A tasting trip to the southernmost vineyards in the world

They said Central Otago in New Zealand was too cold for growing grapes. Yet these vineyards, the southernmost in the world, are producing award-winning wines. Lucy Gillmore raises a glass

It was the end of a perfect day. The helicopter whirred across a bucolic landscape of smudged velvet hills, surging rivers and glacier-groaning crags before banking over row upon row of rich, dark vines. Sweeping down to land at Nevis Bluff, we were greeted by Tim Morrison-Deaker, the winery's viticulturalist, with a glass of chilled pinot gris, a light aromatic wine with, mmm, hints of apricot and brie.

But there was no time for more than a sniff, swill and swallow before we were off, soaring over the hills to Bannockburn and the Bald Hills winery. There, with Blair Hunt, we savoured the black fruits and forest-floor aromas of the 2002 pinot noir. We had three more stops to make: Shaky Bridge in the Alexandra basin and Pisa Moorings in Lowburn, before swooping down to Lake Wanaka and the Rippon Vineyard. To finish, Lois Mills invited us to try the citrus-scented 2003 Riesling.

And all from the comfort of our cinema seats. The Big Picture Wine Adventure, a tourist attraction in Cromwell, takes you on a virtual flight across South Island's Central Otago region - with, thankfully, five real glasses of the world-renowned local wines to sample along the way.

These wines are the delectable proof that so-called experts can get it wrong. It was too cold for the grapes, they said, and the soil was unsuitable. But then the people of the vertiginous south are not the type to accept anyone's say-so. They're, well, unusual, and just a little contrary. This is the place where you will find a barbed-wire fence strung with bras along the Cardrona Pass, a cinema stocked with old car seats in the little town of Wanaka, and the country's only insect reserve - a barren field of bugs. And a vineyard where you can play golf with tiny rugby balls (Rippon).

Today, Central Otago, the world's southernmost winemaking region, is recognised for its award-winning pinot noir. The first grapes were planted in the 19th century by a French gold-miner named John Desire Feraud. Wine production ceased after he left, but began again in the 1980s. Now there are more than 20 wineries. The winegrowers' association produces a map of the vineyards, many of which offer tastings, while each January there is a food and wine festival.

Before heading back to the lodge where I was staying in Wanaka, there was time for another sensory experience. The Big Picture Wine Adventure's Aroma Room, which is lined with silver stoppers coated in scents relating to different wines; the object was to identify each one. Prune and violet, as well as the more obvious berry fruits, can often be detected in pinot noir, I learnt, while walnut can be found in aged pinot noir.

Returning to the wine trail, I followed signs to Olssens. Up among the thyme-covered hills of Bannockburn, where the vines are rooted in the rocky, gold-bearing schist soils, the tasting room is in a cottage, its landscaped grounds scattered with modern sculptures. But the most photogenic vineyard is back in Wanaka, a small town on the verge of the big time. Rippon Vineyard, with rows of grapevines sloping down to a lake, is a photographer's dream.

The winery was the creation of the late Rolfe Mills, father of Lois. Wanaka Station, then a sheep farm sprawling beneath the Buchanan mountain range, had been in his family for four generations. Rolfe, however, had travelled in Portugal in the Douro valley and realised the terrain was very similar. He had also noticed that First World War Yugoslavian refugees had successfully planted figs and other Mediterranean crops. So in 1975, ignoring those who said he was crazy, he started growing vines. Today the winery has produced a gold-medal-winning pinot noir, alongside popular Gewurztraminers, Rieslings and sauvignon blancs.

Heading down a gravel road back to Riverrun Lodge - a vision of soaring timber and glass on a 500-acre farm - I contemplated another cosy dinner with the owners John Pawson and Meg Taylor. But first another glass of pinot noir in the outdoor cedar hot tub, surrounded by snow-capped mountains. Blackberry, liquorice and wood-smoke. The meeting of the pig-headed Central Otagan gene and the temperamental pinot grape had produced yet another good vintage.

The author travelled as a guest of New Zealand Tourism (newzealand.com)

1. Rippon Vineyard

WHAT IS IT?

A picturesque vineyard on the lake - with a crazy golf course played with rugby-shaped balls you hit into a goal...

WHERE IS IT?

Mt Aspiring Road, Lake Wanaka (00 64 3 443 8084; rippon. co.nz). Tastings Dec-April, 11am-5pm, daily; July-Nov 1.30pm-4.30pm, daily; closed May/June.

2. Minaret Lodge

WHAT IS IT?

A lodge with guest rooms in wood and stone chalets in the garden - one with a 'Lord of the Rings' theme.

WHERE IS IT?

Eely Point Road, Wanaka (00 64 3 443 1856; minaretlodge.co.nz). Doubles from NZ$395 (£145) including breakfast and early evening wine-tasting.

3. Paradiso Cinema

WHAT IS IT?

A quirky little arthouse cinema and café. Seats are sagging old sofas and armchairs, or you can sit in an old Morris Minor.

WHERE IS IT?

Ardmore Street, Wanaka (00 64 3 443 1505; paradiso.net.nz).

4. River Run

WHAT IS IT?

A stylish lodge with five cosy rooms and panoramic views over the mountains. There's an outdoor hot tub and signposted walks by the Clutha river.

WHERE IS IT?

Halliday Rd, Wanaka (00 69 03 443 9049; riverrun.co.nz). Doubles from NZ$320 (£117) including breakfast and appetisers.

5. Old Cromwell Town

WHAT IS IT?

A historic street of reconstructed shops, housing arts, crafts and gourmet foods. Touristy but pretty. The old town was submerged by Lake Dunstan when the Clyde Dam was built in the 1970s.

WHERE IS IT?

On the edge of Lake Dunstan.

6. The Big Picture Wine Adventure

WHAT IS IT?

A virtual flight, with winetasting, over the Central Otago region. There's also an Aroma Room where you can test your sense of smell and a café.

WHERE IS IT?

State Highway 6, Cromwell (00 64 3 445 4052; wineadventure.co.nz).

7. Mt Difficulty

WHAT IS IT?

A boutique winery with a stylishly designed café terrace, complete with canvas awnings, cacti on tables and water features.

WHERE IS IT?

Felton Road, Bannockburn (00 64 3 445 3445; mtdifficulty.co.nz). Tastings 10.30am-5pm.

8. Olssens

WHAT IS IT?

A picturesque vineyard and perfect lunchtime stop with big blue picnic umbrellas, jazz music floating out of the tasting room and a sculpture garden.

WHERE IS IT?

Felton Road, Bannockburn (00 64 3 445 1716; olssens.co.nz). Tastings 10am-5pm.

9. Arrowtown

WHAT IS IT?

A picture-perfect gold-rush town that is often crowdedbut worth a detour. The Avenue of the Trees is lined with wooden miners' cottages and trees planted in 1867.

WHERE IS IT?

23km north-west of Queenstown.

10. The Cardrona Hotel

WHAT IS IT?

A gold-rush era hotel dating back to 1863. It's just a mile or so along the road from the famous Cardrona bra fence - yes a fence strung with passing motorists' bras.

WHERE IS IT?

Crown Range Road, Wanaka (00 64 3 443 8153; cardronahotel.co.nz).

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