Visiting the North Canterbury wine region, I’ll assume you’re setting off from Christchurch to the south, and you’ll be in Waipara in well under an hour, so don’t rush. Take time to drop into one of the roadside cafés and start your adventure off at the right pace – slowly.
Pukeko Junction at Leithfield is an obvious choice, and a family-friendly option. Everything here is home-made, and is got a real buzz to the vibe as you step out into the country. As well as the café side to the business, there’s a bountiful deli on one side too, so you could pack the chilly bin with goodies. Another quirky choice would be the converted school buildings at Old School Collective in Waikuku. A destination that offers not just a cuppa, but some seriously trendy shopping to boot. There’s nine individual lifestyle and retail businesses operating on-site, including yoga, florist and antiques. The café, like the other offerings, have taken root in the school buildings – it’s in the old office, and called Office Café. Love that.
If I were you I’d also be thinking about planning a brief stop in Amberley. As small towns in New Zealand go, this is surely in the Top 10 (I know) for awesomeness. There’s a lovely beach just out of town – with a basic but well-located, quiet campsite. It has some seriously great building dotted around town, some of which feature on an artwork in what might be one of the best cafés in the country. Big call, but Little Vintage Espresso could easily claim that crown. The stream of locals pouring in, lingering, then departing laden with bags of baked treasure pay homage to how popular this little gem is. The fact that it’s only a hundred yards from Brew Moon Brewing Co. and on the same road – Markham Street – as a superb pie shop – Amberley Pies – helps too!! There’s also a Farmers Market on Saturday mornings. Cripes, I could live here.
Right, stop stuffing your cake hole, and get back on the road to where the wine action starts. Waipara Valley is part of the region known as North Canterbury, and has the bulk of the wineries if you’re had something yummy from ‘Waipara’ before. Since it’s easily confused or misspelled as Wairarapa – another region north of Wellington – it’s thrown its hat in with the new regional identity.
I’d say that riesling is the signature wine of the region. Made in a range of styles, from steely and bone dry, to rich and unctuous – great food wines. With plenty of limestone in the landscape, there’s also the chance to make the great wines associated with Burgundy – Chardonnay and Pinot Noir from here are both fantastic. In fact, a few places really specialise in just those two. However, don’t discount the Pinot Gris from North Canterbury. A wine that’s increasingly been taken more seriously by growers and cropped to a lower yield can produce some stunning examples.
Throw in a bit of Syrah, Sauvignon Blanc, Gewurz – it’s a great fine wine destination!
Perhaps the first winery you’ll encounter heading north is one of the area’s most famous – Pegasus Bay. Founded by the Donaldson family and still very much family-run. It has five family members in the day-to-day operations, from sales to winemaking and events management. The restaurant here was legendary, but closed during the first big COVID lockdowns. It’s now being put to good use with a series of collaborative dinner sessions, and is still very popular as an event space.
The wine here is world class. I recently reviewed a 2011 Riesling at 94/100 – www.winefolio.co.nz/?p=3505 and there’s a review ready to upload to the site this week of the 2016 ‘Prima Donna’ Pinot Noir that I rate at 96/100!! The sweet wines here are to die for – possibly the best in New Zealand. And their ‘regular’ Pinot Noir is superb too. Their ‘Vergence’ range offers new, modern takes on classic varietals – they come in ‘White’ and ‘Red’. Even on days when the Cellar Door is closed – it’s open weekends from 10am to 4pm currently (but it’s usually operating 7 days a week in Summer), people come just to tour the gardens.
Waipara Hills is probably ‘the big place in town’. It’s a great hall of a place, with a substantial carpark that reflects its popularity. When we visited on a Saturday lunchtime things were in full swing, with crowds of people at tables groaning with glasses of wine and food flowing out from the kitchens. Staff bustled everywhere as the sun shone on the outdoor terrace. Its website states ‘Welcome to the soul of the south’. They’re currently open from Thursday to Monday 10 til 5, and you can book a table in the café online for lunch that might feature local venison, salmon and olives. With a range of vineyards to choose from, including a Home Block planted and overseen by Vineyard Manager Jean-Luc Dufour in the ‘90s.
Available at the Cellar Door is the Saving Grace range as well as the Waipara Hills wines. Riesling is a standout, where Waipara’s long autumn ripening leave the aromatic varietals full of intense flavour and complexity. The Waipara Hills Riesling has a place on my table any day – with around 18 g/L of residual sugar, it’s a lovely balanced drop with great acidity to round out the sweet, ripe fruitiness. The Cellar Door is hard to miss, on SH1 as you near Waipara township, across the highway from the wineries on Georges Road. www.waiparahills.co.nz or call 03 314 6900.
Straight ahead over the road is Georges Road and you’ll find a few wineries and attractions of note along here. All the places along this stretch enjoy beautiful views of the mountains.
First up is Fiddler’s Green vineyard and Bistro at no. 246. Open Wednesdays to Sundays from 11am until the Bistro closes at 10pm. I was in town on a Tuesday so didn’t get to sample their hospitality, but judging by the feedback online for this place, it has to be worth a look! You can book a tour of the organic vineyard, then settle in for a tasting and lunch – or dinner, overlooking the vines whilst the kids explore the playground. If you’re just here for a tasting, you’ll find some other local wines on offer, as they stock wines from boutique vineyards that don’t have a Cellar Door of their own – wines like Mon Cheval and Harris Estate.
The relaxed atmosphere allows for tasting during a meal as well as in the usual position at the Tasting Room bar.
A little further along, at no.328 Georges Road is Terrace Edge Wines. Regular readers of WineFolio will recognise this label after their 2015 Syrah was judged 4th in our Syrah Top 10 Tasting – www.winefolio.co.nz/?p=3198 and the Pinot Gris made the ‘Top 10 wines of 2019’ www.winefolio.co.nz/?p=1132. The property was a spontaneous purchase, after the Chapman family had been on holiday, and thought it would be a great place to escape to on weekends! Planted with olives initially, there’s been plenty of developments in the vineyards as they discover the variations of the site. One part in particular is planted to Syrah on a 45 degree slope overlooking the Waipara River.
Aromatics are also worth discovering here – the Pinot Gris is that rich medium-dry style that I love, and the Riesling – often a highlight of any tasting in Waipara – is glorious here too. They do a wine called ‘Liquid Geography’ as a nod to Riesling’s character being shaped by the land where it is grown. This has great seasonal variation with botrytis and harvest conditions playing a huge part in the personality of the bottled wine – this year it’s 28 g/l of residual sugars, but has been up to 45g/l in other years. The Tasting room has recently been update and it’s a beautiful space, with a lovely outdoor area if the weather is playing ball. Open Thursday to Sunday 11am to 4.30pm, with a Food & Wine Experience on offer if you book ahead.
Also along this stretch is Georges Road Wines – founded in 2004 by Kirk and Alison, producing Syrah, Riesling, Rosé and Pinot Gris from their stony, free-draining soils. I didn’t get time to pop in but they are open at weekends 11am-4pm, and by appointment during the week.
There’s a lovely looking outdoor area, and a tasting is $10, refunded on purchase of wine. If you’re keen to stay, they even have a “Wine Pad” accommodation, bookable through AirBnB. At 625 Georges Rd, phone 021 121 8669 and check out their website on www.georgesroadwines.co.nz.
At the end of the road, you’ll find The Boneline, which began planting in 1989 and now has over 60 acres of vines. I was due to visit in my recent trip and was looking forward to seeing their picturesque vineyards, and trying the wines. A cancellation means another visit at another time for me, but the Cellar Door is open 7 days a week from 11am to 4.30pm for visitors. I’d be looking out for one of my favourite varieties, the Cabernet Franc, which also goes into their ‘Iridium’ – a red blend; and Mendoza-clone ‘Sharkstone’ Chardonnay, plus a Sauvignon Blanc.
Finally, whilst you’re down this end, you could call into Iron Ridge Quarry sculpture park for a bit of R&R and a break from the vino. It’s the home of Raymond Herber who works mainly in steel, creating pieces of art in anything from small scale, to kinetic and large ‘public’ size artworks. His work is shown against a backdrop of limestone hills, and in his native garden, plus a sizeable gallery in the old Limeworks buildings. It’s $10 per person to visit the sculpture gardens. Take a look at www.raymondherber.com/iron-ridge-sculpture-park
Look out for Part 2 of our visit and guide to Waipara Valley which will be online in the near future – visiting Black Estate, Torlesse, Greystone, Waipara Springs and many more…