GRAZIA - Top of the lake

By GRAZIA - Nicholas Carolan

In a town where life revolves around black diamond runs and a picturesque lake, it's the chefs, winemakers, brewers and distillers of Wanaka who are taking the town to incredible new heights

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Minaret Station

Past the still, glassy waters of Lake Hawea; over the isthmus to where a second lake, Wanaka, comes within reach of the first; past the gravel carpark that doubles as a helipad, where a father and son stand fly fishing at the mouth of a stream; over on the other side of the lake and past the hills that rise into the folds of the Estuary Burn valley – there, at the base of a mountain that carves out space for itself in an obnoxiously blue sky, sits Minaret Station. It’s an alpine lodge at the height of luxury dressed in the colours of its surroundings  —  green on green on impossibly white snow  — in a clearing without road or grid access in the remote wilderness of New Zealand’s lower South Island, and it is where, in the depths of winter, I have stepped out of a helicopter and into a screensaver.

So much of New Zealand’s natural beauty has the quality of simulacra, each successive vista inducing the sensation that what you are seeing is not quite real but a stock image. A mountain surely cannot be that mountainous. A lake that deeply blue cannot be a feat of nature’s pigment but instead must be an amalgamation of crystalline pixels. Even the pre-dawn mountain air has the fragrant woodiness and cleansing properties as an entire forest of palo santo set ablaze. If it sounds like something out of a movie, that’s because it frequently is – this landscape often stands in for new, more extreme worlds than our own.

WANAKA FOREVER

Just over an hour north of Queenstown is Wanaka, a once quiet hamlet turned bustling resort town with cultural capital ambitions. With craggy alpine peaks in virtually all directions and a verdant patchwork of farmland and wine country to the east, Wanaka is perched on the southern shore of the lake from which it derives its name – a vast body of water that unspools into generous, stony bays before tapering more than 40 kilometres northward. It is fringed on all sides with staggering ridges that rise up from its pebbled banks like regularly timed reminders of your insignificance

By day, the town’s residents, a mix of a booming tourist populous, locals and an influx of transient workers alike thread their way skyward along perilously steep and winding roads towards the ski resort Treble Cone, stopping mid-run only to marvel at the panoramic splendour of Mount Aspiring and the Matukituki River as it braids its way slowly back to the lake. In town, at the charmingly ramshackle White House, a cosy restaurant in housed in an Art Deco residence, guests compete for seats closest to a roaring open fire and dine on even heartier meals, while an affable proprietor mingles with guests at an open bar. On a mid-week evening at the aptly named Cork, there’s barely room to swirl a glass of silky Valli pinot as post-work patrons rub shoulders with the jovial après crowd. At its year-round Thursday artisan market in a sun soaked square overlooking the lake, local legends are spun off the strength of the Pembroke Patisserie’s donuts and its impossibly short pastries. In an adjacent stall, a self-effacing vendor more content with chat than commerce peddles a library of handmade soap and spiced, pure hot chocolate is chased with effervescent locally made kefir.

Despite its southernmost location, Wanaka enjoys a climate that verges on greedy. While the alpine climes provide yearlong entertainment for thrill seekers, the lowlands of the glacial valley enjoy a borderline continental climate where abundant grape varietals and overzealous stone fruits thrive before being made into moreish wines and jams – both the perfect expression of terroir. The earliest settlements near the lakes were campsites known as kianga, where the Maori fished and hunted for the flightless moa – a bird not unlike a giant emu, or cassowary – before heading west in search of rich pounamu, or greenstone, deposits. Though the moa is long gone, the area remains a bountiful cornucopia for those passing through the region in search of its abundant treasures

MEALS ON WHEELS

Many have come to Wanaka in search of those spoils since. Since the turn of the century, the town has enjoyed an increase in its permanent population of more than 100 per cent, with an increase of 5.5 per cent in the last year alone – a figure that is more than doubles the national average. Like many of his contemporaries, Adrian Paoli, a native Parisian, arrived in Wanaka while travelling and has found a way to stay. Paoli manages Charlie Brown, one of the many food trucks that have opened in Wanaka in the last two years. He’s one of countless young travellers from around the world who have decamped to the town from far-flung cities, having leapt from the highest rungs of their corporate ladders. Paoli estimates that ninety per cent of the job applications he is inundated with when a vacancy opens are from his fellow French expatriates. It makes sense, considering that the food truck is a crêperie on wheels with an emphasis that falls squarely on local and seasonal produce, with the exception of chèvre and raclette imported from France. ‘Not only crêpes, but happiness,’ is their mantra, and on a crisp, Bastille Day morning, you could almost convince yourself that you’re able to taste the latter – though perhaps that’s just the Nutella.

Nearby at The Dripping Bowl, you’d be hard pressed to find anything resembling an artificial sweetener. Instead, turmeric lattes are given a boost through the addition of adaptogenic mushroom powder. Everything on the menu designed by the truck’s owners, Jesse Herbert and Andi Throssell, is 100 per cent wholefoods and organic, and each dish starts off as vegan or vegetarian – it’s only at the final step that you could add a little local lamb. The all-important oats are also local and organic too, and are sourced by the owners from nearby Ashburton; the only sweetener you’ll encounter is locally sourced honey. Though neither half of the couple had experience working in a commercial kitchen, both knew they wanted to launch the concept on returning to Wanaka from Melbourne, by way of an epiphany. Jesse was “doing the corporate thing in Melbourne – suit, tie, work car, all that jazz” – before major back surgery triggered the need for a change of scene. The couple travelled to Europe where they marvelled at hole-in-the-wall soup vendors in Hungary, Amsterdam and Turkey – places where a meal without soup wasn’t a meal at all. Why, the thinking goes, not bring a similar concept back to New Zealand, where the lifestyle and climate calls for nourishing, no fuss and hearty fare? Across the road, on a vacant block bisected by a creek and dotted with trees both sparse and evergreen, plans have been approved for a secondary food truck depot that will allow more space not only for other vendors, but outdoor cinema screenings and weekend yoga classes. It will give the area “more of a vibe”, Jesse adds, not that this vibrant strip in the town centre is in want of one.

Further down the road, in a garage first built in the 19th century, Bonnie Lam plies her trade while Kendrick Lamar intones overhead about the importance of maintaining a vibe. Extreme sports play out on a wall-mounted television, beneath which stands a cabinet stocked with the wares of local craftspeople. A steady flow of customers, many of them sheathed in lycra in madcap defiance of the temperature, interrupts the hum of Lam and her colleague Kirsten working in tandem. Though the shell of The Coffee Shack predates barista-led coffee culture of any kind, it’s fair to say that Lam has built Wanaka’s from the ground up (there was quite literally no floor when she first moved in). Lam, who traded in a career in marketing for her decade-long passion for coffee, moved to Wanaka from Auckland five years ago. Why? For the snowboarding, of course. “Life is so easy here,” she says. “There’s no grumpy people.” A barista would know. Who better to gauge the temperament of a populous than the person largely responsible for caffeinating them during the earliest hours of day (especially one that is this close to freezing)? It’s not surprising that the majority of orders Lam receives are for flat whites, granted the country’s claim to fame as the (arguable) birthplace of the former. Which is not to say that Lam isn’t doggedly pursuing the new. Proximity, or lack thereof, to a major metropolis means Lam spends a great deal of time travelling to keep abreast with the vanguard of coffee, competing (and placing) in competitions where she’s judged not only on the intricacies of her craft but her presentation skills. But despite that ostensible remove from capital cities, rent and property prices in Wanaka are comparable to those in any major city; in Wanaka, however, the hospitality trade experiences a lull for three months of the year – during which time the price of living itself does not abate. “But oh well,” Lam sighs, “We live in paradise.”

CHEERS, BREW

It was the allure of a climbing paradise that brought Oliver Boyes to Wanaka seven years ago. The town is something akin to the mecca of climbing, he says, for the sheer volume of climbing routes alone. But time spent scaling mountains has now been reduced to zero with Ground Up, a burgeoning brewery – and a one-year-old – under his belt. For a small town, Wanaka enjoys a high concentration of breweries to rival its high adrenalin outdoor adventure sports, so much so that Boyes contends that Wanaka boasts the highest concentration of breweries per capita of any town in New Zealand. Though Wanaka’s population fluctuates with the seasons, it’s estimated just over 8000 reside there permanently. “Still, that’s a brewery to every 2000 people,” reasons Boyes, who, along with his business partner Julian Webster, had been home brewing for two years when their hobby turned into an obsession. The fever soon caught on in town. They’ve since scaled up to new premises on Wanaka’s industrial fringe, and they’ve acquired the gear to match. In one 100L vat, a sour is being made with lactobacillus, the same culture found in yoghurt. After it’s brought to the boil, salt and mango pulp will be added to create an homage to a mango lassi. Another fermenter contains an equal parts spicy, floral and herbal habanero, pineapple and coriander IPA, brewed as part of a collaboration with the bar Cork. “We never really follow the rulebook on our beers,” says Boyes. “We just make what we like.”

“Do you want to try some ‘Pussy Riot’?” asks Simon Ross of Rhyme and Reason, a neighbouring brewery. “It’s the king of imperial stouts,” explains his partner, Jess Wolfgang, sensing my confusion. I had noticed the name scrawled in black ink across the bow of one of many stainless-steel vats that line the back of their neighbouring brewery, Rhyme and Reason, but had erred when it came to enquiring further. “It’s the biggest, booziest, boldest stout – there’s nothing minimal in a Russian imperial. What else could we name it?” Wolfgang laughs. Pussy Riot, of course! We toast to Vladimir Putin, and toss it back. “In your face!” Wolfgang declares, and Pussy Riot is exactly that: creamier than a milkshake, and thicker than an Instagram model.

Though both breweries are located on the fringes of Wanaka’s township, the hope is that, with the overwhelming influx of residential development taking place, that the geographical centre will reposition itself around these hard-to-come-by estates. It’s only fitting then that the couples’ brewery feels like an extension of their living room – a communal lounge space, where Max, their border collie, mills amiably and couples entrench themselves in the deep folds of lived-in sofas. While Wolfgang has been brewing for ten years, Ross, a mechanical engineer by trade, would be an enviable companion for anyone working in the field. The couple met in Newcastle, Australia, where Ross designed high performance hang gliders. Together, they give the impression of a union in balance, the embodiment of their moniker: where Wolfgang is gregarious, shooting from the hip, Ross is more measured, the cogs constantly turning therein. It’s like witnessing the left and right sides of the same brain firing in tandem. “You can look into it however you like,” Ross says of their decision to name their brewery Rhyme and Reason. “Jess might be the rhyme and I might be the reason. Engineering and passion. Everyone else would say there’s no rhyme or reason [to what we do] but then I guess for us there’s every rhyme and reason, because we’ve got the skills and the passion.”

TOAST OF THE TOWN

In its patchwork of tawny hues and alpine severity, the nearby Cardrona Valley recalls the wilds of Scotland. Though the valley itself, in the shadow of the mountains Cardrona and Pisa, has been sluiced dry of its gold reserves over centuries, wellsprings of liquid gold are bubbling up to take its place. In three monolithic buildings encased in grey shist stone, the Cardrona Distillery hums with a desire to do everything from scratch, from meshing unpeated malted barley of the kind used by distilleries the United Kingdom to bottling their wares like they were fine perfumes.

Unlike the craft and micro brewing industries, distilleries are a rarity in New Zealand – one of the few countries in the western world where it’s also legal to distil at home, and perhaps that’s why. The distillery is the project of Desiree Whitaker, a South Island native, descended from teetotal dairy farmers. Whitaker sold her own farm to generate the capital to start the distillery before travelling the world for two years to learn the art and science of distillation.
Unusual for a distillery that produces more than one type of spirit, all of Cardrona’s spirits are made from one source of malted barley, yeast and water in the style of a Scottish Speyside whiskey (most of the country’s spirit alcohol industry uses whey, a biproduct of the dairy industry). The water itself, used to cool the spirit before it is later repurposed for underfloor heating, is subterranean snow melt from Mount Cardrona that pools in a well nearby.

The first thing that hits you on walking into the distillery’s vast barrel hall is the toasty perfume of dormant whisky. Second are the names scrawled across each barrel denoting a decade long investment in the Whitaker’s first batch of whiskey: ‘Never had never’, ‘Mothers Milk’, and ‘Book Club’ being a few. There are sherry butts and bourbon barrels made from American oak that will impart distinct flavour profiles – either full of fruit or redolent of caramel. Then there are French oak pinot noir, chardonnay and bourbon barrels that speak to a more experimental side with the distillery’s gin, which is infused with juniper, coriander seed, angelica root, lemon and orange peel and local wild rosehip. The latter was introduced to this area of the country by Chinese gold miners; it’s the fruit of the rose, and it gives the distillery’s much-lauded liqueur range its name in part: The Rose Rabbit. Experimental, one-off releases extend to their liqueurs as well – an elderflower range sold out near instantly; as did another made with unwanted Central Otago cherries. Perhaps their most famous, an orange liqueur, employs a similar ethos. Fruit squeezed in Wellington cafés is shipped to the distillery before sitting on the single malt vodka spirit for up to a month. A butterscotch liqueur is made using a secret family recipe devised by Desiree, her sister and an aunt. It’s one family secret worth sharing with the world.

Wineries

At the vineyards of Maude, wine is also a family affair. Dawn and Terry Wilson, a former general practitioner (“vines don’t complain as much as patients” is a recurring line), planted the first family block in 1994, and still run the vineyard to this date, even as they approach 80-years-old. On the day we meet, they’ve just finished tapping maple trees for their sap with a syrup coloured dog named Beau following in tow. Their son-in-law, the winemaker Dan Dineen, says that they still do most of the work on the vineyard’s steep north facing slopes in the sheltered Maungawera Valley, just outside of Wanaka. His wife and fellow winemaker, Sarah-Kate, relocated to Wanaka in 2005 after meeting at the Brokenwood vineyard in the Hunter Valley, and together the family has created a vineyard that is as fruitful as it is exceeding hospitable.

An estimated 70 per cent of the wine grown in the Central Otago region is pinot noir, but at Maude, the emphasis also falls on other varietals: on a very lunch-friendly Riesling, a Pinot Gris (the region’s most grown white grape) and on their favourite Chardonnay (the French oak barrels of which will later be shared with the distillers at Cardrona). A particularly memorable drop is the ‘East Meets West’ pinot noir, made from grapes planted at opposite ends of their block, is made in a Beaujolais style. The grapes are handpicked and left to macerate intact for three weeks before the winemakers put their daughters to work after school, pressing the berries off before they’re barrelled for final fermentation. “It’s very polarising,” Dineen of the drop. “Some people think it’s not pinot, but others love it.” I loved it.

Dawn and Terry planted a row of vines from the Burgundy region of France for each of their grandchildren at the top of the vineyard. The exception are the Dineen’s two children, who instead received a ‘Stella’ varietal cherry tree and an apple tree. “They think it’s just awesome that they’ve got a cherry tree that produces fruit at Christmas,” says Sarah-Kate. “I think when they turn drinking age, they’ll be really upset.” Perhaps, then, it will be time to start brewing kirsch and cider in Wanaka.

HIGH END DINING

Traceability is paramount across the food offering at Minaret Station, and it has very little to do with lip service. Almost everything is able to be traced back to its point of origin – from the beef, lamb and venison that is farmed on the station to the crayfish that the lodge sources by helicopter in their own pots located in the nearby Fiorland National Park. Even the micro herbs that garnish a dish of coconut ceviche can be traced to a Wanaka resident named Cheryl, proprietor of the country’s largest cherry orchard in nearby Tarras (more than 90 per cent of New Zealand’s exported cherries are grown in the Central Otago region). At Minaret, an emphasis on seasonal, local produce is taken to an extreme not only by conviction, but also due to sheer isolation. Cultivating the land on-site is impossible – a resident possum population ensures that little else thrives – meaning every single thing must be flown in by helicopter.

For the chef Ivan Savae, balancing that crucial inventory is his greatest concern – that, and the waterfall-powered hydroelectric generator. At a luxury guesthouse in the wilderness where everything is customisable and ‘bespoke’ is a lived experience in the truest sense of the word for a high-end clientele whose names cannot be disclosed, limiting the number of chartered flights to the grocer is paramount. Minaret Station was founded on the back of deer – specifically, the backstrap. In a country with no natural predators, introduced species like deer thrived unabated. An avid aviation pioneer, Sir Tim Wallis bought the station in 1995, and, realising the wasted value of deer slaughtered for bounty, Wallis began corralling and domesticating them in paddocks (using a helicopter, of course) as the first stage in a lucrative export business. But deer are not the only animals that thrive in these climes. Himalayan tahr and chamois, both hunted for sport, stalk the mountaintops, and then, this being New Zealand, there are the sheep.

 

Real or not real?

The only kind of sheep that can thrive in an alpine climate riddled with wetlands that bake in hot summers and lie dormant in extreme winters are not the most beautiful of sheep. Theirs is not the finest wool, or meat, for that matter. Minaret was one of 17 farming stations to engage in a 10-year, elite breeding program to produce a sheep better adapted to the extremes of the high country. Of the 500 genetic lines tested, one emerged that sported the fine wool of the Merino breed, but without the absentee parenting tendencies, as well as a different type of intramuscular fat that was higher in Omega-3 with Wagyu-like marbling on a micro‐scale. The sheep, now designated as Te Mana lamb, grazes for its final 30 days on chicory before being aged for a further 21 to produce an impossibly decadent lamb befitting the stature of the establishments in which it is served. At Minaret Station, the rack is encrusted with pistachio and served alongside baby winter vegetables with a caper buerre noisette, cranberry jus and pea purée worth flying to the top of the lake for.

Before I arrived in Wanaka, I had been asked – against my will – to consider our place in the firmament. As dawn broke over Sydney while en route to the airport, my driver, who until that point seemed rather reasonable, remarked on the impossibility of the waning crescent moon that still shone bright in the burnt orange sky. “Can you believe it?” he asked. Yes, it’s a beautiful sunrise, I replied. “No, how can you possibly believe that the moon is real? It’s a projection on a dome.” The sky isn’t real, he said. We never landed on the moon, he raged. There is nothing but ceiling above us, he decried. It was certainly a theory, I demurred politely, at that point hoping only to guarantee my safe passage and arrival in time for my flight. Days later, while standing in the Estuary Burn valley, I looked up at the sky and laughed (okay, fine: I was in a hot tub, with a glass of Maude pinot). I knew he had been wrong about the stars being projections and the sky being a dome – not only for the perfectly sane reasons you might expect – but because there I was, touching the sky itself.