09 JUN 2014: Central Otago on New Zealand’s South Island is a spectacular spot ringed by snow capped mountains interlaced with lakes and deep river gorges. Its rugged beauty made it the perfect location to shoot scenes in Lord of the Rings. But of course there’s much more.
In the movies, the island’s Remarkable Mountains became “Misty Mountains”, the Kawarau Gorge was used as River Anduin and Arwen's confrontation with the Black Riders at the Ford of Bruinen took place in Skippers Canyon. Nomad Safaris packages tours to these sites offering the type of adventure thrills for which Queenstown and area is famous.
Skippers Canyon has been named one of the ten most dangerous roads in the world and indeed it is a scary narrow, dirt track with steep drops and no guard rails. I was glad my tour guide Flip was a skilled driver and equally glad when we got off that road despite the gorgeous scenery.
Flip also took me to the old gold mining town Arrowtown where we drove back and forth through the waters of Bush Creek towards an abandoned mining town called Macetown. A true 4X4 off-road adventure, 26 river crossings through fast water are required to get to the town. We didn’t go all the way; instead we stopped and panned for gold. I managed to find a few flakes which Flip told me to eat for good luck. Good idea I thought given we had to return on the same road.
Central Otago is also ideal for growing the finicky thin skinned grape pinot noir. This notoriously difficult variety to cultivate could be called an adventure thrill for the farmer – get it right and it’s heaven in a glass, wrong and it’s hell - counts for 75 percent of the plantings in this most southerly grape growing region in the world at parallel 45 south. The whole area makes just five percent of the total wine production of New Zealand.
Chardonnay, pinot gris and riesling make up the majority of the rest under vine here. Grapes were first planted in 1864 by a Frenchman who came out for the gold rush though the first modern commercial wines of the region didn’t come along until 1987. Steep drops and windy roads (across from Chard Farm winery is AJ Hackett Bungy jump where this activity began) mean it’s best to book a tour if visiting wineries.
I booked several. Highlights of my first with Appellation Wine Tours included a visit to Amisfield where Prince William and Kate recently tasted wine. We enjoyed a sparkling wine made with chardonnay and pinot noir in the champagne method, a plump pinot gris, oak aged Fume Blanc (from sauvignon blanc) and several pinot noir, the best of which was the 2010 vintage.
Lunch at the organic winery Carrick Cellar was a great platter of vine smoked salmon, bacon hock terrine, antipasto, local cheeses, spreads, fritters, fruits and more. Our last stop was at Aurum Winery which grows their own olives for making local olive oil and also produces delicious sweet port like dessert wines.
With Scott West of Wanaka Wine Tours I visited wineries such as Rippon, a biodynamic farm with some of Central Otago’s oldest vineyards. The winery tried up to 30 different grape varieties before deciding to chop back to the best for their microclimate: pinot noir, gewürztraminer, gamay, sauvignon blanc, riesling and the very rare osteiner (a 1928 crossing of riesling and silvaner).
We lunched at the charming French restaurant Bistro Gentil in Wanaka and visited tiny family run boutique wineries Archangel, Swallows Crossing and Maori Point. West will adapt tours to suit and showed me these delightful wineries which I might never have discovered on my own.
The best vineyard dining I had was at Mount Difficulty where the wild venison tenderloin dish was divine and the Packspur Growers Series Pinot Noir 2012 supple and full of earthy berry notes.
The most unique winery visit was Como Villa wines with their tasting room in an 1860’s supply house to the gold diggers. The gold is still in the hills in nugget and vine forms.