It’s no secret; round these parts my favorite time of year is autumn.
Nothing makes happier than when the leaves begin changing, the air is crispier, the fires are starting to be lit around Wanaka (you know, because for some reason that’s the best way to heat houses here), and the days shorten, heralding the coming of winter and the death of everything. But my oh my, what a beautiful death.
It reminds me of back to school time when I was a kid in Virginia, of getting new notebooks and jelly pens and all kinds of paper-y goodies. It’s a time of year that is special to me, and I love living in a part of New Zealand that gets a proper autumn, even though I had to get used to it being in April instead of October.
Last year I was lucky enough to spend a week out exploring a much more quieter, secret place on the South Island in April. Central Otago gets a lot of attention for its autumn (I was just there this week!), but Canterbury next door is also pretty special. And while I’m sure there are more than a few of you who would love to prove me wrong, but I can pretty much guarantee most of you have never heard of it. Are you ready?
The lovely, undiscovered place that is the Waipara Valley in north Canterbury. Go on, prove me wrong.
How much do I love autumn in New Zealand?
An easy 45 minutes north of Christchurch brings you to the lovely oasis that is the Waipara Valley. An area of extremes, super hot summers and little rainfall, should we even raise our eyebrows to learn that it produces kickass wine? Perhaps I am also biased because the Waipara Valley produces some of my favorite wines – Pinot Noir, Riesling and Chardonnay.
And what goes along with fine wine? Fine food you say?! Yes that would be correct! So all the hipsters rejoice, here’s a story about the coolest little wine region you’ve never heard of.
So follow along on my perfect sunny fall day digging around and getting to know this stunning corner of New Zealand a bit better. Enjoy!
Joined by the amazing local, Angela of Tongue and Groove Wines, we spent the morning with the compelling Peter of Wild Capture, who runs foraging tours on request, learning how to forage, a skill I have long been meaning to acquire, especially with the current food prices at New World in Wanaka – highway robbery!
The Waipara region actually isn’t too far from the sea, and all along the coast here you’ll find empty beaches waiting to be explored. And foraged for mollusks if you know what you’re doing. Or are with someone who knows what they are doing – high five Peter!
I don’t say this often enough, but my eyes were thoroughly opened after spending so much time learning to forage. I couldn’t believe how many amazing plants like wild asparagus and watercress, mushrooms, and even shellfish, are right on our doorstep, if only we knew how to look for them.
While living in such a wasteful world, especially regarding food, it was a very good eye opener, and it’s a skill I’ve taken back home with me to Wanaka.
Though of course being autumn meant mushroom season! My favorite! A hobbit at heart, I love all things mushroom so was so stoked to learn how to identify all the delicious Canterbury ones, even boletus and porcini.
From there we visited some local farms and I got to visit the most amazing river gorge, which shall remain nameless, mostly because I can’t remember the name. Not to mention it’s a local secret and I’ll be murdered. But I reckon if you manage to figure it out, get permission, demonstrate an adequate knowledge of fossils and get out there, you’d be fine.
Waipara is also famous for its fossils. There are a great many epic fossils to be found in the area, including the world’s oldest penguin fossil and an ancient 10km oyster bed, among many others. A rock nerd at heart, obviously I was fizzing to learn this.
You can see all sorts of amazing fossils along the gorge and go looking for them.
But then we come to pretty much my all time favorite activity – looking for truffles!
Ok, if you’re one of those humans who don’t like truffles, I don’t even know what to do with you. I am truffle obsessed, and to be perfectly frank, I didn’t really think you could go truffle hunting in New Zealand, I thought that was more of an European activity.
I was stoked to learn that wasn’t the case and you can in fact, go truffle hunting in the Waipara Valley at Limestone Hills with Gareth, and of course, Miss Rosie, the truffle machine!
On a good April day, all of the vineyards and trees around the Waipara area turn the loveliest shades of yellow and orange, transforming the countryside into a sea of gold.
There are plenty of amazing wineries to chose from in the Waipara, and being New Zealand’s fastest growing wine region, it has a lot to offer. That being said, I’m generally drawn back to Black Estate, which is one of my faves – I’ve been here more than a few times, and I never get tired of their great view, nice buzz, and kickass menu.
With the late afternoon sun on your face and a glass of Riesling in your hand and some good conversation, what more could ask for?
If you ask nicely, they might even add your own truffles to your dish!
If you’re going to visit any wineries, my favorite time of year is in autumn, especially when they are all buzzy and lively during the vintage (harvest). Even though it probably annoys them to have me there. Oh well.
It’s an all hands on deck kind of atmosphere for those few weeks in April during the harvest, and it’s great fun to be about then.
That was the first year I was able to help out with the harvest, sort of. If you can call it helping, more likely getting in the way haha!
I’ve been touring wineries ever since I first lived in La Rioja, Spain, so I’m no stranger to them, but this was the first time I got to see all the machines come alive.
It also certainly clarifies the whole harvesting process for me. From helping sort the grapes as they are brought in to precariously balancing over the fermenting process to mix them by hand – and praying I don’t fall face first in it in front of all the cute french workers, to seeing how the whole process works firsthand, I was blown away.
I don’t really know how to articulate it without sounding incredibly cheesy, but I do love being on a vineyard, it makes me really appreciate the land and feel alive at the same time. Maybe it’s just the wine speaking….
If you’re coming to New Zealand, and you find yourself in Canterbury near Christchurch, instead of taking the traditional tourist route, I highly recommend heading up to the Waipara Valley, even for a day trip.
Trust me, it’s one of those up and coming spots that’s going to be well-known real soon, but for now, it’s one of those hidden gems that makes you feel like you’re discovering a whole new secret side of the South Island.
Do you love autumn as much as me? What’s your favorite season? Have you ever learned to forage or help out at wine harvest? Share!