Tag Archives: wine

Queenstown: Winter Festival, skiing, bungy and general indulgences

Some people thought we were mad to travel to New Zealand in June, mid-winter down under. “If I had six months off work to travel, I would stick to hot climates and beaches”, they said.

Mark and I, however, love winter – especially snow. Soon after we met, one of the first things he ever asked me was whether I ski. When I replied that I had lived and worked in the Alps for two whole ski seasons I could almost see the giant box he was ticking inside his head.

Some of our best trips and happiest memories together have been in ski resorts. We are even talking about having a winter wedding, partly because of the appeal of a honeymoon in the mountains…

So we were excited about the prospect of getting some time on the slopes in NZ, and even more so when we heard that there would be a “Winter Festival” in Queenstown at the end of June.

Unfortunately the Winter Festival was hardly the Glastonbury in the snow we had hoped for; the only evidence of any kind of festival were a few flimsy signs dotted around town. Hardly any of the standup comedy, freestyle ski and snowboard performances and general boozy partying promised on the festival’s website could be found.

Still, we were there with Anya and her friend Russ who had flown down from Auckland for a long weekend, so we were able to make our own fun.

The ski fields in NZ are all smaller than what we are used to in Europe or the States – just a handful of lifts and pistes. Luckily the conditions were great after a big dump, so plenty of snow to play in anyway.

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Gabby the campervan came into her own for skiing – it was brilliant having a massive vehicle for all of our gear, not to mention a warm, dry place to make lunch and avoid the crowded, pricey cafe on the mountain.

making lunch

making lunch

As Russ couldn’t ski, the next day was a day of indulgence at the Amisfield Winery in nearby Arrowtown. We all went for the “trust the chef” option: five courses with wine matching made for several enjoyable hours of indulgence.

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beetroot and apple soup

beetroot and apple soup

bluenose fish

bluenose fish

Unlike the time in Argentina, Mark and I managed not to fall asleep on the lawn, although it did look rather tempting.

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Instead, we sneaked into Anya & Russ’ s posh resort for some spa time and to watch the sun set.

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It’s a hard life!

Although such languid relaxation is possible, Queenstown is more about extreme adrenalin rushes. Mark had never done a skydive and I had only done one in Oxfordshire, with delightful views of the M4 and a sewage plant. So we were both keen to take the plunge (literally). Regrettably it wasn’t to be – bad weather meant our booking was cancelled four times and we left NZ without jumping out of a plane.

We consoled ourselves with visits to Queenstown’s legendary Fergburger and next door, Fergbaker for classic NZ pies. The “Ferg”empire is so famous, people we met in Peru told us we had to go!

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We also had some lovely walks around the lake.

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But all was not lost in our quest for adventure: I signed up for the 134m Nevis bungy jump, the biggest in Australasia. There were smaller ones around Queenstown but I figured if I was going to ignore every sane instinct and fling myself off a tiny ledge into stomach-churning freefall, I may as well get a superlative under my belt. “Go big or go home” as they say around here!

Even weeks later, I’m thrilled to say I did it! Definitely one of the scariest challenges of my life, although the most intense fear came in the days leading up to the jump. I tortured myself with ill advised Google searches for things like “bungy death”, “bungy accident” etc which Mark thought was hilarious (easy for him to laugh when he refused even to consider signing up).

On the day however, something took over and I became very focused. The music choices played on the way there helped. Fact: nothing makes you feel more of an invincible badass than “Eye of the Tiger”.

Before bungy

Before bungy

ready to go

ready to go

Of course, the stomach flips returned as my turn to jump got nearer. One of the Nevis team led me to the ledge. I vividly remember how hairy his forearm was, I was gripping on to it so hard.

He gently extracted himself and just as my mind began to race, he simply said, “don’t think about it, just do it, 3, 2, 1″… Magically, obediently, as if possessed I shut down my rational consciousness and leant forward, as if diving into a swimming pool.

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Rational thought returned the instant freefall began. I was so shocked I had jumped I didn’t even scream, but just took it all in, wide eyed and gasping at the ground accelerating towards me. Somehow I remembered that I was meant to pull a cord to release my feet on the second bounce – as soon I was the right way up I began giggling uncontrollably with pure joy and relief.

After I was pulled up to the solid floor of the cable car, the feeling of euphoria was unmatched.

After bungy - manic grin and teary eyes

After bungy – manic grin and teary eyes

For the video, click here.

Although the bungy wasn’t for him and his pesky fear of heights, Mark also experienced a similar moment of insanity and glory on the Nevis swing, the world’s biggest swing.

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We did this in tandem which was great fun. I thought it would be a cinch after the bungy but it was a pretty terrifying drop – what made it easier was the fact that someone else pushed the release button rather than the crucial moment being all down to you.

In any case, the wise words of the steady, calm Nevis worker have now become a life mantra for me: “don’t think about it, just do it”. That goes for anyone considering longterm travel too!

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Napier and Hawke’s Bay, NZ – a food and wine mecca

Hawke’s Bay is so saturated with fine wineries, restaurants and natural produce that we barely registered that Napier, its main town, also lays claim to being the art deco capital of the world.

After devastating earthquake damage in the 1930s, the town was completely rebuilt according to the architecture & design fashion of the period. Today the distinctive graphic shapes and pastel colours of the Art Deco style can be seen all over.

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We allowed one morning for a stroll around town for a dutiful dose of culture before we got stuck in to what we had really come for: food and wine. I may not know much about art, but I know what I like…

Mini Yorkshire puddings, bone marrow & horseradish and sardines on toast (love the presentation of a sardine tin for lemon wedges) at hip Napier restaurant Mister D.

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Hawke’s Bay is New Zealand’s longest established wine growing area. In the 1850s missionaries planted the first vines to make sacramental wine and would sell off the excess. Before long the commercial side of winemaking was thriving and dozens of vineyards and wineries popped up. Today you can tour between them, tasting as you go.

A classic NZ sight – where else in the world would you find the grass between the vines tended by sheep?

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The organised tours which drive you around are quite expensive and often follow a well trodden route so I offered to be the designated driver, much to Mark’s delight. It was quite fun steering Gabby the campervan around the picturesque winding roads while Mark got increasingly sozzled.

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We pootled around wineries including Te Mata, CJ Pask and Craggy Range – many of the Pinot Noirs (the specialty of this region) were first rate and some of the Chardonnays were just as good. Te Mata was a real standout and we invested in a bottle or two.

The view from the top of the “craggy” bit of Craggy Range (Gabby did well to get up here)…

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We couldn’t resist a couple of frivolous purchases from the quirky Crab Farm winery: a map of Hawke’s Bay styled to look like a London Underground map and a bottle of spicy, sweet and interesting port, named “Starboard” (geddit).

We rounded off a fine day with dinner at Mission Estate, the area’s oldest winery whose name honours its ecclesiastical history. We kept hearing it was one of the best restaurants in town and were suitably impressed by the lush grounds and fancy building (it’s also a popular venue for weddings and high profile concerts).

So I was a little embarrassed when Mark asked the manager if he would mind terribly if we could park our big ugly campervan on the grounds and sleep there overnight like a couple of bums. To his credit, the cheeky request was received with true Kiwi laidback charm and hospitality. The fact that this arrangement meant we were likely to order more booze with our bed stumbling distance away may have helped…

The food was indeed lovely. Mission is known for its confit duck and mandarin macaroon starter, which reminded me of the signature dish at London’s Duck & Waffle: the same sweet & savoury, meaty contrasts were going on.

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The other blobs were mandarin jelly, braised red cabbage and duck liver praline.

Wild venison, hazelnut dumplings and feijoa chutney for main course.

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The morning after we cured our hangovers with a trip to Napier’s farmers market. Nothing like a freshly squeezed juice and bacon sandwich to aid recovery…

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This part of the world is known as the fruit bowl of New Zealand; if you’ve ever bought a Braeburn apple in the UK, it may well have been grown here.

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With produce like this, you can see why Kiwis call their land “God’s own country”.

North West Argentina: Salta, Cafayate, Cachi

Our last stop-off in Argentina was the charming city of Salta in the North West, which gave us a great base to explore the picturesque towns nearby, Cafayate and Cachi.

Some of the best sights were actually on the way, along the National Route 68 road which cut through the stunning landscapes of Quebrada de Cafayate.

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We saw spectacular and awesome rock formations such as the Garganta del Diablo (Devil´s Throat):

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El Anfiteatro (The Amphitheatre), where some musicians had squeezed through the narrow entrance to demonstrate the excellent acoustics of the circular space:

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Holes in the rocks looked like giant windows:

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Less awesome, more amusing was El Sapo (The Toad):

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Thousands of tall, broad cacti with seriously sharp needles:

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There were also plenty of cute llamas and alpacas along the way – this first picture amuses me as it looks like Mark is trying to push the animal over. Llama-tipping, anyone?

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The Cafayate region is known for wine made from the Torrontés grape, an up-and-coming Argentinean variety which is tipped to become the white counterpart to the famous red Malbec.

Torrontés is also known as “mentirosa” or “the liar”. This is because the aroma is ripe with tropical, fruit and floral notes, indicating that the taste will be sweet but actually it is as dry as a bone.

The altitude of the Cafayate region is a perfect home for Torrontés, because the cooler nights encourages the grapes to keep their acidity while developing subtle flavour.

Torrontés is grown almost exclusively in Argentina so of course we took the opportunity to taste a glass or to while we were there! We also found an ice cream shop which made Torrontés sorbet – Mark was in heaven.

We had heard Cachi was the most beautiful out of the whole Valles Calchaquíes and sure enough, we were instantly charmed by its picturesque serenity.

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The fields around the little town grow spicy red peppers. We could see farmers spreading them out evenly to dry in the sun.

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Salta itself was a fun place to spend a couple of days. After we dutifully checked out the landmarks such as the Cerro San Bernado hill, which we climbed to get this view…

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… and the ornate Iglesia San Francisco…

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…we gleefully arrived at the Patio de la Empanada to try what are reportedly the best empanadas in the whole of Argentina.

There is a fiercely judged empanada making competition each year, in which winning a prize is a proud accolade. The rest of the time, these empanadistas serve their wares alongside each other from tiny stalls which overlook a shared patio in the centre with plastic tables and chairs.

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As well as empanadas, humitas (mashed corn, seasoned and made into a dough and steamed, often with cheese) and tamales (mashed corn dough stuffed with meat, vegetables and other fillings) are available.

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Hands down, the best street food we ate in Argentina and a great way to celebrate this fantastic country before we crossed the border over to Bolivia.

Mendoza, Argentina: a Mecca for Malbec

With world class wine, good food, beautiful scenery and a huge choice of outdoor activities, Mendoza was always a must-visit destination when we were planning our travels.

The region is responsible for 70% of Argentina’s wine, which is increasingly becoming internationally renowned. Many wineries are working hard to refine their processes to produce the best possible quality. Classic Argentinean Malbec is the most famous, but vineyards also grow Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Carmeniere and other varieties. 

Mendoza was definitely a highlight of our travels so far and our visit to Bodega Ruca Malén for their lunchtime tasting menu with wine pairing was a highlight of our time in Mendoza.

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The beautiful setting could not have made a better first impression. Hundreds of rows of lush, verdant vines stretched into the distance against a backdrop of the snow capped Andes mountains.

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We were invited to take a tour of the  vineyard and winery. We learnt how the 1000m altitude and climactic conditions of the region are ideal for producing small berries with a thick skin, necessary to make the best wine. It is important to make the grapes suffer by not watering them as much as they would like, so the size of the fruit remains small and packs more flavour. (I thought this was a lovely metaphor; having an easy life is conducive to blandness but a bit of a struggle can lead to interesting complexity and better taste. I will think of Malbec grapes next time things don’t go my way!)

It was towards the end of the harvest period, so we could spot bunches of taut, juicy grapes on the vines, ready to be plucked by workers moving quickly up and down the rows.

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These grapes are very different from eating varieties; although they have plenty of delicious flavour, the thick skins are difficult to digest. We were warned to eat no more than a handful to avoid a stomach ache (with difficulty, we complied – it helped knowing we had a multi course feast soon to come!)

Bodega Ruca Malén is a relatively small winery, producing 700,000 bottles a year, of which 60% is exported. The winery uses many efficient processes, such as using rejected stems and plant matter as fertiliser. They also sell their byproducts on to companies which use them for making pigments and cosmetics (the antioxidants found in the grapes are valuable to this industry).

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Our guide also explained how wine is clarified using egg whites, very similar to the classic French technique of clarifying consommé. Apparently the staff spend hours cracking and separating eggs, and are allowed to take the yolks home, where I imagine they make buckets of mayonnaise!

After clarification comes aging. Barrels are very expensive and French oak is the best (bien sur!). One barrel can cost over £1000 but can only be used for 3-4 years, after which it is sold for just 250 pesos (£35) to be made into furniture or parquet floors.

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One day, my dream house will have reddish-purple Malbec stained French oak floors…

With the tour wrapped up, we were ready to taste the wine we had learned so much about. We made our way to our table and eagerly awaited the five course lunch, each matched to a different Bodega Ruca Malén wine.

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The starter was humita (creamed corn), local Granny Smith apples, creamed toast, lemon cream, crisp caramelised onion slices, roasted almonds and fresh herbs. This was paired with Ruca Malén Chardonnay 2011.

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The citric aromas and acidity of the Chardonnay were brought out by the thin slices of fresh apple, while the oily notes of the creams and onions provided contrast. Everything was balanced by the nutty flavours of toast and almonds. I really liked the presentation: a fun, quirky “paint by numbers” style that helped you identify what the various blobs on the plate were. 

Next was caramelised beetroot, glazed carrots, local olive oil and fresh ricotta cheese, paired with Yauquén Malbec 2012.

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Not the most photogenic plate, but a lovely combination of flavours. The sweetness of the root vegetables complemented the light soft tannins of the Malbec. The ricotta cleansed the palate, encouraging you to continue eating and drinking!

After that we were served seasonal mushroom risotto croquette, pumpkin cream, red chilli pepper jam and herbed oil, alongside Ruca Malén Petit Verdot 2011.

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The earthy mushrooms and spicy chilli jam matched perfectly with the wine’s deep mineral, spice and balsamic aromas. The acidity of the wine balanced the creamy pumpkin.

The main had to be steak, of course: lomo (fillet) grilled a punto with pumpkin millefeuille, creamed potatoes, smoked aubergine, grapes and fresh rosemary.

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For this course, we were offered two pairings which complemented different elements of the dish. Ruca Malén Reserva de Bodega 2010 had a complex character and spicy notes which were perfect against the sweet grapes, pumpkin and tender flesh of the dish. The bold, mature Kinién Cabernet Sauvignon 2008 highlighted the flavours of herbaceous rosemary, the earthy, smoky aubergine and the steak’s charred crust.

We managed to find room for the final course of raspberry ice cream, quince scented with mint, candied orange and caramel cream.

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This was matched with Ruca Malén Brut – unusual to pair the pudding course with a sparkling wine rather than a sweet dessert wine, but in this case the freshness, acidity and delicacy of the sparkling wine worked well with the dish’s sweet yet sharp fruit flavours.

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After all that, a sunny spot on the lawn became an  irresistible spot to lie down for a few minutes to aid digestion. We woke up a couple of hours later, still a bit woozy but utterly happy and relaxed. The staff at the Bodega just let us be – they must see plenty of food/wine comas!

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The next day we travelled to Maipú, a rural wine making area about 45 minutes outside of Mendoza city. We hired bikes and had a lovely day cycling the 40km flat routes between the various vineyards and wineries, stopping for tours and tastings along the way. 

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At one point we were alarmed to see a police car crawling behind us. Mark begged me to try to minimise my drunken wobbles but we weren’t in trouble – the local police have very little crime to work on so spend their days escorting wine tourists!

After a while the tours became a bit samey, especially with distractions like sunbathing and cute puppies.

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Mendoza is also traditional gaucho land and we were keen to take in the scenery on horseback. We signed up for a ride, led by a real life gaucho, who serenaded the group with traditional guitar songs by a crackling fire after dark.

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The next day we found the local bus for the thermal hot springs for some much-needed downtime. 

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Before we left Mendoza, we squeezed in a final wine experience, having both vertical and horizontal wine flights at a fantastic wine bar and shop in town called Vines of Mendoza.

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We learned that a vertical flight is a tasting of several wines of the same grape (in our case, Malbec) but of different vintages. A horizontal flight is a tasting of several grapes from the region, but of similar vintages.

We waved goodbye to Mendoza and hopped on a 20 hour overnight bus (long enough to give our livers a bit of a break) to Salta, another hub of Argentina’s wine industry, famous for the up and coming Torrontés grape.