Where to Find Some of the Best New Zealand Pinot Noir
Fascinated by the local wines, F&W’s Ray Isle travels to the New Zealand city of Christchurch. What he sees and tastes shows off the amazing spirit of the place.
At C1 Espresso in Christchurch, New Zealand, you can get a hamburger shot to your table by means of a pneumatic tube. Owner Sam Crofskey’s apparatus, a maze of plastic tubing, air brakes and valves crisscrossing the café’s ceiling, looks like something the mad scientist in Despicable Me might have put together. It wouldn’t be surprising to see a gang of goggle-eyed Minions working helter-skelter behind the bar.
The design at C1 also includes a water fountain made from an antique Singer sewing machine, multiple old-school pinball machines and a front counter built with more than 14,000 Lego bricks. But it was the pneumatic system that took the most design work. “The burgers travel at over 80 miles per hour,” Crofskey explains, “so we had to pioneer a lot of the mechanics involved. This is actually our fourth design. One of the early ones started firing canisters of hamburgers at the line of people waiting for coffee. Bit of a surprise, that.”
I’ll bet. Even having a canister of hamburgers whomp onto my table where it was actually supposed to land was startling, though the burgers themselves (three sliders, plus fries) were unaffected, and very good, too.
C1’s hamburger delivery system is, in its patched-together, nutball-genius way, emblematic of the new Christchurch. The old Christchurch was, by all accounts, a dowdy, fairly conservative city—the center of local government, pretty in its quaint Victorian way. Four years ago that changed in an instant, when an earthquake leveled more than 1,000 buildings in the Central Business District (among them the original, pneumatic-tube-less C1). “In five minutes my wife and I lost our home, our business and a city we loved,” Crofskey told me.
But that destruction was eventually followed by an incredible burst of creativity. Pop-up restaurants appeared in parking lots and on street corners; shopping malls were erected out of old shipping containers; massive street-art murals were painted on ruined walls.
The electricity of reinvention still energizes Christchurch today, making it a fascinating place to visit. The original street-art explosion, for instance, ended up attracting artists from around the world. Many of their pieces are extraordinary, like Owen Dippie’s 80-foot-tall electric-blue ballerina rising out of the rubble behind the now-restored Isaac Theatre Royal. Equally remarkable is the city’s Transitional Cathedral (also known as the Cardboard Cathedral), its soaring ceiling made from massive cardboard tubes and polycarbonate panels. When I walked in, the streaming light felt as numinous as any I’ve experienced in Europe’s great cathedrals.
Christchurch has become a much better place to eat, too. There are more restaurants in the city now than before the quake, and the best are extremely good. My favorites occupy two completely different ends of the dining spectrum. Roots, in the seaport suburb of Lyttelton, grew out of a series of roaming dinners that chef Giulio Sturla organized following the quake. At this minuscule eight-table place, Sturla serves a tasting menu using ultra-local ingredients (much of the produce comes from the restaurant’s backyard garden), but there’s no actual menu. Instead, courses simply appear one by one—a tangle of squid “noodles” over a quenelle of caramelized onions dotted with tiny purple onion flowers, slivers of native blackfoot paua (abalone) with foraged greens and garlic espuma—paired with superb local wines. From a less talented chef, this approach would be alarming; from Sturla, it’s thrilling.
Then there’s the couldn’t-be-more-different-but-equally-delicious Pedro’s House of Lamb. For 30 years, Pedro Carazo ran his eponymous Spanish restaurant in the Central Business District to wide acclaim; in 30 seconds, the earthquake smashed it flat. Afterward, he says, “I asked myself what I was going to do. And I decided, I will do lamb shoulder! One thing!”
Now Carazo works out of a repurposed shipping container (neatly painted white, with a trim black awning) in the parking lot of a liquor store. That’s Pedro’s House of Lamb. And, true to his word, he does one thing: whole roasted lamb shoulder with rosemary, garlic and scalloped potatoes. I ordered one—enough food for four, easily, but I did have friends with me—and stood there in the parking lot, wolfing it down, while Pedro watched with evident satisfaction. It may well have been the most tender, intensely flavorful lamb I’ve ever had. When I asked him why it was so good, he said, “It’s just garlic, rosemary and rock salt. And olive oil, of course.” Then he smiled that particular, privately amused chef smile that means, “And whatever else there is to it, I’m just not going to tell you.”
After Pedro's, I did what many Christchurchian day-trippers do on weekends, which is drive out to the North Canterbury wine region (though most locals probably don’t stuff themselves with four pounds of roast lamb first). Getting there takes about 45 minutes to an hour—it’s less than the distance from San Francisco to Napa Valley. And there’s a good reason to go: In its Waipara Valley subzone, North Canterbury produces some of the best Pinot Noirs and Rieslings in New Zealand.
Unlike Napa Valley, though, North Canterbury still feels bucolic. Its history as a sheep-farming center isn’t long past, as wine grapes were only planted here in the early 1980s. Nor is it crowded, though almost every winery has a tasting room (or cellar door, to use the New Zealand term). The local vibe is more one of people taking their time and chatting casually with the winery owner, who’s as likely to be pouring as any other employee.
Despite its proximity to the city, North Canterbury was barely affected by the Christchurch quake, though at Pegasus Bay, my first stop and one of the closest wineries to the city, winemaker Mat Donaldson did have a few disconcerting moments. “I was in our cellar when it happened,” he told me. “All the barrel stacks started swaying back and forth. But then it quieted down...except for this eerie swishing in the silence of all the wine in the barrels.”
We were standing in the cellar when he said this, those same stacks of wine barrels rising 15 feet above us on all sides. I have to admit I felt a momentary urge to just set down my glass and step safely outside. But we hadn’t gotten to tasting Pegasus Bay’s top Riesling yet, and given how good the others had been, the off chance of being smashed like a bug by a 900-pound barrel full of wine seemed a reasonable risk.
As the day wore on, I headed up-valley through the tiny town of Waipara itself onto Omihi Road. Many of the region’s best wineries are here, their vineyards sloping up to the east toward the Teviotdale Hills. The hills provide shelter from the ocean winds (the region is only about three miles from the Pacific coast), and their clay-limestone soils are exactly the kind that Pinot Noir loves—part of why the best Waipara Pinots can go up against any other region’s in the world.
Stylistically, Waipara Pinots are less fruity and straightforward than those of Central Otago, New Zealand’s most famous Pinot Noir region (or those of, say, the Russian River Valley in Sonoma). “They’re far more Old World in style, though I hate using that term,” Nicholas Brown, the winemaker at Black Estate told me. “More restrained and savory.” That was certainly true of his wines, which I tasted in the winery’s flower-filled café along with some locally sourced Akaroa salmon. And, while I’ve begun to feel lately that soon the only restaurant left in the world that’s not “locally sourced” is going to be Jack in the Box, taking a sip of good Pinot Noir while gazing across at New Zealand’s snowcapped Southern Alps reduced my cynicism level very quickly.
I drank a series of impressive wines as I continued along the line of the hills (a quick top three: Mountford, Greystone, Bellbird Spring), but for a combination of sheer beauty and great wine, I’d point anyone toward Pyramid Valley Vineyards. Tucked away in the more inland Waikari subregion, Pyramid Valley was founded by Mike and Claudia Weersing in 2000 and is the kind of step-over-the-dogs-to-get-to-the-tasting-room place that always seems to me the platonic ideal of what a truly artisanal winery ought to be. More important than the inviting feel, though, are the amazing wines, the result of Mike Weersing’s Burgundian training combined with the exceptional fruit from Pyramid Valley’s tiny hillside vineyard. I was sipping the floral, gorgeously detailed 2013 Angel Flower Pinot Noir when Claudia Weersing said, “Oh, you have to see this!”
She pulled open the doors to the winery’s barrel room. There, covering the back wall, was an 8-by-26-foot mural: blue skies, strange cabalistic signs, geometric designs in brilliant purples, golds and oranges. It was a surreal moment, like walking through a magic door right back into Christchurch. The moment wasn’t made any less surreal by Claudia saying, as if it made perfect sense, “More pork. And yikes.”
I must have looked baffled, because she added, “Those are the artists who painted it—Morpork and Yikes. They’re a pair of street artists in the city. We commissioned the mural when we were building the winery.” It was as if I’d come full circle, from city to country and back again. The only thing left to do was finish my wine.
Where to Taste
A few of the best wineries in the North Canterbury region, about an hour from Christchurch:
Black Estate: Restrained Pinots, Chardonnays and Rieslings plus a superb café focusing on local ingredients. blackestate.co.nz.
Mountford: Some of the region’s best Pinot Noirs and lovely flower gardens are the draw here. mountfordvineyard.co.nz.
Pegasus Bay: The winery’s château-style building is also home to its award-winning restaurant. pegasusbay.com.
Pyramid Valley: Book ahead to taste the amazing Pinots and Chardonnays. pyramidvalley.co.nz.
Where to Stay
CHRISTCHURCH: The George The 53-room hotel overlooks Hagley Park and is walking distance from the Central Business District. From $242 per night; thegeorge.com.
WINE COUNTRY: Limestone Hills Guests at this vineyard estate’s quaint cottage in Amberley can go truffle-hunting with owner Gareth Renowden’s hound, Rosie. $200 per night ; limestonehills.co.nz.