Friday, May 3, 2013

Discovering A New World in New Zealand (Part 3)

Rows of old barrels lined the walls of the cave tunnel leading back to a cool, moist cellar. There, sitting atop a red table cloth, were glasses filled with wine; and two more bottles waiting to be poured. Our group stood among the barrels, waiting to sample our first tastes of some New Zealand wines. The perfect antidote to the chilly, cloudy weather outside.

It was raining and miserable on our first day in Queenstown, but it didn't kill the vibe and spirit of the city, considered to be the adventure sport capital of the world. And there were certainly extreme sport operators riddled throughout Queenstown. After dropping off our car at the hotel, we explored the town while enjoying some coffee. At 12:30, a bus picked us up for our scheduled wine walk, where we were meant to take a trail between vineyards. However, given the rain, we opted for the guided tour instead, so we could stay in the comfort of the bus.

Our first stop was Gibbston Valley Vineyard, where we got to experience one of the largest wine caves in the country. One of the workers at the vineyard handed each of us a glass of Sauvignon Blanc, and we happily started sipping away. He explained to us the process for making the variety, and the flavors and textures we should have been picking up. I will admit, I'm no sommelier, but I would like to think that I have a pretty mature palette when it comes to wine. The next one we tried was a Pinot Gris, a variety of which I have never really been a fan. But I took a shot on this one, but found it just did not have an appealing flavor. Next was the Pinot Noir, the variety the region is known for, and it was delightful, just light enough that it could be enjoyed mid-afternoon, but with a flavor profile that was still bold and complex, perfect for food pairing.

After our tasting in the wine cave, we hurried through the rain to the restaurant, where we enjoyed a wonderful lunch complete with squash soup, bread, hummus and veggies, and cheese and crackers, and, of course, a glass of wine. We conversed with the other members of our tour group, most of whom were from North America or England. After a brief visit to the gift shop, we hopped back on the bus and made our way over the second vineyard, Waitiri Creek. The tasting room was actually an old church transported from Wangaloa, another region of the south island. We sampled about five different wines: a Chardonnay (phenomenal), a Pinot Gris (not so much), a Riesling (pretty good, not too sweet), and two Pinot Noirs (both delicious).

The third winery we visited was Mt. Rosa, located further up the hillside and in a much more modern warehouse style facility. We squeezed into the room, which felt a little cold and cramped, but the array of wines in front of us certainly made up for it. We tried about eight or nine wines--and yes, you can bet I was feeling it a bit by now. We tried some of the standards--Chardonnay, Pinot Gris, Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling and Pinot Noir--as well as some other varieties that were a little different--Gewurtztraminer and Chenin Blanc. It was here that we learned a little bit more about the wine industry in New Zealand, and how it is made up of many small, boutique wineries, and perhaps two or three large ones with high distribution. Since many of their operations are so small, it is difficult to produce enough wine to send to larger countries, and the regulations on trade and export make it very expensive. This is why many of these fantastic wines cannot be found in the U.S., which is a real shame. (But maybe if you ask your local liquor stores to stock them, there is a chance they could get enough demand to expand distribution.) 

The final stop on our wine tour was Amisfield Wine Company, considered to be a much larger establishment than some of the others in the region, but still exceptionally good. We met with one of the seasoned wine experts, who took us down into the wine cellar for a quick lesson on the wines, how they were made, and a tasting of about four wines. A Riesling, a Rose, a Pinot Noir and a Pinot Gris. By this point, I had disliked all the Pinot Gris varieties I had that day, but I decided to take one more chance, convinced that this one would disappoint, too. To my chagrin, it was great! I had finally found a Pinot Gris I liked, so much so that I dropped $30 for a bottle--yes, that is expensive for someone who usually keeps her wine purchases to under $10 per bottle.

We were dropped off at our hotel, where we quickly changed and headed back out for dinner. We enjoyed a nice meal next to a raging fire--yes, it was chilly enough for a fire--and then wandered back to our hotel to relax and head to bed.

The next morning, we grabbed a quick breakfast at the hotel, and then ventured out to explore more of Queenstown. The morning was spent hitting up clothing stores and art galleries, where we found some pretty nice items. My parents picked up a couple gifts for friends, and I found a really nice purse at a cute little luggage shop. After a couple hours of walking around, we all started to feel a bit peckish, so we stopped into a place called Fergbaker, a little cafe and patisserie known for its meat pies. It also has a great selection of sweets and really good coffee. We each got a handheld pie--my mom got the vegetarian one, my dad got the lamb and stout and I got one of the signature one with ferg. Delicious! We wandered around for the rest of the afternoon, popping into stores, making a few final purchases and then headed back to the hotel to get ready for dinner. We enjoyed a simple dinner of pizza and pasta--and, of course, wine--and then relaxed for the evening.

As I sat on the plane the next morning, waiting to return to Australia--and eventually head back to Chicago--a sense of sadness started to creep over me. It quickly rippled through my body before settling as a tiny marble-sized ball in my throat. "No," I heard myself say, "do NOT cry." New Zealand held nothing but good memories, strange experiences and some of the most elaborate landscapes I had ever seen. So why was I sad? A trip ending always makes me a bit forlorn. It translates to packing--yet again--shoving every memento of the vacation into your bag (not to mention all the dirty laundry you'll have to do once you get home, which is depressing in itself); and dealing with airport check-ins and security lines. It means a return to routine, to the acts of the every day, where you know life will never be as exciting as what you just experienced over the last couple weeks. Because, believe it or not, sitting at desk typing away at a computer is not quite as stimulating as trekking through a field of vines or standing among barrels of wine discussing the process that got the liquid into those wooden containers. But mostly the end means goodbye; not just to a place, but to the people you spent the whole trip with and the ones you met along the way.

The only thing that can suppress this bitter marble...the thought of my return to New Zealand to see all the places I missed. Or the knowledge that I will be taking another vacation in a couple months to a new, diverse destination. Or the eye-catching survival expert Bear Gryllis leaping around the forests of Fiordland, tracking the extinct flightless Moa bird, all while delivering essential safety messages. Yes, those Air New Zealand videos certainly grab your attention, and I was super excited I got the chance to see one (I know I'm a nerd).


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