A self-serve wine-tasting bar? It’s certainly an interesting concept, and when Becks and I happened to walk past The Winery in Queenstown over Easter I knew I had to check it out… just as soon as Lent was over.
So on Easter Monday, the last day of our holiday, I wandered back and spent a pleasant hour trying it out.
According to the lady behind the counter, The Winery was inspired by a similar establishment that the owner, originally from Dunedin, saw in Tuscany while on his overseas experience (as a side note, ‘The Big O.E.’ is a hallowed Kiwi concept which every year sees hundreds, if not thousands, of young New Zealanders set out to spend a couple of years exploring as much of the world as time, money, and personal inclination permit. More than a holiday, it’s not unusual for Kiwis in their early 20s to spend several years working and travelling abroad).
The concept is brilliant in its simplicity. In The Winery stand banks of automatic wine dispensers, like those pictured, organised by varietal. You collect an account card and a glass from the counter, surrendering a credit card or driver’s licence as security, insert the card into the slot at the top of the dispenser, place your glass beneath the nozzle of the wine you want to try, and push the button for a taste, half-glass or full glass. The price is clearly displayed on the dispenser and is automatically added to the tab recorded on the account card. You then remove the card, taste the wine, and repeat the process as many times as you desire. Each time you insert the card the current amount owing will be displayed, and once finished you simply take the card and your empty glass back to the counter, pay, and collect your security.
It may sound like the MacDonald’s of wine tasting, but with an abundance of chairs, tables and oh-so-inviting armchairs, the end result is anything but. Instead, the atmosphere screams (or rather, whispers invitingly) ‘come in, relax, take your time. There’s no rush, no pressure, and no need to pretend you know more than you do. Drink as much or as little as you like. Spend as much, or as little, as you’re comfortable with. We’re here to make it fun and easy.’ Or maybe that was just me. Anyway…
The Winery boasts a range of 80 wines available for tasting, all of which can be purchased in the shop, as well as many other wines available for sale but not currently up for tasting. There’s a particular focus on Otago regional wines, especially Pinot Noir (there are roughly three times as many Pinot Noir dispensers as there are for any other single varietal), but they also feature wines from across New Zealand and around the world. Not only that, but they ship wines internationally to over 30 countries. This is a local business with a global vision.
So, what did I try, and what did I think?
Well, after six weeks of near-total abstention, and knowing that I had a plane to catch (and that I need to take travel sickness meds before I fly, and those things do not combine brilliantly with alcohol, unless by ‘brilliantly’ you mean ‘you turn into a sedated, semi-conscious zombie who must still somehow navigate three airports and two connecting flights’), I restricted myself to just five tasters, focussing on wines from the Otago region:
Misha’s ‘The Starlet’ 2013 Sauvignon Blanc (Otago): Sauvignon Blanc is an unusual varietal for Otago, although grown in other parts of the country it’s arguably the mainstay of New Zealand’s wine-growing reputation. This one was surprisingly creamy, a possible result of being part barrel-aged (what is it with Otago and barrel-aging white wines?), with notes of gooseberry and pear.
Prophet’s Rock 2014 Pinot Gris (Bendigo, Otago): having felt subtly let down by Gibbston Valley’s Pinot Gris I was ready for something along the more conventionally sweet lines, and Prophet’s Rock didn’t disappoint. This ‘lovely, smooth’ (my notes) Pinot Gris had notes of blossom, apricot and honey, as well as undertones of minerals and smoke, and made me wish Becks had joined me so that I could say “here, try this! This is what I was hoping for at Gibbston.”
Folding Hills 2012 Pinot Noir (Bendigo, Otago): this had an oddly medicinal taste (liquorice? Sarsaparilla?) which I found oddly appealing-yet-not, with notes of wood, earth, and roses alongside raspberry and strawberry. It was something a little different, and the overall effect was pleasing, if a little odd.
Hawkshead 2013 Pinot Noir (Central Otago): with so many samples of Pinot Noir on offer I could hardly stop at one. The Hawkshead was along more conventional Pinot Noir lines, with flavours of blackberry, cherry, raspberry and sweet spices, and a chocolately finish. Of the five wines I tried, all of which I liked, the Hawkshead and the Pinot Gris would have been a close tie for favourite.
Villa Maria 2013 Noble Riesling (Marlborough): I ventured a little further north, to the top of the South Island, with my final wine. I’d read about the effect Botrytis cinerea (noble rot) has on grapes, but had never tried a wine produced from affected grapes. The Noble Riesling had a viscous texture and an overwhelming sweetness and aroma – honey, apricot, pears and blossom – and yet, beneath it, there was the unmistakeable sickly-sweetness of rot. Much like the Folding Hills Pinot Noir I personally found the overall effect to be somehow both appealing and unappealing at the same time. I’m glad I tried it, but I think in the future if I’m looking for a sweet wine I’ll stick to port.
Have you come across anywhere like The Winery before? If so, what did you think of it?