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The highs & lows of salad greens

At Chard Farm, it's all downhill

by Thor Iverson

The Farm on the hill

It’s not often one has to teeter on the edge of a disintegrating cliff just to taste a few mediocre wines. But that’s the inevitable amuse bouche at Chard Farm, and while the entrance is heart-stopping in its precariousness (and, it is to be admitted, beauty), the driveway and its vistas are by far the best thing about a visit.

The Kawarau River, in its gorge far below, fairly glows in opaque yet brilliant turquoise. And from the steep slopes of the vineyards surrounding the winery, it is indeed a beautiful sight. It’s not so beautiful, however, on the twisty little goat path protected from the cliff above by…well, nothing…and the river below by a precarious few inches of dirt. Beyond all reason, this was – at one thankfully long-passed time – the major eastern road to Queenstown. Somehow, I don’t think it would be quite the tourist center it is were that still the case. Either that, or a shocking number of visitors would fail to arrive.

[vines at Chard Farm]

Hey, this isn’t Swiss chard after all!
[bridges from Chard Farm]

On the Chard Farm road
[bridges from Chard Farm]

Still on the Chard Farm road
[under the Kawarau River Bridge]

“Sometimes I feel like I don’t have a partner”

The winery’s tasting room is, as last time, dark and a little gloomy, and not quite set up to handle more than four visitors at a time without elbow-bumping chaos…though it fairly steadily hosts more than that during our visit. Still, it’s got undeniable character, and the behind-the-counter staff knows their stuff. Too bad there’s not that much to say. Chard Farm produces a decent range of wines centered around a mix of site-specific and blended pinots, though the full range of the latter are never on general offer, and while the results are interesting from the perspective of terroir, as wines they’re just not that exciting.

Chard Farm 2002 Gewurztraminer (Central Otago) – Lychee and peach with stony pear and some varietally-typical bitterness, but lacking much of anything on the midpalate and beyond. Quite dry, but quite disappointing.

Chard Farm 2003 Riesling (Central Otago) – Lightly sweet and insubstantial, with lemon, green apple and lime. No minerality and little useful structure. Dullsville.

Chard Farm 2003 Chardonnay “Closeburn” (Central Otago) – There’s apparently some Nelson fruit in this wine, which shows light peach, tangerine and orange with good acidity but a disappointingly short finish.

Chard Farm 2003 Pinot Noir “River Run” (Central Otago) – Balanced, with strawberry, plum, citrus, and chewy nut aromas. Ripe and nice, and it might be a touch better in a year or two; don’t hold it any longer than that, however.

Chard Farm 2002 Pinot Noir “Finla Mor” (Central Otago) – Darker-fruited than the previous wine, though still with a little brightening red cherry, and a lot more earth. Unfortunately, the tannin is slightly underripe, giving this a green tinge that only worsens on the longish finish. There’s potential here, but it’s unrealized.

Chard Farm 2003 Pinot Noir Sugarloaf (Central Otago) – A site-specific pinot from just north of Cromwell (though not from a single vineyard, as such), with strawberry, raspberry and cranberry forming a fairly tart core around which is sprinkled with a disconcerting sift of powdered sugar. Sharp and attenuated.

I’m not quite sure what the problem is here. Haphazard vineyard management? Inconsistent fruit sources (based on the wines available at our last visit vs. this one, that may indeed be a factor)? Indifferent winemaking? Whatever the cause, I’m not sure this winery is trying as hard as it should. The much-talked about entrance and majestic site no doubt keeps the tourist trade flowing, and like Gibbston Valley it will require an extra effort to maintain and improve quality in the face of that trade.

Where the rubber meets the river

Among the many sights visible from Chard Farms’ highly-situated vineyards is the gorgeous, sub-arched span of the Kawarau River Bridge, its double earth tones a perfect complement to the surrounding rocks and cliffs. And, just behind it, an insouciantly horizontal span of cobbled-together wood that might otherwise escape notice…except that it is the number one tourist destination in this entire area. Why?

Giant rubber bands.

Despite a carefully-cultivated (and well-deserved) reputation as the “adventure center” of the world, neither the people of Queenstown nor the estimable…if slightly mad...AJ Hackett invented bungy jumping. That credit goes to the Vanuatu tribe, and the notion of doing so on a recreational basis goes to the similarly mad students at Oxford. But it is unquestionably Hackett and his early companions who popularized and perfected the activity, and it is here in Queenstown that the possible permutations of dangling from a flexible cord reach their inestimably silly zenith.

[inside AJ Hackett Bungy]

“Spanning the globe, to bring you
the constant variety of sports”
[bungy jumper]

So would this be “the thrill of victory”
or “the agony of defeat”?

On the edge of the raging Kawarau, a freakishly modern-looking building contains the home of AJ Hackett Bungy. Mr. Hackett is doing quite well for himself, judging by the flowing crowds. The interior of the building itself is rather intriguing, with a giant golden sphere encircled by the jagged descent of the entrance ramp. Downstairs, a gift shop and café lead to a wide patio overlook and the entrance to the staging area, where eager jumpers line up – at no little expense – to get strapped in, and then…with surprisingly little delay…leap from a platform on the side of the bridge to bounce and dangle mere feet from the river below. It’s an entertaining sight, and we watch for a while…confirming that, as suspected, we have no actual interest in participating ourselves.

Where the mussel meets the milk

Back in Queenstown, we continue our day of shopping along the bustling streets of “The Mall,” a pedestrian-heavy (and often pedestrian-only) network of narrow streets between the artfully-designed Steamer Wharf and the more sedate Marine Parade. Even a few short years after our last visit, the town is recognizably different – more shops, more cafés and restaurants, more people – and there exists an ever-more-muddled line between the grungier, more gnarly adrenaline junkies and the competing influx of upscale tourists, and a somewhat jarring juxtaposition between the establishments that cater to both. In some ways, Queenstown is becoming more and more like a classic Colorado ski village…though it still retains a good deal of individual character…and while I’m not entirely sure that this is a good thing, I am entirely sure that it’s an inexorable trend. I’m sure of this because I look around and see construction, everywhere. New houses “of size,” new luxury hotels, new (or renovated) businesses. And all this in a town that really doesn’t have much geographic room to expand…though, as we’ll find a few days hence, the expansion continues more freely in outlying areas.

We gather some gifts (and a much-needed rain jacket for me), and stop for a browse at a Queenstown institution: The Wine Deli. It’s a short visit, for while the store still carries a stunning selection of wines both local and national, it no longer features deep verticals from some of New Zealand’s best producers; the lure that drew me to it during our previous stay. Young wines I can buy at the wineries, and so we leave in search of food. We manage – to our later dismay – to completely miss the best market in town, and settle for a Fresh Choice that is, to be honest, rather dismal (especially in the produce aisle). We manage to gather together the best of what’s available, and head back to our house.

[Remarkables, with topping]

Remarkables & Redi-Whip
Coconut milk, lime rind (in lieu of lemongrass, which we are unable to acquire) and ginger form the basis for a reasonably classic Pacific Rim fusion mussel “stew” – as always, however, it is the incredibly succulent and massively huge green-lipped mussels that dominate this dish – with which we finish the leftovers of yesterday’s lunch wine.

Kennedy Point 2004 Sauvignon Blanc (Marlborough) – Much faded vs. when first opened, showing a general sort of green fruitiness, but still drinkable.

I supplement my after-dinner libations with a bottle of Mac’s Blonde, an aromatized (orange and coriander…nothing unusual) wheat beer from Nelson, with a spicy nose and good palate texture and weight. However, it finishes papery and bland. Good, but only just.

Tonight is an early night, and with Theresa already asleep I sip the remnants of my beer and stare out the dining room window, casting a nervous eye at the barely-visible clouds lingering atop the jagged peaks of the Remarkables like a fluffy dessert topping. Tomorrow will be one of the longest days of our entire vacation…but if the weather turns unpleasant, it will also be one of the greatest disappointments of our six Antipodal weeks. It’s an anxious thought on which to sleep.

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Copyright ©2005 Thor Iverson.