discover a fresh place that is not too far away and has some interesting things to see, eat, drink and do.
We found one.
The Waitaki Valley, New Zealand’s newest wine region, is scenic, down to earth and full of character – and characters.
It’s a dramatic drive. Over the Lindis and then right at Omarama, rising gently past Lakes Benmore and Aviemore and the Waitaki dam, and then into the narrow valley to Kurow.
The small farming town is known for its world-class fishing, being home to Richie McCaw and its two-tone pub (painted half in DB and half in Speight’s colours).
Lunch at the new Pasquale winery on the main road and a tasting with winemaker Clayton Cornelius introduced us to the fresh, lean and precise white wines of the region.
I’ve been familiar with Waitaki pinot noir for a few years but the white wines from the area are only just starting to emerge, and they show real potential. Pasquale’s weighty, concentrated pinot gris and floral, mineral rieslings are now on the market. We also got a sneak preview of some exciting chardonnay and a base wine for sparkling.
Waitaki pinot noir is creating a stir amongst sommeliers.
It is less overtly fruity than Central Otago’s, with fine tannins, freshness and a chalkiness attributed to the limestone soils. Producers such as Pasquale, Valli, Forrest and Ostler are all making excellent wines and they are well worth seeking out. You can taste some of them at the Vintners Drop, a small tasting room in Kurow, located in the old post office.
There’s a small choice of accommodation but we chose to stay with the lovely Fenella and Steve at Sublime Lodge. They are food fanatics, and if you choose to eat with them (it’s extra, obviously, but well worth it), you can expect delicious home-grown produce cooked by chef Fenella Barry. Jazz musician Steve Harrop will keep you posted on all the latest Waitaki wine news.
We didn’t manage to get to Riverstone Kitchen for dinner, or bathe in the Omarama hot pools or drive the back-road to Tekapo, but that will ensure that we go back for more.
And though leaving Queenstown for a while is good and provides much-needed rest and relaxation, coming back is just as satisfying. Your first peak at the boys, Cecil and Walter, instils you with the thought that this a great place to live and to be patient with the tourists for another few weeks.
Paul Tudgay is the Queenstown Resort College business hospitality manager and a wine appreciation lecturer