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Cycling and Learning about Wines in New Zealand

Glass of New Zealand wine.

New Zealand offers several opportunities to cyclists and wine aficionados. First, its summer months—December, January, and February—correspond to the winter months in the northern hemisphere. Second, at least two places—Central Otago and Waiheke Island—promote bicycle tourism, and third, both of these areas are known for red wines and spectacular scenery. Cycling in Central Otago and on Waiheke Island is not for everyone, however; the rides are challenging, and cyclists must be well prepared.

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Central Otago

Central Otago is rocky, wild, and desolate. Landlocked within the southern one-third of New Zealand’s South Island, the region covers 10,000 square kilometers and has fewer than 16,000 residents. Mountains rise to 6,500 feet, and the Clutha, Manuherika, and Taieri Rivers form gorges and valleys. Semi-arid, the region annually records New Zealand’s coldest and hottest temperatures. Many of the miners who came there in the 1860s to seek their fortunes in the goldfields were unprepared for the winter and froze to death. Until the first section of the Otago Central Railway was built in 1891, the area was relatively inaccessible; the line was completed in 1921. The Lord of the Rings introduced many Americans to the area. Known as Middle Earth in the film, much of The Two Towers was shot there.

The Central Otago Rail Trail, opened in 2000, follows the route of the old Otago Central Railway Line from Middlemarch to Clyde, a distance of 150 kilometers. The gravel track is restricted to walkers, cyclists, and horse riders. Cycle Surgery, with shops at both ends of the trail, rents 21-speed, pannier-equipped, mountain bikes and ships luggage from one shop to another. It is perfect for the cycling oenophile. The traveler must be warned, however, that accommodations are few and far apart. Booking ahead is wise. Central Otago Tourism, www.otago.co.nz is a useful resource.

From Middlemarch to Alexandra, I cycled through valleys between tall mountain ridges, traversed three tunnels, and crossed 19 bridges and viaducts, one of which was among the tallest in New Zealand. Sheep were often pastured on both sides of the trail, and snow-capped mountain peaks were always in view. The land was steep, rocky, and covered with wild thyme. Had I not seen the vines, I would not imagine that grapes could be grown there.

A winemaker I met at a motel bar in Alexandra told me to visit Black Ridge, which exemplified those I visited in Central Otago. Verdun Burgess, one of the owners and a pioneer in Central Otago winemaking, told me that he had used gelignite to blast holes for his vine posts, but that wasn’t his only problem.  His vineyard had been overrun by thousands of rabbits, and they had killed the vines by eating the leaves of new plants or ring-barking established plants. Burgess’s eventual solution was to employ Burmese cats, which would dispatch as many as 300 rabbits each year. His Pinot Noir, like the best from the region, encapsulated big fruit flavors and amalgamated them with subtle hints of thyme. It was perfect with charcuterie and cheese.

Although I cycled from Alexandra to Cromwell and visited several vineyards in that area before returning my bike, collecting my luggage, and boarding a bus to Queenstown, I wouldn’t recommend that route to everyone. State Highway 8 traverses the barren and windswept Cromwell Gorge, and cycling can be difficult. Fortunately, I enjoyed a tailwind, but when I arrived in Cromwell and turned into the wind, it stopped me in my tracks!

November, December, March, and April are the best times to cycle in Central Otago because strong north winds are less likely to occur, and rain is not as prevalent. The Taieri Gorge Railway provides train service from Dunedin to Middlemarch.

Waiheke Island

Waiheke Island, located about 1000 kilometers closer to the equator than Central Otago, is the largest of 40 or so islands in the Haurake Gulf, east of Auckland. Formed by volcanic eruptions that occurred 14 million years ago, the northern coasts contain rocky headlands while the southern coasts have mudflats, shellbanks, and mangroves. Most of Waiheke’s 13,000 inhabitants live in villages on the island’s western end; the eastern half is remote and pastoral, resembling the Scottish highlands.

Waiheke Island is also known for its cabernet sauvignon. At least 26 vineyards had been established on the island, containing around 300,000 vines. An island map, available at www.tourismwaiheke.co.nz, outlines three bicycle loops, each passing different vineyards. Bike Hire, a short walk from the wharf, rents mountain bikes. It is another match for the cycling oenophile.

I cycled on there for three days and sampled wine at four vineyards. My favorites were Passage Rock and Te Whau. Both provided scenic vistas of the Haurake Gulf. On the Waiheke Island map, Passage Rock was located on the Bottom End Loop. The map, however, did not indicate the island’s topography. Before I reached Passage Rock, I ascended at least four major hills. Even though I arrived at the vineyard’s restaurant an hour before it opened, I stayed there. My legs needed the rest, and I doubted that my body could take on another hill without being refueled. When it did open, I sampled five wines; the 2005 Syrah was the star. It was deep purple and tasted of blackberries. Following the tasting, I devoured a smoked meat pizza that was baked in a wood-fired oven. At Te Whau, I drank a blend of merlot and cabernet grapes that had been grown on the point of land where the vineyard was located, and it was luscious.

I concluded my cycling and wine sampling trip to New Zealand with a celebratory meal at the Palm Beach Clubhouse, a popular spot for local winemakers, located near Little Palm Beach, the most famous nude bathing beach in the Auckland area. My dinner began with Lindauer Special Reserve Champagne and Te Matuku oysters and continued with lamb rump, which came with deep-fried Komaru strips and carmelized onions. I drank Passage Rock Sisters, a red blend, with the main course and sat at the bar because a group of wine producers had booked all of the restaurant’s tables. When one of them came up to the bar and saw what I was eating and drinking, he gave me the thumbs up sign. I felt as if I had passed a test on selecting New Zealand wines and pairing them with food.

Because Waiheke Island is a popular weekend and vacation destination for Aucklanders, booking accommodations ahead is essential. Shuttles take travelers from the Auckland airport to the ferry terminal, and ferries make frequent trips between Auckland and Waiheke Island.

A vinyard in New Zealand

The Wines

Central Otago and Waiheke Island provide contrasting experiences for the cycling oenophile and bring into focus the affect of terroir, the French term meaning total elements of the vineyard, on a wine’s color, aroma, and taste. Central Otago’s Pinot Noirs are as dramatic as its landscape: blackish garnet in color with whiffs of licorice and raspberry and flavors of black cherry with herbal undertones. Waiheke’s Island’s red wines are more Mediterranean: ruby and deep purple in color with aromas and flavors of black fruits. After cycling through the two landscapes, the traveler remembers the wines.