On a recent weekend, the dozen-ish vineyards in the Gibbston Valley held their annual wine and food festival. I like wine. I like food. I like festivals and sunshine and fun. Count me in! The event proved to be an awesome experience, but it wasn’t without a few disappointments.
The Gibbston Valley is home to a small sub-class of New Zealand’s Central Otago wine region. Like the rest of the region, it’s known for growing pinot noir, but a range of white wines are also produced. The valley is a short drive from Queenstown and about an hour from Wanaka, where we originated.
After we paid our entry fee ($15) we were given a tasting glass for the event that contained three small cards with winemaker logos. These represented free tastings at the corresponding tents. This was a nice touch; if we were just given three free tastings at the vineyard of our choice we would have probably picked the most well-known or critically acclaimed vineyards; or, actually, the first three we found. Their specific free tastings forced us not only to try new wines, but walk around the grounds searching for specific vineyards and seeing all else that was on offer in the process. Also, because there were four of us attending together, we were able to share tastes and get a bit from nearly every vineyard in the region. Standouts were: Highgate Reserve Pinot Noir 2009, Kalex Dry Riesling 2011, Kalex Medium Riesling 2011 (though I do have a bit of a sweet tooth).
In addition to the tents offering taste and glasses, there were blind tasting events and workshops throughout the day, led by winemakers and vigneron of the region.
The absolute highlight was the blending workshop ($10) lead by Sean Brennan. It was an opportunity to taste the 2012 Brennan pinot noir vintage straight from the barrels and create our own concoction. We sat down in front of four bottles from different clones and barrel types (old and new oak) and then blended them like mad scientists into a “finished” wine. They began as fizzy grape-like juice with biting tannins and emerged as something resembling wine! Sean tasted our concoctions, offered his opinions and we went back to the drawing board. It was amazing to see how a bit more of one kind of clone from old oak adds a completely different character. We really got to play winemaker for an hour.
So while the “wine” part of the festival was completely satisfying, the “food” part wasn’t. It’s not that the food was bad (it was good!) but when I think of a food festival, I imagine the best local chefs coming together to show off their finest creations. This was more a collection of the same half dozen food trucks that I’ve seen at events all over the area. They were good, but didn’t leave me wanting more. The event was definitely wine first, food second.
I’d recommend the festival to others and encourage you to attend the discussions and tasting events, but I suggest the organizers drop the “food” part of the name. It’s just a little misleading. Expect small crowds, lots of great Gibbston Valley wines and really knowledgable people giving you straight answers on both simple and complicated questions.