Tuesday 26th Feb, 2018
Now begins the journey into the heart of the Southern Alps, to Queenstown. At last we branch off our familiar friend, Highway 1 and choose Highway 8, heading north-east. “What happened to the other 7”, I hear you cry. A road designer’s mystery. We enter Otago Region (read County), described as the fruit basket of NZ. Autumn is just beginning here and it is the soft fruit season. There are roadside orchards of lovely red apples, pears, apricots, cherries – all sorts of soft fruits. Each producer seems to have a road-side sales hut and the place bristles with fruity enterprise.
The day is warm (25 °C) and the terrain changes from coastal plain to foothills, reminiscent of the UK’s high Peak District. The rock resembles Mill-stone grit – though it has never been fashioned into mill-stones. This is more like the NZ of the picture postcards. We have the road almost to ourselves. Joy!
We journey towards Alexandra and pause for coffee and biscuits. We like the wide-street, low-rise towns of NZ. They have a clean, ordered and cared-for air, reminiscent of similar sized American towns, though without the accompanying red-necked approach to commerce. Not surprising I guess as nothing non-Maori here is more than 150 years old. Combine that with the clean fresh air and you have a delightful environment. Apart from the annual sheep shearing contest, Easter bunny hunt or Spring-time blossom festival, there is little reason to pause in Alexandra so we don’t.
As we climb slowly in altitude we pass several hydro-electric power stations. NZ’s mountainous terrain plus its high rainfall provide an easily tapped source of potential energy. A big dam and a few turbines and you have enough power to light up all the major cities in South Island. It is just a pity that the only way to distribute electricity is along overhead lines, and pylons litter the beautiful countryside.
Sue has cleverly telephoned ahead and pulled some strings so we are to visit Felton Road winery in Bannockburn, home of numerous wine growing estates.
Hugh Johnson’s wine guide gives only three NZ wineries his 4-star rating, and Felton Road is one of them. This is a small winery but consistently produces exceptional Pinot Noir, excellent Riesling and Chardonnay varietal wines. We arrive at a beautifully manicured estate, neatly laid-out rows of vines all clad in netting to discourage predatory birds from eating the fruit, and join six Australians on a guided tour and tasting.
We are taken on a tour of the estate by a wine-maiden who tells us that this is both an organic and biodynamic winery, owned by an Englishman, Nigel Greening. His vines certainly look very robust and we are told that picking will start tomorrow, two weeks earlier than usual since the weather has been so good. There is much activity steaming out stainless-steel fermentation tanks, cleaning oak barrels and generally checking valves and pipes as wine-making will begin in earnest shortly.
We are taken to the winery’s “library”. Not a collection of books but of bottles. Here reside samples of every wine made since the start of production in 1996. None of these are for sale – ever, though Nigel might sanction the opening and sharing of a couple on high-days and holidays. We drool and fantasize about being shut in here. Not even a corkscrew is required, for Felton Road, along with all NZ producers use only screw caps. We pose alongside a Jereboam of 1997 Pinot Noir and dream.
We are decanted into the sampling room and subjected to a delightful hour of sipping and comparing their products. ‘tis a pity we are limited to 23 kg of airline baggage as it was tempting to stagger away laden. We select one wine and buy a bottle.
Onwards, gently, to our next stop at Queenstown a short drive from Bannockburn. Here we shall stop for three nights to regroup, accommodate a day-long trip out to Milford Sound and a day gentle sightseeing cum R&R day. Our accommodation is on the Frankton arm of lake Wakatipu and comprises more of a complete apartment than a hotel room.
This one has a huge lounge, fully equipped kitchen / diner, bedrooms and bathrooms for four and a balcony with a breath-taking view of over Lake Wakatipu and the Remarkables mountain range.
We drop our bags, drive to the local Four Square supermarket and lay in stores. Blessed Sue cooks a delightful steak dinner (with guess what to drink? Yes PN) and we retire early, alarms set for 0600 for tomorrow we have a long day out.