Central Otago – Queenstown to Gibbston (pt.1)

Kawerau Gorge, Gibbston Valley

An easy drive and a recommended day out from Queenstown, is a visit out as far as the Gibbston Valley. You could also cycle this tour as the Queenstown Trail goes out as far as the wineries – bikes are available to hire at several places, including some of the vineyards like Gibbston Valley.

Starting your day out of Queenstown, see if you can take a few minutes out from the day, to trip down to the Old Shotover bridge – signposted “Historic Bridge” just before you cross the Shotover River. The Cycle Trail will take you this way anyway if you are on two wheels, but otherwise, there is a Car park down by the old bridge. Wander past the lupins and wild plum trees to the river bed and skim a few stones – the variety of river-tumbled quartz stones down here is like an artists palette – the natural beauty of this area is stunning. Nearby, on the opposite bank is the Old Ferry Hotel, now a lovely B&B.

Old Shotover Bridge

As you venture back onto State Highway 6, take a left at Lake Hayes – this incredibly picturesque body of water has it’s own loop walk/ride around the shores, and is ridiculously Instagram-worthy. You’ll be on the road over to Arrowtown – which is well worthy of detour in itself. This is a gorgeous wee town of century old cottages, historic mining heritage and shallow babbling river begging to be explored. 

However, stick to the plan, and take a stop at the top of the lake, into the newly re-branded Mora, at 265 Arrowtown-Lake Hayes Road. This used to be the second outlet for Akarua in the Central Otago region – their Tasting Room over at Bannockburn is at the site of their first vineyards. Since the label Akarua was bought, the Skeggs family have re-named their labels as Mora (and kept many of the vineyards).

Mora bubbles

In an old cottage, originally the office for the Wakatipu Flour Mill, tucked off the road, and handily open from 9am for a gourmet breakfast stop, is this beautiful property – a colab between Artisan Kitchen and the Mora wine label. The Cellar door is open 11am-5pm daily. A wide range of varietals are on offer here – match yours to whatever you’re eating, or if just tasting, I’d recommend trying the vintage sparkling wine (I had the 2016) and the Bannockburn Chardonnay. But don’t go past the Pinot Noir as well – the top of the line ‘Kolo’ from their Felton Road vineyard was epic.

Breakfasted, the next stop is at 10 Lake Hayes Road, and one of the jewels of Central Otago wine – Amisfield. This was my late Mother’s favourite spot in New Zealand. It also happen to have one of the best food offerings in the country (I think those last two facts are related). It won the NZ Winery Restaurant category in the last Cuisine Magazine Awards; and the evening offerings of degustation dining should not be overlooked if you are after a tastebud sensation. The food is as terroir-driven as the wines. The Cellar Door is open 7 days a week 10am-6pm.

They do two styles of Sauvignon Blanc. The regular one is very good – crisp, dry and full of tropical flavours, but the fumé style, with some oak adding an extra dimension, is divine. Their regular Pinot Noir at under $60 is very smart, but once you climb the rungs to the Breakneck Reserve Pinot Noir and the RKV Reserve Pinot Noir then you are in top, top quality arena. For me, the Breakneck – a barrel selection of the Pisa vineyard fruit is the one. Superb.

Amisfield shelves

A relative newcomer to the scene is along the road at 1 Bendemeer Lane, beside SH6, at Wet Jacketwines. At the Bendemeer Woolshed, this is the new venture from Greg Hay – who has this to say about the place: “You often see people here for four or five hours, chatting. They come at midday with their kids, and are still here at 6 o’clock. Coming from a big family that feels quite comfortable. I didn’t want it to be formal or stuffy. It’s about making people feel welcome”

Wet Jacket nestles in a building of huge historic importance, at the beginning of the Gibbston Wine Trail. Summer Sessions see food trucks in attendance, and decent beer and even cheese is available, alongside the range of wines.There’s a great range – the Gewürztraminer and Pinot Gris are both excellent, and the Pinot noir is one of those classic ‘everything you could want from a Central Otago Pinot’ in a glass styles.

The venue was currently only open ‘by appointment’ when I was in the region in November 2022.

Wet Jacket Wines, Central Otago

A few minutes skip along the highway will bring you to the tourist mecca of the AJ Hackett Kawerau Bungy. Located at the Kawerau Gorge Suspension Bridge, this is definitely worth a stop – you can grab a coffee whilst watching the tourists bungy jump off the bridge. It’s a pictureseque location – just walk across the span away from the mayhem, and there’s a lovely thyme-lined track with sparkling views back along the river. Big car park, toilets, nice little break.

Watch out for the turning off to the right after about 100 metres, which loops back around the Kawerau River towards Chard Farm – founded by the Hay family, and still managed by Greg’s brother Rob. Despite warnings that “Chard Farm as a vineyard is a waste of bloody good merino country”, they were the early pioneers for the region. The Cellar Door is open for tastings 7 days a week, and is a really, really nice place to spend an hour or two. The drive along the steep road isn’t for the faint-hearted, but it is worth the detour.

They don’t charge for a tasting, but either ask for a donation (to the local Hospice), or for visitors to buy a bottle. I bought the Pinot Gris – from their Tiger and Sinclair vineyards in Parkburn, this wine shows just how good Pinot Gris from Central can be. The style around here tends to be quite dry and very focussed, intense and minerally. They also do a very good Sauvignon Blanc, and a few Pinot Noirs showcasing their various single vineyard site in Parkburn.

Gibbston Valley

Return the way you came and just back along the main highway is the main tourist attraction in the area – The Gibbston Valley Winery. It’s quite a big site, encompassing a Lodge and Spa that opened in December 2019, a Cellar Door, Restaurant, Gift Shop, Cheese, cycling hire hub and a unique Wine Cave. Oh, the winery is here too, plus some of the oldest vines in Gibbston. 

You can grab cheese for a picnic, or eat at the Cellar Door, or the exquisite Restaurant. Don’t miss a trip into the Wine Cave – combine the tour with a Tasting. 3 types of Methode Traditionelle are made here, and the China Terrace Chardonnay is exceptional. Try the Glenlee Pinot Noir too for a true taste of Gibbston. In fact, the range of Pinot Noir here is quite extensive. Just try them and find one that suits you!

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