After visiting some 50+ wineries in New Zealand, I am feeling like a bit of an expert on how to have a fabulous winery hopping day (or days). Whether you prefer white, reds or bubbly, New Zealand definitely has something for you! In my not so humble opinion, a wine day is a must in New Zealand – no matter how short your visit is. I promise my next few blogs will include an overview on the different wine regions in New Zealand, what varietals are best in each, and reviews of the wineries I visited. There is a lot more to see in the country than the infamous Marlborough!
*Americans – the legal alcohol limit to drive here is .05, so considerably lower than it is back home. Please be safe if driving!
Wine Trail Map
My approach in almost everything to life is research, research, research. I will read every review, every official publication, and every blog post before I go anywhere. TripAdvisor is my best friend. But finding online info on New Zealand’s smaller, boutique wineries is almost impossible. At home, I doubt I would ever drive to a winery with only 1 TripAdvisor review (or worse, not even registered on TripAdvisor), but here if you see a winery on a map or an open sign posted out front, stop in! Wine maps of each region are usually available at the local i-SITE (New Zealand’s official visitor information centers) and each map should detail winery locations, hours with a brief description. Some regions also have an online map available, but perhaps due to New Zealand’s terrible internet availability, online resources are often nonexistent or outdated. Either way, wine trail maps are crucial for planning when time is short.
-Toss the- Wine Map
A wine trail map is definitely not the only way to find wineries here, keep your eyes peeled while driving! In Central Otago, I learned from a family owned vineyard that not only do wineries have to pay to be apart of the region’s wine growing association, but they also have to pay an additional fee to be printed in the region’s wine trail map. So while medium to big commercial operations will always be on the map, the tiny and/or boutique wineries that only produce a small number of cases each year probably wont be. Look for “cellar door open” signs and walk right on in!
Wet Jacket, a very unassuming winery located in an old woolshed is one of my favorite wineries in New Zealand. Despite its close proximity to Queenstown (20 minutes), you won’t find them listed on any wine trail map. The decor inside is cozy and the reds are to die for. Plus, they have partnered with White Stone Cheese Co for a cheese room with free samples in the woolshed too!
Tasting fees vary by region, but the fee is usually between $5-$15 NZD for 5 wines or even better is complimentary at select vineyards (yep, completely free). Central Otago wineries closest to Queenstown and Waiheke were the most expensive regions in terms of tasting fees, but overall still definitely reasonable as most tastings equate to a full glass of wine. Complimentary wine tastings are common at small wineries that don’t serve food, as a common regional liquor law requires that a winery must serve food in order to serve alcohol. Since a tasting doesn’t legally count as serving alcohol, these wineries are able to give you the tasting, but cannot require you to pay (though most hope you will buy a bottle of wine to offset the tasting cost). Sadly, this law also means that you cannot buy a glass or a bottle to consume at the vineyard. But hey, for a tasting fee of less than $5 USD being the norm, I am not complaining!
As mentioned above, many wineries here only have a license for tasting, not for consuming alcohol which means that they don’t serve food. So don’t expect to get a cheese platter at every winery (although if that is your dream… there are certainly enough large (cough commercial) wineries who can accommodate). I suggest that you either plan your day around eating lunch at a winery with a full scale restaurant or you have a picnic lunch ready to go in the car. When each wine tasting only lasts 45 minutes or so, you quickly find that you have been to 4 wineries since 10 am and haven’t eaten anything. If you do decide to eat lunch at a winery, make sure you plan in advance and make a reservation, especially during peak tourism months (November- March). Expect to pay between $25-40 for a main plate at winery restaurants.
Poppies Winery serves an amazing tasting platter that is perfectly paired with all their wines. How you ask? The wife is the winemaker and the husband a chef. This dream duo even offered to make a half size platter for me since I was on my own!
Family, Boutique, and Commercial
This is really a matter of personal preference, but I suggest a mixture of them all. The commercial properties will probably feel similar to wineries in other countries, with a very standard set tasting in a well laid out venue. The smaller wineries though offer a much better opportunity to meet the owners of vineyards and hear firsthand accounts of running a winery. Note – some small wineries are really small — i.e. so small you are led through their house into their living room to have the tasting, whereby you will serve as a pillow for their cat. True story. More than once. Embrace it, as these folks own wineries because they love wine, not because they are trying to turn a quick dollar.
Back home in Virginia, a winery day means either establishing a DD (“designated driver”) or hiring a shuttle/ chauffeur for the day. But God bless New Zealand, several wine regions are located on flat land with wineries basically stacked on top of each other. Which means lucky winos can bicycle (or walk) to 10 or 15 wineries within a day (not recommended). If you are not visiting the Wairarapa (Martinborough specifically) or Marlborough (Blemheim and Renwick specifically) wine regions where bicycling is the preferred mode of transport, you will either need to have a slow day self-driving visiting only 2 or 3 wineries or should consider joining a guided tour.