04 October 2022

Go on a wine tasting journey in New Zealand
Stein on wine Kiwi style
He's known for mouth-watering fish dished on his TV shows. But what did Rick Stein make of the wine and seafood on a journey of culinary discovery through New Zealand?
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erhaps, I daydreamed on my way back from New Zealand, I should save up to buy a little strip of vinegrowing land on the South Island. Somewhere up Felton Road right by the old goldfields near the town of Cromwell. Next door to Mount Difficulty winery would be fine. I could build a house of wood and make my Pinot Noir, swap winemaking stories with the nice people at the wineries of Akarua or Carrick. Maybe I’d drive out to the legendary haunted Vulcan Hotel in nearby St Bathans for a meal.

Then, as I left the restaurant, a local would say: ‘Him? Oh, he used to be one of those TV chefs in Blighty, but gave it all up to make Pinot. Shame, really. He’s a nice enough bloke, but his wine’s as rough as guts…’ I’d be happy, though – I could spend the rest of my life with a glass of the Pinot for lunch and a couple for dinner, watching the sun set over the Remarkables mountain range (where the skiing is great) and enjoy the timeless Central Otago region. It’s a bit of a problem enthusing about this beautiful part of New Zealand back in Britain. I was trying to describe what it was like to my friends in the pub the other day. This was because the chat was about the All Blacks. My friends don’t really do conversations about spirituality.

Rugby and sheep, yes. Nevertheless, I tried – I told them about driving the long road through the Maniototo Plain with snow-capped mountains in the distance and imagining Mordor (the land of shadow from Lord Of The Rings) beyond. I told them about the New Zealand accent, friendly and unthreatening, and the hospitality. But above all, the appeal is that this is a country which would look rather similar to home – except it’s empty. You can see why it was the perfect place to make The Lord Of The Rings films. It’s like a parallel land an enormously long way away and yet strangely familiar.
Enjoy a tipple in one of the many majestic wineries in New Zealand
The Scottish inflluenced city of Dunedin
I was excited to see just at the end of the main street a red funnelled steamer setting out over to Lake Wakatipu. It felt a bit like Ullswater, but more rugged. I found my way to Eichardt’s House Bar, just round from where the boat docks, and, sitting in front of a cheerful fire in a lovely, Art Deco slate fireplace, I decided I was never going to go to any hotel, bar or restaurant in Otago without ordering a glass of Pinot. This one was called Peregrine, and what pleasure to be able to drink quality wine by the glass.

But peregrine? Did the early settlers bring these powerful members of the falcon family here, I wondered? They brought robins and sparrows, rabbits and deer and, rather bizarrely, possums from Australia, which, like everything else, thrived. I remember the first time I came here in the mid-Sixties – I couldn’t get over the fact that the blackberries and blackbirds were double the size of back home. Leaving Queenstown, I drove east past Kawarau Bridge, where commercial bungeejumping started (£50 a go, if you like that sort of thing), through exhilarating, upland scenery, out through Cromwell, across the mighty Clutha River and on through Clyde to Alexandra. I don’t know why, but I thought Central Otago, towards the bottom of South Island, was going to be a flat, fertile plain with horizon-tohorizon vines.

A moment’s thought would have made me realise good Pinot vines need to be made to work to produce great wine.The rainfall is paltry, about 17in a year, the soil mostly alluvial silt loams which drain quickly, and irrigation is essential.
My reason for going to Otago was to sample the wines and eat some fish, for which it is roundly praised. I flew from Sydney to Queenstown, intending to give the latter a quick check-over, then drive straight to Alexandra to get into the wine. But Queenstown was fun, with nice shops and lots of cheerful hotels.
"What pleasure to be able to drink quality wine by the glass. "
It is high above sea level and it’s the most southerly wine-growing region in the world, which means long hours of sunlight in the summer, which is short and hot, while the winters are cold. In spring, there is an ever-present danger of frost, which can ruin the new season’s growth. The vineyards up the hillsides like Akarua do best because the frost tends to roll down the hill.

They have massive propellers to blow it away or, on a bad night, they’ll bring in a helicopter to do the same. In the Blues Lounge in Alexandra, I ordered a glass of Pinot Noir from the Two Paddocks winery owned by actor Sam Neill.Alexandra looks like a simple, country town and the lounge was not prepossessing. I was there on the recommendation of my host at Rocky Range Lodge, the B&B where I was staying outside town.
"Alexandra suddenly became, along with Queenstown, a place of subtle sophistication (good food does that to me)."
Take a bike ride through the vineyards
Take a trip on spectacular Lake Wakatipu
Enjoy a gondola ride in Queenstown
He told me the restaurant specialises in Cajun and Pacific Rim cooking but I was becoming worried. My menu was slotted inside an old LP cover (of Genesis’ Now We Are Three), and my place mat was a battered vinyl, Tamla Motown Chartbusters. I chose fish and chips for damage limitation (if you’re in a restaurant you don’t trust, always go for the simple stuff). But I was enjoying the music – rhythm and blues classics. The wine was full of fruit, light and not too alcoholic. Then the fish came. It was monkfish, not quite like ours, but fresh, firm and moist, with pearly flesh. There was a great salad, beautiful chips and homemade tartare sauce.

Alexandra suddenly became, along with Queenstown, a place of subtle sophistication (good food does that to me). And the B&B turned out to be a fine place, too. Upmarket and cosy, it’s classified as ‘Guest and Hosted’. This is a New Zealand way of categorising accommodation as home-like or characterful – and I ended up staying at three such places during my trip: Rocky Range, the Corstorphine House in Dunedin, and The Boutique B&B, Waikouaiti. The Corstorphine is an old mansion in a suburb of the same name, expensive but very comfortable with great views over the city. The Boutique is near Fleur’s Place (more of which later) and my choice of somewhere friendly to stay after a riotous night out – probably at Fleur’s. The main purpose of going to Dunedin was to drive down the Otago Peninsula. Dunedin is a pleasure – substantially built, it is very Scottish.

But that didn’t stop me having an excellent Japanese lunch at Minami in Stuart Street. The trip down the Otago Peninsula was like driving round Strangford Loch near Belfast, but a bit more spectacular. It’s worth going to see the albatrosses at the end, so they say, but unfortunately none were there when I was. Still, it’s a lovely, peaceful drive. The fishing shacks are picturesque and well cared for, and even the bus shelters are painted with jolly sea themes: happy fish, crabs and oysters. Fleur’s Place was saved for the end of the trip. I had been picking up snippets of information about Fleur’s for years. I heard it was right on the water in a fishing village with an unpronounceable name, Moeraki. It was a shack, which sells only what the boats bring in that day. I had heard lots about Fleur Sullivan, too.

She was about my age, a bit alternative and, like me, enjoyed the Sixties and lots of interesting things since. She had settled down and was serving up some great fish. And that’s how it turned out to be. Fleur is great to talk to, very clever and perceptive, but like all really enthusiastic people, curiously innocent. The restaurant is a bit more than a shack, but not much. It’s mostly corrugated iron, grey, with lots of styles of windows, depending on which local builder had given her a frame. Blue cod is what to go for, lightly dusted in flour and pan-fried. It’s worth the long detour – but do make sure you book in advance. Oh, and she’s got fabulous Pinots on the list, of course.

Original article published in Jul 2007. All info and prices correct at time of publication.

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