Whether you are a seasonaire like myself or just on a ski holiday to New Zealand, sometimes it’s important to take a day out of boots. After all, those toes need to stretch once in a while, and why not do a little cultural research while you’re at it. As a seasonaire, I find excursions like this a fun way to learn more about the region and therefore help me better connect with the guests!
The Central Otago region is known for many things including producing great wines, especially Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc. It is the world’s southern most wine growing region. While most of the vineyards are farther away from Queenstown, there are enough nearby that you can have a fun, full-day excursion from your ski holiday with a trip to the local wineries. Check out this website for a description of the other wineries in the region.
There are several ways of doing this, but the two that I tried are: a guided experience with Altitude Tours and a day of exploring using public transportation (and my out-of-boots feet). I like wine, I’ve drank plenty of it, but this posting is more about the experience than the wines themselves.
Wine tour with Altitude Tours
This five hour tour visits four tasting rooms, transports you in a new and comfortable Mercedes van (with large and clean windows for taking in all the sights), and even provides wifi on the van if you need it. We departed Queenstown at 10:00 am and returned to town around 3:00 pm. Altitude also provides hotel pick up from the outskirts of town. (Pro tip for those seasonaires living in Arthur’s Point or out by Frankton, just mention that you’re staying at one of the hotels nearby and then you won’t need to take the bus into town.) They even end the day with a wine glass as a gift (it was much nicer than the wine glasses my seasonal rental provided!) This tour was a bit of a splurge at $189 per person, but there are various discounts available online or at the tourism office in town so it’s worth shopping around.
While our host drove around to pick everyone up, she also pointed out some of the attractions along the way and provided fun facts about Lake Wakitipu, Lake Hayes, and the Gold Rush of 1861. Once everyone was on the van, our host played a casual and humorous video about wine tasting before we arrived at our first winery.
Our first stop was Gibbston Valley Wines. It has a vineyard, tasting room, and New Zealand’s largest wine cave (which would serve as the cool venue for tasting wines). The Gibbston Valley Cheesery is also no the same property. We arrived early enough to poke around the Cheesery and taste some of their artisanal creations. Then we started a tour that began by looking at the newly trimmed vines outside. I’m not sure if this particular shot is of the regions oldest vineyard, Home Block planted in 1983, but Gibbston Valley is home to that, too.
The French tour guide then took us into their wine cave, pointed out their ‘library’ of wines. At the conclusion of her tour, she directed the tasting of a Pinot Gris, a Reisling, and a Rose.
Afterwards we had time to try their other wines in the relaxing tasting room or browse other offerings on the property.
If you choose to visit Gibbston on your own, there are a variety of tours to choose from described on their website, starting at $18.50 per person for a three varietal tasting in the cave (presumable similar to my experience with Altitude). Depending on which tour interests you, they start between 10:00 am and 4:00 pm and reservations are recommended.
Next we drove to Kinross Winery and Café. This cellar door is open year round from 10:00 am to 5:00 pm and they recommend allowing 20-25 minutes for a hosted wine tasting. Rather than being a private vineyard, this is the ‘official cellar door’ for some of the regions smaller wineries: Coal Pit, Domaine Thomson, Hawkshead, Valli, and Wild Irishman. When I was there, I believe we tasted eight wines from all but the Wild Irishman selection.
On the tour, Kinross was also the location for the optional lunch (not included in the tour price). We had preordered lunch from menus back at Gibbston Valley and after the Kinross tasting we were invited into the dining area (outdoor seating is available when the weather is nice). My partner and I both had plated main dishes that were delicious, but I’d recommend the charcuterie board if you want a variety of foods. It was plenty large for sharing.
Next was the quirkiest stop of the day: Mt. Rosa. A quick peruse of their website will give you an idea about their humor. Mt. Rosa is a former sheep grazing and sheering area. Today the tasting room has been refurbished from the former wool shed. Mt. Rosa has taken extra efforts to be a sustainable wine producer (yay!) which you can also read about on their website. While the wines we tasted were pleasant, I most memorable aspect of our time here was their demonstration of a wine glass that fits an entire bottle of wine. Remember my description? Quirky.
Again, if you’re planning to do this one on your own, they are open 11:00 am to 5:00 pm. Tastings cost $15 for seven or eight wines which is waved with a two bottle purchase.
Finally we ended the tour at Akarua Wines. The Akarua vineyard is actually located closer to Cromwell, but they opened a cellar door in conjunction with Artisan catering near Arrowtown. I remember being especially impressed by the Akarua sparkling wine, however, by this point in the tour I don’t recall much else. Other than that their dining area looked cute. I made a mental note to return there at a later point.
After we were all good and toasty from a day filled with good wines and new friends it was time to return to Queenstown. The driver shuttled us back to each of our drop spots and several of us decided to continue the good times with our new friends by grabbing a happy hour drink in town.
DIY wine tastings
The difficult part about wine tastings on your own is that someone usually gets stuck being the designated driver and by the end of the day this person is thirsty and less stoked about the day than the drunk friends. (I was the DD for a wine tasting trip in Paso Robles, California. It was okay, but my friends definitely had a better time than me.)
One alternative is to visit the vineyards that are accessible by public transportation. The two I visited are Amisfield and Akarua, both of which are just off the #2 bus out of Queenstown. Neither are designated stops, but the bus driver will usually make a stop for you if you tell him or her in advance.
Amisfield was beautiful. I had considered going there for their tasting menu lunch, but was trying to keep within a certain budget. If you have a special occasion or the inclination, their Trust the Chef menus sound incredibly special and are locally sourced. They even have a person who’s sole job is foraging for wild ingredients! Check out their website for more information about their lunch or dinner selections with optional wine pairings. The grounds also have room for children to play and a pétanque pit.
Instead, my partner and I opted for the $10 per person wine tasting that allowed guests to choose which 5 wines from the menu they wanted to try. It was great doing this as a duo because we each tried different wines and then shared tastes! The $10 tasting fee is waived for each bottle purchased and since we both had a favorite this made our tasting free.
I was really keen on several of the wines at Amisfield. I’m usually a Pinot Noir fan, but at Amisfield I was impressed by the diversity and complexity of their white wines. The oaked Sauvignon Blanc was surprising different than the majority of Sauvi B’s you find in the area . It was also fun to do a side by side tasting of their standard Riesling and their dry Riesling. In the end my favorite was the Amisfield Sparkling.
Since we were both enjoying the vibe of Amisfield, we asked if they could accommodate us for a cheese plate. At $45NZD this plate was not inexpensive, but it was the best cheese plate we’d had in New Zealand: five types of cheese, apple slices, two types of bread, and three types of fruit compotes. This was enough for us to split as a lunch and then the price seemed much more reasonable. And the views of Coronet Peak from their outdoor terrace were stunning!
Amisfield’s Cellar Door is open daily from 10:00 am – 6:00 pm.
Having taken the Number 2 bus to Arrowtown before, I thought that our next stop at Akarua wasn’t that far of a walk. Well… distance is relative. It took us about 30 minutes to walk to Akarua from Amisfield. The bus passed us along the way and if we had been smart and paid attention to what time the bus had dropped us off at Amisfield, we could have hopped back on the bus to continue on to Akarua. (The #2 comes once every hour.) The walk was okay. The views were great, but there isn’t a sidewalk, the road doesn’t have a shoulder, and there is a fair amount of fast driving traffic. Plus I turned my ankle on the uneven path. So I’d maybe suggest not walking unless you’re as stubborn as me.
Since we had already tasted the wines at Akarua during our Altitude tour, we opted instead to sit in the pleasant dining area of the former Walnut Cottage, now known as the Kitchen by Artisan. Here you can order any of the Akarua wines by the glass and enjoy an à la carte selection of food. I had imbibed enough wine for that afternoon, so I opted for the seasonal fruit crisp and a flat white. We were the only ones dining and they weren’t exactly in food prep mood, but the manager asked the kitchen to reheat the stove and warm up the crisp for us. It was delicious. Coming from the US, we’ve noticed that service in New Zealand doesn’t always go the extra mile since no tip is in jeopardy. The Kitchen by Artisan proved this theory wrong.
The quaint Kitchen by Artisan is open daily from 9:00 am -5:00 pm and the Akarua Cellar Door is open for tastings daily from 11:00 am – 5:00 pm
If you want to splurge and make a day of it, the Altitude Tour was a fun way to see several wineries, get a little bit tipsy and meet other fun wine enthusiasts. However, I had just as much fun just doing the two vineyards with my partner; it just became a more low-key, low cost, lower consumption affair.
If I had another opportunity for hitting up the vineyards, I think it would be fun to rent a bicycle and ride to several of the wineries (especially during the warmer months). There is a good network of trails out near the vineyards and I always like riding bikes on a pleasant day. There are several places in Queenstown that hire bikes for the day (including the electronic assist kind of bikes if you’re worried about the distance). Gibbston Valley has electric and mountain bikes available for hire (and can provide return or one-way transport from Queenstown). Kinross Cottages also offers rental bikes for guests staying at their cottage which could be a great option for people still planning their accommodations.
As for my snowflake rating for sustainability, there are too many businesses here to rate individually, especially since I didn’t have a full experience with any particular one, except Altitude Tours.
Altitude Tours did a great job trying to keep individual cars of the road by helping us all to ride together in a safe and entertaining way. I just wish they could figure out how to get around the plastic water bottles they gave to each of us. I understand that no one wants to drive a van full of nearly drunk tourists and encouraging water consumption is one of the best ways to fight this battle. Perhaps they can have an Antipodes water station set up at each of the wineries or at the van upon returning from each tasting? Alternatively, they could replace the gifted wine glasses (because traveling with wine glasses is difficult anyway) with a metal water bottle pre-filled with water? Since the uses single use plastic (and a hefty amount at that), I give Altitude Tours ❄️❄️ out of ❄️❄️❄️
For more on what you can do to Protect our Winters check out their website.