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There’s no denying it - despite the nation’s relative youth, New Zealand has carved a name for itself among the great winemaking nations of the world. While this reputation rests largely on the shoulders of the Sauvignon Blanc vintages that come out of the Marlborough wine region, this is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to NZ wine.
In a country that boasts such an excellent and wide-ranging array of wines, it would be a great shame not to sample a generous selection of them at least. And what better what to see the best of New Zealand while stopping by beautiful vineyards than embracing the freedom of campervan travel? With that in mind, we’ve crafted an oenophile’s dream road trip - the ultimate Kiwi wine tour that spans the country, hopping from one amazing wine region to another.
So what are you waiting for? Book your motorhome hire, buckle up, rope in a sober driver and get ready for the road trip of a lifetime.
Campervan hire in NZ is a time-honoured way of exploring this country which brims with hidden gems - without the need to stick to a rigid schedule, you’ll be able to travel at your own pace and take the time to really immerse yourself in the charms of New Zealand’s wine regions. Many people start their Kiwi travels in the city of Auckland, and although campervan rentals are available in a number of North Island cities (including Hamilton, Tauranga, Wellington and even Whitianga) most people will end up picking theirs up from the City of Sails. From the coastal metropolis of Auckland, dubbed the City of Sails for the many yachts that cruise its harbour, it’s a one day trip down to Hawkes Bay and the city of Napier, your first stop on this epic wine tour.
If you can, try to time your trip for February or March - this is the tail end of summer in New Zealand, which means that the days are still long and warm but the midday heat is far less likely to be overwhelming than in January. At this time of year, Hawke's Bay is absolutely gorgeous. The region is well known for its clement weather and dry, hot summers which not only contributes to the success of the region’s vineyards but also creates the perfect conditions for spending lazy afternoons outdoors sipping wine and indulging in cheese platters.
A few Hawke's Bay wineries that you shouldn’t miss:
- Mission Estate Winery is New Zealand’s oldest winery and it’s worth a visit for the history alone. Founded by the French Marist religious order in 1851, the Mission cellar door has withstood fire, earthquakes and relocation and today offers tastings of award-winning wines to visitors from all over the world.
- Clearview Estate Winery is well known for both its full-bodied reds and chardonnays, but what makes Clearview absolutely unforgettable is its Red Shed restaurant. Making good use of seasonal local ingredients, the chefs concoct mouthwatering meals that are fresh, flavoursome and innovative. Come for the wine, stay for dinner.
- Just driving up the hill to the Esk Valley Estate is a scenic treat all of its own. Located at the top of a beautiful terraced rise, the Esk Valley cellar door will introduce you to red wines that have been traditionally hand plunged, producing a softly elegant style that is rarely found these days.
From Napier it’s less than three and a half hours down to the town of Martinborough in the Wairarapa region. Wairarapa is a sparsely populated area with two major industries: agriculture and wine. You’ll find vineyards scattered throughout the region, but it’s Martinborough that has the lion’s share of Wairarapa’s wineries. The town also plays host to one of the nation’s most popular wine and food festivals - Toast Martinborough. Traditionally held in November, this massive event temporarily boosts the population of Martinborough by around 10,000 - people come from all over the country to sample the region’s famed vintages. Even if you’re not planning to visit this part of New Zealand in November, you certainly won’t find yourself short of opportunities to sample Martinborough’s best wines.
Some Martinborough winery highlights:
- It may not have the most imaginative name possible, but the folk at Martinborough Vineyard certainly put a lot of thought into their winemaking. Their ‘98 pinot noir is considered one of the best in the world, and their chardonnay isn’t too shabby either. From handpicking the grapes to ensuring that environmental impact is kept to a minimum, Martinborough Vineyard goes the extra mile to produce great wine.
- Margrain Vineyard is not only known for its fine vintages but also its first-rate hospitality. Graham and Daryl Margrain always have a big welcome in store for those coming to taste Margrain’s offerings, and there’s even accommodation on site for those who decided that they really must stay in Martinborough a bit longer. Make sure you try their earthy and rich Home Block Pinot Noir.
- Kai Schubert and Marion Diemling, founders and owns of Schubert Wines, searched all over the world for the ideal spot for their vineyard before settling on Martinborough. Their red and white cellar door venue is disarmingly European and the award winning wines on offer are top notch. Many internationally acclaimed restaurants are proud to include Schubert Wines on their wine list.
It is possible to get from Martinborough to Marlborough in less than 5 and a half hours if you time your ferry crossing impeccably, but why rush through such verdantly gorgeous country? It would be much better to savour your remaining time in Wairarapa and dedicate at least a day or two to exploring New Zealand’s culturally rich capital, Wellington. From Wellington it’s a 3 and a half to 4 hour ferry trip from North to South Island, where you’ll arrive in Picton. You’re now technically in Marlborough, but to get into the heart of Marlborough wine country you’ll need to travel another 30 minutes south to Blenheim. Congratulations, you have now arrived in one of the most highly praised wine regions on Earth. Blenheim is the perfect launching point for your Marlborough wine adventures, so get ready to enjoy some of the best wine the world has to offer.
A handful of must-visit Marlborough wineries:
- Cloudy Bay was among the first wineries to establish themselves in the Marlborough region, and over the years they’ve built up a stellar reputation, especially in regard to their sauvignon blanc, widely considered a benchmark example of the kind of vintages Marlborough can produce. Sip a sav in their expansive courtyard in summer, or sit by a roaring fire with a silky pinot noir in winter - no matter what the season, this is a great place to be.
- For an experience that’s well out of the ordinary, pay a visit to Johanneshof Cellars. This is a small-scale boutique winery with a philosophy that great wine comes from great effort. In line with this thinking, they’ve tunneled out a 50 metre long underground cellar from solid sandstone. If you try just one of their wines it has to be the Gewürztraminer - though stopping at just one tasting here is practically criminal.
- Rounding off the Marlborough highlights is Saint Clair Family Estate. They are a relative newcomer on the scene (their first wines were produced in 1994) but already they’ve become one of the most awarded wineries in New Zealand. The Saint Clair Wairau Reserve Sauvignon Blanc has acquired a staggering collection of accolades and should certainly be your first tasting of many.
It’s almost 10 hours down the east coast and then inland to get to your next destination, so don’t try it in one trip unless you absolutely have to. There’s certainly plenty to see and do along the way: whale watching in Kaikoura, the quirky pop-up cafe culture and tranquil Avon River in Christchurch, stargazing in Tekapo… this stunning scenic route will eventually bring you to Queenstown, one of New Zealand’s most picturesque locations and the ideal base for your Otago winery explorations. Choosing Otago as the starting point for a motorhome roadtrip is also a great option with rental options available from Queenstown and Dunedin.
Unlike Marlborough, which sprang up as a wine-producing region in the 80’s, Otago has a long history of fostering excellent vintages, having been praised for its winemaking suitability as early as 1895. Also unlike Marlborough, Otago specialises in pinot noirs and aromatics, leaving the lion’s share of the sauvignon blanc production to warmer climes.
Several Otago wineries you really shouldn’t miss:
- Rippon Vineyard, just outside of Wanaka, boasts some of the greatest views of any vineyard in the world, but it’s not just the scenery that will blow your mind. Their pinot noirs are superb, best enjoyed with a cheese platter while sitting outdoors, basking in the glorious surroundings.
- A little less than an hour to the east of Queenstown is Mt Difficulty, located in the small town of Bannockburn. Their wines are certainly remarkable but even more impressive is the Winery Restaurant at Mt Difficulty which serves delicacies such as duck slow-cooked in pinot noir and West Coast whitebait frittata with manuka smoked butter. Each dish comes with its own wine pairing recommendation, but you’re certainly free to be creative and pair however you please.
- The road to Chard Farm Winery is almost worth the visit alone. Chard Road wends its way alongside the beautiful Kawarau River before arriving at the rustic cellar door - you might almost forget that you’re in Otago and think yourself transported to Tuscany. Naturally the pinot noir is worth a taste, but you shouldn’t pass up their riesling either - this is a true sweet treat.
While picking up a campervan rental in New Zealand is an ideal way to see the countryside (and ties in nicely with the laid back style of a national wine tour), motorhoming won’t be the perfect choice for everyone. If you’re just after a car to get you from place to place, you may want to consider a booking a car rental in Christchurch with AirportRentals.com - either way, the many flavours of New Zealand’s wine regions will be there, waiting for you to discover them.