The road begins to wind and wend its way round the volcanic spurs. The car ascends the ridge and the vague nausea of travel sickness from the bending roads abates as you meet with the view at the top. Long fingers of lava, long since cooled, extend from the summit ridgelines and inch their ways into the South Pacific, whose turquoise waters fill myriad bays below. Golden tussocks stretch along the hills, with patches of native bush enclosing pastureland for sheep. Cottages, huts and houses populate the steep inclines leading down to the waters, and yachts, dinghies and motorboats sleep in the bays. Incongruously, an enormous ocean liner is parked offshore in the centre of Akaroa Harbour.
This harbour itself is the central crater of an ancient volcano, which, together with the Lyttelton Harbour on its flank, forms the mountainous Banks Peninsula immediately south of Christchurch, on the east coast of New Zealand’s South Island. The volcanoes extend many kilometres below the waters to the seabed and would have stood as majestic island sentinels over the Pacific until enormous explosions aeons ago ripped out their sides, leaving the crater open to the cooling seas. Glacial activity of the Southern Alps to the west brought gravels, sands and clays, linking these islands to the Canterbury Plains. The prevailing winds eventually supplied the slopes with soils and vegetation.
Native New Zealand Maori lived in the area for centuries, surviving on an abundance of food from the life-rich seas. Akaroa’s European settlement was an example in failed French colonial exploits, with settlers leaving France before the lands of New Zealand had been ceded to the British Crown, but arriving just after that had occurred in 1840. Today, the township evidences nostalgic French charm: streets are ‘rue de…’, revivalist French cuisine jostles beside kiwi café culture and the tricoleur seems to be flying everywhere.
Growing up in Christchurch, Akaroa was always a place you would escape to for a day – go for fish and chips on the pier, or for a walk up the foreboding volcanic hills, or a swim in one of the many bays. Schools would have outdoor education camps on the Peninsula, where you would hike, kayak, build campfires and sleep under stars. Despite the charm of the town and the drama of the landscape, Akaroa was never really a place you would go to on holiday, or really spend more than a few hours in. Even though it is a scant hour’s drive from Christchurch, the fact that it is at a dead-end of the New Zealand highway system means Akaroa is also overlooked by the majority of tourists, who are generally on a self-propelled circular ‘grand tour’ of the country. Damage to Lyttelton, Christchurch’s main port, from the 2010/11 Canterbury earthquakes, has meant that cruise liners have begun including Akaroa on their circuits, bringing in much needed tourism.
Despite the cruise liners, Akaroa seems to be a tough place in which to do business but it remains an immensely charming and unfairly overlooked gem an easy drive from Christchurch. After all, where else in the world – nay, where else in New Zealand, a country that is hardly spoilt for beautiful options for scenic pursuits – can one view a volcano literally sunken into the sea, spot fur seals and penguins from your kayak in the bay, swim with the world’s rarest species of marine dolphin, have the freshest local fish cooked by world class chefs, and… taste fantastic wine.
On a recent trip to Christchurch, I thought I would rectify my poor knowledge of Akaroa over a few days and explore its wine scene in between kayaking trips and hikes up the mountains.
Akaroa is hardly a hub of winemaking. Like all New Zealand wine regions, it is incredibly young; winemaking expertise is hard to come by; the labour force is expensive to employ; and the same factors of geography and infrastructure that mean tourists see Akaroa as a ‘dead end’ also apply in some way to the native population. And yet the region has such viticultural potential: healthy volcanic soils, overlaid by clays and rooted in by native bush; slopes extending from around 800 metres high directly into the sea and facing any direction you could wish; optimal sun exposure and protection from the bitter winds that are the bane of grape-growing in Canterbury; constant air flow from the waters below the slopes providing healthy environments for vines.
My searching online in preparation for this trip revealed five wineries as contenders to visit, most of them with fairly dodgy, confusing or out-of-date websites. After a day of phone calls and emails, I had established that two were no longer going concerns, viticulturally speaking. Apart from occasional mentions in outdated tourism websites, Kaituna Valley wines seemed no longer to exist. French Farm winery, which had been the romantic la-di-dah spot to go to for a fancy dinner or weekend getaway for my parents’ generation 15 years ago, had given up on the winemaking to focus on life as a boutique hotel and wedding venue. They had, however, divested the land with the vineyard, which was now run as French Peak Wines. Alongside this, we had Takamatua Valley Vineyards aka Akaroa Winery, and Meniscus Wines. Five were now three.
French Peak didn’t reply to any form of communication until after I had left the country. A full exploration of their wares will have to wait for another visit. I did manage to try their 2015 Chardonnay in a local bistro. – very well made, slick oak integration, crisp, well-balanced with a smart, persistent finish. Quite reasonable for $10/glass and I feel a bottle of this would represent good value – if you can track one down that is!
Meniscus Wines have their vineyard property on a steep slope surrounded by native bush, slightly out of town but still facing Akaroa Harbour itself. However, they have a rather eccentric tasting room on the main road in the village. In addition to sampling their Riesling, Pinot Gris and Pinot Noir, you can relax over a cheeseboard and a bottle in the tranquil butterfly garden, which lays claim to a grapevine from the original French colonists. Their wines are made at the excellent Greystone Winery in Waipara (a two hour drive north of Akaroa, via Christchurch), and represent that eccentric style of winemaking employed by people who have the means to own a vineyard, without necessarily needing to derive an income from it. That is to say, wines made for the sake of making wine that the owners like, rather than with any particular commercial thought in mind. For instance, the Meniscus 2016 Pinot Gris remains the only Pinot Gris I’ve tasted that’s seen significant (nine months) ageing in new French oak. This gives the ripe pear and nectarine flavours a curious woody foil to battle against, in a way that I found inharmonious in such a young wine, but perhaps time will see greater integration. Their 2014 Pinot Noir won the ‘Best Canterbury Pinot 2016’ award (for what that is worth, although it has resulted in a $5 increase in bottle price for this particular vintage: $35/bottle; the 2015 was available for $30). A light red with a pretty Pinot nose (red cherries and violets) that I feel was overshadowed by still more new French oak (9–15 months in barrel; 100% new). A decent wine that also needs more time for flavour and integration.
The most illuminating visit came by way of Akaroa Winery (aka Takamatua Valley Vineyards) situated on a ridge line up the Takamatua Valley, a short drive along the road back towards Christchurch. Owners Allan Ransley & Timberly Hughes seem to live a jet-set lifestyle and were out of town during my visit. However, they managed to convey immense hospitality remotely thanks in no small part to their chief keeper of the vines, Sally, who arranged to meet us for a tasting and tour of the estate. The tour of the vines revealed plots of Chardonnay, Pinot Gris, Riesling, Gewurztraminer and Pinot Noir, framed by native bush and majestic walnut trees overlooking spectacular views of the bay below.
The winery itself occupies part of a Mediterranean villa-esque property positioned for optimal scenery-ogling from the windows and terraces. The rest of the property operated as a sizeable tasting room and restaurant, until significant damage sustained during the 2010/11 earthquakes forced a closure. We conducted our tasting in a building site as workers were putting final touches to the interior, after significant building strengthening and work to the exterior had been completed. A chalkboard tasting menu behind the debris obscuring the counter showed what was offer at the time of closure although the tasting room is scheduled to reopen in 2017.
However, with innovative use of space – and a lot of patience required to relocate winemaking equipment and fermentation tanks in between building works – winemaking has continued on the premises throughout the intervening years. Timberly is a self-taught winemaker, inheriting vinicultural traditions from her native California, and manages to coax a succulent, concentrated fruit presence from her vines into the final wine. Her approach is low-intervention, with French oak used sparingly for the Chardonnay and Pinot Noir and stainless steel only for the aromatic varieties.
I was very impressed with the 2016 Riesling: floral and creamy on the nose with a huge presence on the palate; structured and well-balanced, this felt like the wine was on a journey through my mouth. The power of the wine cloaked in a perfectly tailored robe reminded me more of the Rieslings of the Rheingau, compared to the often limey and ‘spikey’ Antipodean versions. The 2015 Pinot Gris exhibited much of this concentrated power on the palate, although the flavour profile (and acidity) is softened by the grape’s natural nashi pear flavours and an addition of Gewurztraminer to the blend. An off-dry style with an elderflower and barley finish.
The 2016 Chardonnay was a dry and taut style albeit with a spicy, apply presence on the palate that persisted through to a succulent finish. A smartly-made wine. The Pinot Noir, vintage 2011, clocked in as the oldest wine of the tasting. On approach, it showed off a complex, mature bouquet of boysenberry fruit, leather, deciduous leaves and hints of manuka flowers. The palate continued in a savoury vein, with the wine’s maturity the dominant feature. A fascinating wine and certainly at ‘drink now’ stage. I’d love to taste a younger vintage for comparison.
Banks Peninsula presents a wine scene that can hardly be described as burgeoning, however, it may in the future: the region itself has much to offer the prospective viticulturist. Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Riesling and Pinot Gris are the most planted varieties. All show a lot of promise, taking to the volcanic soils well. My sample size was too small to attain a reliable sense of regional character from its wines; however, I was particularly impressed by the potential for Riesling. In general, the aromatic varieties come across as a Kiwi take on Alsatian classics; the Chardonnays I tried were very well made, exhibiting concentration and quality of fruit. I feel that Pinot Noir needs to find its feet a bit more, although there is potential for wines with the quality of Central Otago, but without the overwrought jamminess that can come through in wines of that region.
The Canterbury earthquakes have done Banks Peninsula no favours in terms of physical damage, a decline of tourist and visitor footfall, and decreased presence on the local (Christchurch) wine market. Arguably this is the price of living in such a beautiful – but shaky – environment. New Zealand wine aficionados should hope that as Christchurch looks to pull itself literally back up from the ground, we will see more of Banks Peninsula wine in the future.