A 5-minute drive, or an easy cycle across the river, from Cromwell, Bannockburn is on the southern banks of the Kawerau River. It used to be known by the miners as “The Heart of the Desert” and today it’s an oasis of vineyards and heritage sites as well as having several spots to stop and have a bite to eat whilst taking in the magnificent views. There’s a chance to discover the areas amazing gold mining heritage in between visits to the superb wineries and Cellar Doors.
Known for being very dry with an alpine desert climate (hence the Desert part of it’s moniker), it also has unusual soils – sandy, silty wind-blown and alluvial, often with very low organic matter in them – forcing the vines to dive deep into the earth for moisture. Water is a commodity here and the rights to draw from the river are tightly held – the one at Mt Difficulty is a mining right from when the land was harvesting gold, not Pinot Noir! Grapes here often ripen earlier than the neighbouring sub-regions.
As well as some spectacular views, the area is also quite hilly – altitudes range from 220 to 370 metres in places, with a few blocks of vines in quite steep locations. As you explore, you’ll be rewarded by expansive views of the Pisa Range, Kawarau River, Lake Dunstan, and the Dunstan Mountains.
Coming across the river, you have the choice to head straight on to the small township, or turn left onto Cairnmuir Road, or onto Felton Road, for your wine adventures to begin. We’ll start with a right turn into the “Golden Mile” of Felton Road, heading back to Cairnmuir Road after lunch.
There are a couple of new Cellar Doors open on Felton Road now – the eponymous Felton Road winery is right at the end of the road, but a newcomer with a distinctive building is Te Kano Estate on your right hand side, at no.92. Tucked away in the Eliza vineyard, their new cellar door is cantilevered out over the land, and offers superb views over the Kawerau River. The label specialises in Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, but also does a gorgeous Pinot Gris that WineFolio tried in our Top 10 Tasting in February. You can snaffle a vineyard platter, and wines by the glass or bottle, as well as a tasting of the full range of Te Kano wine.
On the left hand side is the famous Cellar Door and Restaurant of Mt Difficulty, at no.73. They have wine tastings from mid-morning and the restaurant cranks in at midday – bookings recommended as the restaurant is well-known but not huge, and you can’t always guarantee that the terrace will be open, so space would be limited on a windy, or wet day. Views from here are sensational. Also, this is not a label that does one Pinot, one white – so the range on offer in the Cellar Door is prodigious!
Hand-on-heart this is one of the best Cellar Doors I’ve ever been to. Recommended.
Same side of the road at 143 Felton Road is Gate 20 Two, open daily from 11am. A family-run 5 hectare block produces single vineyard Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris in true bespoke vigneron style – the tasting room is part of the family home, and the wines are generally only available from here. A bonus is the view from the top – as with much of Bannockburn – it’s spectacular!
If you’ve been to a couple of these Cellar doors, you might fancy a break and a chance to stretch your legs. Either way, the next stop on the road is the Bannockburn Sluicings Historic Reserve. There’s plenty of parking, and the walk up through the old mining area, at the base of the Carrick Range, will take about an hour round trip. I wouldn’t miss this, as you’re in the area, and you can always just do a short walk if time is pressing. The area was mined from 1862 until the 1930s and has the remains of tunnels, dams and water races. The ‘cliffs’ are all that are left of the old hills that were sluiced away to hunt for gold. The track works it way upwards until the old hamlet of Stewart Town, and you’ll find a fruit orchard and ruins up on the hill.
The road through the reserve follows an old dray track that connected the goldfields of Bannockburn with those of the Carrick Range and Nevis valley. In 1874, the Young Australian Mine Company, shifted its 10 stamper battery and massive water wheel from Conroys Gully, Alexandra, to the top of the range. At the top of the reserve a short marked walking track takes you down to this impressive water wheel. The area is barren but beautiful.
Just past the Reserve is Desert Heart Estate at no.182B. Their Cellar Door is on the Renaissance Vineyard and is open daily, except Tues and Weds, from 11.30am. There’s a modern cafe offering gourmet platters and light bites to accompany their range of Pinot Noir.
A little further along the road you’ll find Domain Road at no.263. Cellar Door is open daily at 11am on the Defiance Vineyard. Their property is elevated, with the vines nestled into the foot of the mountains. A full range of varieties is available including a Central Otago Sauvignon Blanc – something of a rarity. Some of the Sav is also left to be picked late and made into a Late Harvest dessert wine.
The last of the Cellar Doors that you can just drop into is Terra Sancta at the far end of Felton road at no.306. Note that the Cellar Door is the turning after the winery driveway. It’s open either by appointment, or generally open from midday Monday to Friday. The Cellar Door is gorgeous and a lovely place to sit in the shade and sample some wines – again, a huge variety of wines is available to taste from an extensive range. Three splendid individual block Pinot Noirs are produced, as well as a blend. They take Rosé very seriously here – even to the point of using some of their oldest vines in a sumptuous, age-worthy version ‘First Vines’. Look out for some unusual offerings here at the Cellar Door as well – an Aperitivo, a white blend, and a fabulous range of ‘Mysterious Diggings’ wines.
Opposite is the world famous, and exclusive, label of Felton Road – another Bannockburn pioneer; featuring on many lists of New Zealand’s great wines. Their sublime Pinot Noir is a benchmark style – and the vineyards are regarded as one of New Zealand’s equivalent of a Grand Cru site. It’s open by appointment only – see the panels for information.
The small village is worth a diversion – the pub – the Bannockburn Hotel is excellent, a real gathering point for the local community. Great food and an extensive wine list that is, of course, superb! There’s another restaurant, the Black Rabbit Kitchen, and the township has escaped becoming a ghost town – many of the old buildings are still family homes.For more history on the township, see http://oldbannockburn.nz/Home/Index – the Bannockburn History project.
Out this way in Bannockburn, you can explore further – out at 59 Pipe Clay Gully Road is Stewart Town Vineyard. Exclusively Pinot Noir boutique vineyard above historic Stewart Town ruins. Tastings by appointment.
GeorgeTown vineyard is at 583 Kawarau Gorge Road, Cromwell. Their Cellar Door is in a heritage Miners Hut. Open Tues to Saturday 1-5pm, 27th Dec to Easter.
Turning back onto Cairnmuir Road, there are a few options down this side of the area. The Ceres label was created by brothers Matt and James Dicey and did it’s first vintage in 2005. They have a Tasting Room at 128 Cairnmuir Road that is open by appointment. Matt is the winemaker at Mt Difficulty.
Akarua at no.210 Cairnmuir Road is arguably one of Central’s best known operations. They also have an outlet – Akarua Wines and Kitchen by Artisan, which is on a separate site – further out towards Queenstown/Arrowtown, at Lake Hayes. The Tasting room is in front of the original 50-hectare vineyard bought by Sir Clifford Skeggs, planted in 1996. Open 7 days a week from 10.30am-4pm. See the website for public holiday opening hours. This is wine tasting only – but a great range.
Just across and over the road, overlooking the Kawerau River is Carrick at no.247. This is another place to get a good meal. Open daily 11am-5pm. Restaurant closes in winter (mid-May to end of June). Organically-certified 24 hectare vineyard, producing estate-grown wines, including a single block Pinot Noir, and unusually, natural wines. Various Tasting Flights available, plus full Restaurant from 12-3pm.
Bannock Brae, Bald Hills and Remarkable Wine all have vineyards in Cairnmuir Road, but not a Cellar Door in the region. Look out for their wines as you are in the area. Other labels producing wines from Bannockburn include: Valli, Two Paddocks, Mount Edward, Wild Earth, Hawkeshead.