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Mike Yardley: Wine-country getaway to Amberley

Mike Yardley,
Publish Date
Sat, 20 Apr 2024, 10:25am
Wine Country in Waipara. Photo / Tourism New Zealand
Wine Country in Waipara. Photo / Tourism New Zealand

Mike Yardley: Wine-country getaway to Amberley

Mike Yardley,
Publish Date
Sat, 20 Apr 2024, 10:25am

The humming Hurunui township of Amberley is on a roll. 40 minutes’ drive from Christchurch, Amberley’s population has surged by over 50% in the past decade and is projected to double again in the next ten years. Straddling SH1, this embracing country town exudes a hearty welcome, with its boutique shopping offerings and a fantastic Farmers Market every Saturday morning, abuzz with producers and artisans. With a long and proud rural history, Amberley is a rich commercial cradle for the region’s growers and producers. 

Striking out north from Christchurch, the city straggle soon gives way to the farm-fringed, vine-wreathed fields and rolling hills of North Canterbury, slashed by braided rivers on their march towards to the sea, all combining to create a bucolic showreel for the road-tripper. If ever there is a place that showcases the fruits of all that toil in the fields, The Amberley Hotel embodies Hurunui’s heart and soul. It’s the consummate small-town country pub and characterful social hub, with the full complement of hospitality offerings. This art deco grand dame was given a muti-million dollar makeover during Covid. Fabulously resplendent, it now sports a smart, bright teal exterior, with mustard trim, to awaken the senses of jaded travellers.  

Photo / Mike Yardley

Step inside and you’ll be treated to a contemporary take on a classic country hotel with a soothing colour palette of homely hues, stylish furnishings and art-filled spaces that pay homage to the region’s landscapes. The expansive courtyard beer garden is headlined by magnificent retro wall mural, encapsulating a myriad of regional icons and heritage throwbacks. While feasting my eyes on that epic mural, I had a chat to the hotel’s charismatic owner, Brian Cribb, who remarked that his guiding vision for the blockbuster makeover was, “let’s come up with something that is truly local.”  

If I was an Amberley local, I would feel blessed to have such a proud, stylish beacon of hospitality on the main street. And I would be passing many a pleasing hour within its walls. It would have to be a formidable contender for Best Small-Town Pub in New Zealand, with a stirring repertoire of hospitality options, whether you’re wining, dining, shopping or staying over. The Amberley Hotel has thoughtfully mastered the mingling of contemporary comforts and enticements, with a strong serving of celebrating the sense of place and local heritage. Founded in 1876, the hostelry spent its first six decades trading as the Crown Hotel.  

It even had a livery stables for 16 horses. In the 1930’s, the current building you see today was constructed in art deco style. As a proud nod to its formative years, the “Crown” name has been injected into its respective spaces. The Crown & Shepherd Bar is an inviting space to kick-back with a cool beer and a platter, indulge in some good yarns, and enjoy some live sports action. The shepherd reference is a nod to the pre-stock trucks era, when scores of shepherds would bring their flocks down from their high country runs for the annual Amberley Ewe Fair, which was held across the road. Thirsty work!  

Courtyard Garden Bar at the Amberley Hotel. Photo / Supplied

The on-site Cork & Crown Restaurant is a culinary haven, offering a relaxed family-friendly atmosphere with booth seating and a hanging garden running the length of the room, in addition to that superb courtyard beer garden. The freshest, premium quality and local ingredients underpin the menu, whether you’re calling in for breakfast, lunch or dinner. For a banger of a breakfast, I highly recommend their Chicken Crumpets. Two crumpets are topped with crispy chicken, bacon, maple syrup and berry compote. Mmmm! For dinner, I plumped for the panfried Monkfish served with fluffy mash potatoes, creamy garlic shrimp, plus steamed broccoli and beans. It was irresistibly good and the Monkfish was melt-in-your-mouth.   

Another star feature of the hotel is the repurposed bottle store, now called Crown & Pantry. It’s absolutely like a gourmet pantry, brimming with Waipara’s finest wines, all sourced within 15 minutes of the hotel. Add to that, a cornucopia of local, fresh produce and delicacies - everything you could ever need for your next cheese and cracker night. You’ll drool over the range of locally cured meats, relishes and cheeses, alongside produce from local heroes, like Pams Jams, Mt Grey Olives, Terrace Edge Olive Oil, Aroha gin, Hurunui Omega free range eggs and The Beekeepers Honey. It’s a hyper-local celebration of artisanal verve. Whether you’re staying in-house or just passing by, Crown & Pantry maintains generous opening hours and is an essential stop.  

Boasting 11 guestrooms, make The Amberley Hotel your basecamp for Hurunui exploration. The freshly refurbished and stylish accommodation offering is headlined by extremely affordable rates, supremely comfortable bedding, 32inch TVs, free wifi, heat pumps, spacious living spaces and private ensuites. Stay two nights and get the third night free! This gloriously distinctive hotel is the polar opposite to a generic, tired old pub, proudly preserving its history but widely catering to today’s tastes and contemporary comforts, whether you’re a local or visitor. It’s a destination hotel. Step right in. https://amberleyhotel.co.nz 

Photo / Supplied

The Amberley Hotel is the ideal launchpad for leisurely forays into wine country. With several dozen wineries to explore on the Waipara Valley vineyard trail, they are principally super-boutique Ma and Pa enterprises in these parts, producing high-end, hand-crafted wines. Waipara’s signature varietal is expressive, rich Pinot Noir. Then there are its particularly pleasing Rieslings.  

Waipara has the highest summer temperatures and lowest rainfall of any New Zealand wine regions, while the sheltered, hilly valleys encourage distinctive flavours from a diverse range of wines including Syrah, Pinot Gris, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc. Derived from a prehistoric lakebed at the centre of the Waipara Valley floor, most vineyard soils are a rich blend of clay and limestone. There’s a great stretch of boutique wineries edging the South Bank of the Waipara River, strung along George’s Road. Many visitors aren’t aware of this delightful pocket of Waipara goodness, but it’s a must. (Just north of Amberley, look for the sign post on the left, just before the river bridge.)  

Photo / Tourism New Zealand

My first stop was the eye-catching winery, Terrace Edge, a family owned business under the command of Jill and Bruce Chapman.  Their tasting shed resembles a friend’s lounge whose style you envy, as you drink in the panoramic views of the Waipara Valley, all the way to the Teviotdale Hills, cushioning the valley from the easterly winds. Sample award-winning organic pinot noir, syrah and rose, enjoy home-grown olives and olive oils. A star feature is the block of “roasted slope” Syrah vines, that seemingly cling on to the precipitously steep slope of the terrace. Jill remarked that in the height of summer, these vines are frequently bathed in 40C of heat. Terrace Edge Syrah is superb.  

Another headline stop is The Bone Line estate. Each of the wines’ labels features fossils discovered in the Waipara River, dating back as far as 65 million years, creating a tangible connection with the land on which their fruit is grown. One of the wine labels is Iridium, a reference to the metallic dust that the asteroid strike unleashed around the world and is highly present in the KT boundary line’s exposed layer of sedimentary rock at Waipara Gorge. 

Iridium is a beautiful red wine, a blend of Cabernet Franc, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon. Another personal favourite is Waimanu Pinot Noir, a velvety, elegant and aromatic wine, bursting with berry and cherry flavours and an underlying smokiness. As an aside, Waimanu is the oldest known penguin, found in fossilised form in the Waipara River. As well as a tasting their divine wines, the Vineyard Walkway leads you on a 45 minute ramble through the estate, with spectacular views high up on their terraces, overlooking their wine blocks and Waipara River, helpfully adorned with information panels. Complete your South Bank exploratory with a visit to Iron Ridge Quarry Sculpture Park. Raymond Herber purchased the abandoned Amberley lime works, transforming the quarry into a wondrous sculpture park, swathed in artfully curated native gardens. 

Tootling across the river, I also called into Torlesse Wines. Under the helm of the Rayner family, the winery first started its life as a farm woolshed. In 1987 it was converted into Glenmark Wines by John McCaskey, while Torlesse Wines moved to Waipara in 1991 and they still share the production facilities. Many additions have made the winery self-sufficient in all aspects of winemaking from crushing to bottling. Their cellar door which opened in 2000 has the rustic-charm you’d expect from an old woolshed, with grapevines draped over the entrance.  

Torlesse Winery in Waipara. Photo / Supplied

Torlesse prides itself on hand-crafted 100% Estate-grown wines. They produce a vast range of wine varietals, be sure to check out their award-winning Gewurztraminer, Sauvignon Blanc and Albarino. The Portuguese varietial is a lovely medium-bodied white wine. Expect notes of lemon, lime, grapefruit, pear and even a hint of beeswax. With a bit of bottle ageing, those delicious fruity flavours develop into sweeter notes of peach, apricot and mango. From Torlesse, you can also hire one of their bikes to get around a few more Waipara wineries. 

Spanning 14km, the Waipara Valley Vineyard Trail gives riders and walkers a blissed-out way to intimately admire world-class vineyards, historic farms and the bucolic brilliance of the Waipara Valley. The trail weaves through the producing vineyards, accessing the cellar doors and cafes of wineries that look out on the expansive views, including the valley’s original cellar door, Waipara Springs, Black Estate, Sherwood, Waipara River Estate, Greystone and Muddy Water Wines. 

Waipara Valley Vineyard Trail. Photo / Visit Hurunui

Finally, as Amberley is also the gateway to the alpine thermal resort of Hanmer Springs – just over an hour away. If you’re heading to the hot pools, be sure to check out the latest aquatic rides at the complex. In addition to housing New Zealand’s biggest waterslide, Conical Thrill, Hanmer Springs Thermal Pools & Spa has recently installed two state-of-the-art hydroslides. The previous slides clocked up 25 years of service and 17 million rides! Just six months old, Violet Vortex and Waiau Winder are loaded with flashy features inside the slides, featuring LED lights, projection images and strip lighting. They’re a runaway smash-hit. 

Mike Yardley is our resident traveller on Jack Tame Saturday Mornings. 

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