This is our on-the-ground introduction to the New Zealand wine scene, focused on the South Island regions of Marlborough, Central Otago, and Nelson. It includes recommended wineries, a wine cottage experience for the romance bucket list, and an insight into how wine tasting in New Zealand can be more frightening than jumping off a bridge.
As we motored down the Gibbston Highway outside of Queenstown, I reached for my turn signal to point our way towards a dirt road for Chard Farm. For the tenth time in as many tries, I fired up the windshield wipers instead.
“The cleanest windshield in all of New Zealand,” our friend Andrew quipped. His joke would never lose its luster, as I could never really conquer the control panel of a left-side drive car in New Zealand.
Old dogs, new tricks. But we were on our way to taste wine. Things were about to look up.
Then the driveway-cum-access road began to narrow. The gravel softened. Guard rails vanished. Were there ever any? The mood, precarious. Vertical drops into the canyon were beyond the crane of the neck.
I white knuckled the steering wheel. The irony: I’ve been bungee jumping, cave diving, and hang gliding all over New Zealand and here I am, examining my own mortality on the way to a wine tasting. For passengers and driver alike, navigating this wine road was quite possibly more frightening than bungee jumping the bridge just across the way.
“I see dead people.”
Instead, we found a few glasses of exceptional Pinot Noir. Much nicer. And this was just the beginning of our dive into New Zealand wine — the aromatic usual suspects Riesling and Pinot Gris, surprising unoaked and restrained Chardonnays, inimitable Sauvignon Blanc, and even well-executed Syrah. But where did we find it all? And how? This is the full story.
Wine Tasting in New Zealand's South Island: Get Amongst It
If you do it right, your wine tasting experience in New Zealand's South Island will not only encompass drinking good wine, but it will also be about the people you meet, the landscapes you drove through to find them and how everything comes together to produce the wines you are tasting.
Small private tasting rooms are the best. As you enjoy a taste from white to red, chat with the sommelier. There are no stupid questions, only ones that bring you closer to understanding what you are drinking and whether or not it suits your taste. Part of the fun of wine tasting in New Zealand is talking with people and tapping into their passions about the wines they serve, wines in general, and their country.
But how to get started to know which wineries to go to? The first step is to pick up a local wine route map. Then ask locals and sommeliers at the wineries for recommendations. Before you know it, your map will be filled with circled wineries, marginalia, and recommended vintages. That's how we carved our New Zealand wine experience and found all the wineries listed below.
Note: We had a rental car to get around (details at the end of this post) as this option provided us with our desired level of freedom and flexibility. This is our recommendation. However, if you are concerned about driving, it's also possible to rent bikes in Marlborough (that come with handy wine bottle panniers or saddlebags) or to take a wine tour.
Wine Tasting in Gibbston Valley, Central Otago
Central Otago, just outside of Queenstown, may just be the epicenter of New Zealand Pinot Noir. Warm days, cool nights. As you make your way, you can imagine ravine-cooled air toughening the skins of Pinot Noir grapes that will someday be pressed into something that you’ll eat with a steak. Yes, Pinot Noir with a steak. New Zealand’s got 'em.
The reward for navigating the access road to Chard Farm, outside of the beauty of the scenery itself: a pleasant experience that encourages conversation. A solid go-to tasting room to begin (or end) your Gibbston Valley outing.
Chard Farm whites were eye-opening, particularly the peachy Pinot Gris 2011, the honeysuckle-like Gewürztraminer 2010 and the hint-of-apricot 2010 Riesling. We also tasted a few Pinot Noirs here, including the juicy Mata-Au Pinot Noir and the the top end 2010 Tiger Pinot Noir and 2010 Viper Pinot Noir. Of those two, the Tiger was our favorite — when we return, we're buying a bottle.
Wine tasting details: Monday-Friday: 10am-5pm, Saturday-Sunday: 11am-5pm. Wine tasting is free, but if you don't buy a bottle they suggest giving a donation for a local charity the winery supports. Address: 205 Chard Road.
Not only is the wine tasting fun and personal, but the Brennan Wines setting — against a backdrop of flinty mountains — is pretty spectacular. It was thanks to a recommendation that we found this small boutique winery tucked away off the main road as it didn't appear on the wine map. The winemakers are experimenting with varietals like Termpranillo and Pinot Grigio, as well as producing a range of Pinot Noir.
Our suggestion is to spend some time here and enjoy a picnic amongst the vines. At the winery you can buy a plate of local cheeses, sausages and breads (NZ$25) and while away your hours playing pétanque (boules).
Although we appreciated the distinction between the Italian style Pinot Grigio and French-style Pinot Gris, the Pinot Noirs ruled the day. The 2009 Brennan Pinot Noir was perhaps our favorite taste (with the warm 2008 a close second), but the 2010 B2 Pinot Noir was perhaps the easiest-drinking value buy, in case you don't have room in your luggage.
Wine tasting details: Monday-Sunday: 11am-5pm. Tasting fee: NZ$5, waived if you buy a bottle. Address: 86 Gibbston Back Road
Central Otago Wine Tasting, Maps and Additional Wineries of Note
If you'd like to plan a full day or multi-day wine tasting outing on your own, download the Central Otago wine maps. When you are on the ground, you can get all these maps in one nice little free brochure. This is pretty much all you need. Here are the Central Otago sub-regions and a few more recommendations we were given.
- Gibbston — Mt. Rosa – if we'd had a little more time, this would have been our last stop. Peregrine Wines and Amisfield Wines also came recommended.
- Bannockburn – Felton Road winery also came recommended.
Wine Tasting in Marlborough
New Zealand's Marlborough wine region is akin to California's Napa Valley in the way that small, independent wineries sit proudly next to big wine powerhouses. Vineyards stretch as far as the eye can see. As wine tasting in the region has become more popular, bistros have popped up at wineries or along the main wine routes. So you'll be able to find something other than meat pies and fish & chips — though those both go well with the right bottle — to compliment your wine of choice.
Although the Marlborough wine region is known best for Sauvignon Blanc, you'll find a surprisingly wide selection of Riesling, Chardonnay, Viognier, and Pinot Gris — all along with Pinot Noir and even some courageous vintages of Syrah. Outside of wine-tasting, simply driving through the region will take hours, if not days, just to accommodate ogling and pulling over to take photos of stunning scenery.
Hans Herzog Estate Winery
Hans Herzog Estate is where wine, good food and atmosphere all come together. We suggest that you plan a lunch or dinner stop at the Bistro to enjoy dining outside in the garden. The menu changes regularly to reflect what is fresh in the garden or region. Even though the food and garden setting are exceptional, we found that the prices at the Bistro ran about the same as a decent pub in the city. (Note that the menu at the restaurant is more upscale than that of the bistro.)
Herzog Vineyard Cottage – Splurge Suggestion: If you're looking for one place to splash out during a visit to the South Island, the vineyard cottage at Herzog is it. We don't easily succumb to accommodation, but this is a special place. The cottage is the epitome of coziness. And then you fall out the front door right onto the vineyards. That is, if you manage to get beyond the decor and vegetation snaking around your own private deck. We had to be escorted from the premises after checkout time had passed. (We kid.)
Wine tasting details: Monday-Friday, 9am – 5pm; Saturday-Sunday, 11am – 4pm (summertime). A tasting of three wines will cost NZ$10. Address:81 Jeffries Road, Blenheim
A few turns into the hills and you'll find Seresin, a tiny boutique winery. For pure vintage quality, particularly given the strictures of organic and biodynamic winemaking in New Zealand, Seresin is hard to beat.
2011 Sauvignon Blanc, one of our favorites in the region, with a bit of toast, honey, wild yeast and not so much of the tomato stem. 2010 Pinot Gris, our favorite of this aromatic, offered a little voluptuousness that would go nicely with pork. The 2010 Chardonnay, another winner with its creamy, yeasty roundness touched with flint.
Wine tasting details: Every day, 10-4:30pm. Cost is NZ$5 per tasting, can be applied to the purchase of a bottle. Address: 85 Bedford Road, Blenheim.
Each time someone circled Fromm Winery on our wine map, they'd say, “Now this is the place for reds in the Marlborough area.” In the land of white wines, Fromm Winery bucks the Marlborough region trend by focusing mainly on its red varietals. And its experimentation with big red wines like Syrah pays off.
Wine tasting details: Every day, 10-5pm in the summer (Oct-Apr). In the winter (May-Sept) the tasting room is open on Fri-Sun, 11am-4pm. Cost is NZ$5 per tasting, waived with a bottle purchase. Address: Godfrey Road, Blenheim.
Although Giesen Winery can get busy with cruise passenger traffic, the sommeliers really went out of their way to ensure a personal tasting experience. If you have a bit of time, consider snacking on a cheese and salami plate with a bottle of wine in the garden. Giesen offered some of the least expensive wines along the route, with entry level wines running $16NZ a bottle.
2010 Brothers Viognier to pair with food. Riesling 2012, our favorite. Also a winner of one of the Air New Zealand wine awards. Perhaps what I liked best about this wine, the tasting notes included “a hint of petrichor.” Among our new favorite words.
Wine tasting details: Every day, 10-4:30pm. Address: 26 Rapaura Road, Blenheim.
Marlborough Wine Maps and Other Wineries
Among a pretty tight consistently recommended group of wineries in Marlborough that we missed: Dog Point, Rock Ferry Wines, Framingham, Auntsfield Estate, Yealands Estate (picturesque), and No. 1 Family Estate (particularly if sparkling wines are your thing).
For an overview of your options in the Marlborough wine region, check out the Marlborough Wine Trail map, a copy of which you should be able to pick up from any local tourist office.
The Seafood Odyssea leaves from Picton on summer afternoons and takes you through the Marlborough Sounds for a detailed look at a green-lipped mussel farm and salmon farm. Honestly, we never imagined learning about local seafood farming methods would actually be so interesting. Or, so beautiful. And we enjoyed a huge bowl of tender, fresh green-lipped mussels, cold-smoked salmon and Tio Point Oysters all finished with a glass of Sauvignon Blanc. Not a bad afternoon.
Seafood Odyssea Details: Book in advance here to ensure your spot. The boat leaves at around 1:30pm and the journey takes 3-4 hours. Price: $135/person (includes seafood and wine mentioned above). Hint: If you are a group, are interested in a broader selection of wines to taste, and you haven't taken the Cook Strait Ferry, contact Marlborough Travel to see what it would take to arrange a custom experience with a sommelier on board.
Wine Tasting in Nelson Region
While Kiwis are friendly in general, we found people in and around Nelson to be notably hospitable and fun. Compared to Marlborough, the Nelson wine region is less well-known, but its popularity for viniculture is growing. After you visit Marlborough, you'll find that the style of Sauvignon Blanc from this region to be even more distinct, with even more hints of tomato stems and green pepper. Sounds crazy, maybe, but go stick your nose in a glass and experience it for yourself.
Every person we spoke to in Nelson steered us to Neudorf Vineyards. It's easy to see why. Although Neudorf is larger than most in the area, its wines retain a personal, family feel. Across the board from the whites to the reds, Neudorf wines are consistently good. Buy a picnic plate of cheeses, meats and olives to enjoy with a bottle of wine for the afternoon in the garden.
Tasting included a distinct 2012 Sauvingnon Blanc with more than a hint of tomato stem and a 2011 Viognier, the red-drinker's white wine, with a touch of wood and oil, not quite a Chardonnay. Loved the Pinot Noir, all around. Our pick for taste and value: 2010 Tom's Block Pinot Noir.
Wine tasting details: Daily, 10am-5pm in summer. Monday-Friday, 10am-5pm in winter. Address: 138 Neudorf Road, Upper Moutere
Tucked back off the main road amidst fruit orchards is Greenhough Winery. We were fortunate to have our tasting with one of the owners, so we heard the story of how the family has developed the winery over the last twenty years while maintaining an organic approach.
2012 Apple Valley Riesling, liked the crisp with a bit of acidity. Apple Valley 2012 Sauvignon Blanc, less grassy than most, even a little creamy. 2012 Chardonnay, similarly surprising with hints of oak and stone, vanilla and spice. Finally, we picked up a bottle of the 2012 Riesling Noble (botrytised dessert wine) that we will serve with the right fresh cobbler or plate of ripened soft cheese.
Wine tasting details: Daily, 1pm-5pm from Christmas through January. Weekends only, 1pm-5pm from Labour Day to Easter. Address: 411 Paton Road, RD1, Hope
Rimu Grove Winery
This small boutique winery not too far from Mapua is worth visiting just for the views of Tasman Bay, Rabbit Island and Waimea Inlet. The wine tasting experience itself is personal and fun; our sommelier not only knew her stuff about Rimu Grove, but about all the wineries in the region.
Pinot Gris 2010, a bit of oak, a touch of acidity, otherwise soft on the palate. A versatile and surprising Chardonnay, mild oak with hints of nuts and melon.
Wine tasting details: Daily, 11am-5pm in summer. Monday-Friday, 11am-5pm in winter. Tastings are free. Address: Bronte Road East, Upper Moutere
Wine Tasting in Waipara Valley
If you happen to be in Christchurch and are looking for a wine tasting opportunity nearby, consider Waipara Valley. While we don't consider ourselves authorities on the region, we did aim to check it out on our way back from Hanmer Springs to Christchurch and were glad we did.
Pegasus Bay Winery
After a quick poking around online for wineries on our return route to Christchurch, we happened upon Pegasus Bay Winery, noted in the region for its restaurant.
Penny, the sommelier, took us through a broad range. Of note: 2010 Sauvignon Blanc uncharacteristic of those at the north end of the South Island. 2010 Bel Canto Riesling, perhaps our favorite of the tasting with hints of citrus and even jasmine. 2010 Gewürztraminer fascinating with rose water, jasmine and even other floral notes like hyacinth. 2010 Pinot Noir deep color, plums and cherries, velvet and spice.
For more information on Waipara Valley and North Canterbury wineries, download the North Canterbury Wine Guide and Map.
A note of thanks: Many people came together to make our final week in New Zealand a tasty, romantic and memorable one. In addition to the people and companies we thank below, we also would like to give a shout out to all the Kiwis we met along the way who steered us to many of the wineries you see above. They never seemed to tire of our questions and some even provided us a ride when we needed it.