I’m glued to my chair in an underground bunker on New Zealand’s South Island, staring cross-eyed into a generous glass of Pinot Noir.
This is not the scene of a bizarre interrogation – despite the clandestine setting and dim lighting of Gibbston Valley Lodge and Spa’s brooding wine cellar. I’m not shackled; my physical incapacity to move has been brought on by lead legs after a full day of skiing at nearby Cardrona ski resort.
Still, I’m about to pour out one of my most guarded secrets.
“I don’t really like red wine.”
There, I’ve said it. I cringe and wait for gasps and wide eyes, ducking for cover from the grenade I’ve launched into a room full of winos, stacked high with expensive bottles on two walls. To my stunned surprise, in-house sommelier Bindi barely bats an eyelid.
“Oh, don’t worry, I know wine connoisseurs who don’t even enjoy drinking it,” she shrugs.
Relief bursts the air like a champagne cork popping. The dozen participants in our group tasting laugh, one woman nods furiously in agreement, and Bindi offers me a Pinot Blanc instead. She assures me it’s about as close as you can get to a red in white form because it’s essentially a mutated form of the same grape.
This is wine tasting at Gibbston Valley. I’m in Queenstown on a ski holiday, but of course a flight across the Tasman to the adventure and foodie capital is never just about skiing.
Gibbston Valley Winery is just 20 minutes outside of Queenstown and a handy pitstop en route back from Cardrona. It’s the oldest vineyard in the Central Otago region, boasting the largest underground wine cave in New Zealand, yet has the sassiest, most informed wine expert I’ve ever met in 23-year-old sommelier student Bindi. Almost every TripAdvisor (4.5-star average) or Google Review (4.4-star average) mentions Bindi’s name. But don’t be fooled by her unorthodox approach; this place takes wine very seriously.
So seriously that the name “Gibbston Valley” is trademarked. The 11 other vineyards that run along the banks of its meandering gorge can’t legally use the name. The owner even commissions helicopter pilots to fly over and blow winter frost off the vines when cold threatens his darlings.
I’m looking forward to experiencing the same uncompromising hospitality during my stay at Gibbston Valley’s newest trot: the Gibbston Valley Lodge and Spa. This five-star boutique and award-winning private spa opened at the vineyard in December 2019, but its grand reveal for the 2020 ski season was sadly muted by the pandemic.
It nevertheless claimed the title of New Zealand’s Best Resort Spa for two years at the World Spa Awards. And finally, in 2022, the place has a booked-out calendar.
The architecturally designed main lodge is stunning, with its own cellar separate to the main vineyard with its enormous, iconic wine cave. There are soaring ceilings, a chic bar area, striking feature fireplace with flop-worthy leather lounges surrounding it, and a sun-drenched conservatory brimming with books and views to feed the imagination.
“Rooms” come in the form of 24 enormous, premium villas nestled into the rugged Lord of the Rings-like landscape. Each has its own fireplace, secluded courtyard, and deck, with a sumptuous 65 square metres of living space. In human terms, that means the bathroom has space for dual basins, a humungous tub, separate shower, and separate enclosed toilet (nothing worse than waiting to shower when your partner is in the loo).
There’s also a stylish kitchen island with a deep sink in the living room, negating the frustrating hotel need to shuttle water back and forth from bathroom to kettle when brewing a pot of tea. Genius.
Most guests spend their days exhausting the region’s long list of adventure activities. When wine time rolls around at 5pm, the skiers find each other by excitedly discussing how we beat traffic by coming at Coronet Peak (35 minutes’ drive) from the opposite direction to Queenstown. Or, how we got a head start to Cardrona ski resort (just 40 minutes from Gibbston, compared to an hour-plus from Queenstown).
One brave sole went bungy jumping at Kawarau Bridge, just five minutes down the road. Even when the weather forces other activities shut, we delight in riding e-bikes over bridges and along leafy trails to picturesque Arrowtown.
Before Gibbston Valley opened the lodge, our tasting with Bindi might have ended with an awkward goodnight and taxi ride home. Now, we’re all too eager to try another wine. We calculate our routes to bed in advance: there’s just a short stagger upstairs to dinner, followed by a moonlit trundle along a gravel path to our villas.
Dinner is waiting just upstairs, an exclusive treat for lodge guests only. Executive Chef Anthony Gradiska, who earned his stripes at top Auckland restaurants Molten (now closed) and The French Café, followed by stints on super yachts around the world, ensures no dish disappoints. Share plates like crispy barbecued octopus and melt-in-your-mouth beef brisket come swaddled in colourful roast vegetables from the lodge garden. It’s fine dining – but in satisfying servings to pacify growling skier stomachs.
Bindi even switches hats and becomes our waitress bringing extra helpings of sauce and bread. She’s also more than happy to pour me a generous gin and tonic when I need a break from the local grapes.
“When did wine tasting become so snobby, anyway?,” she asks me. “Experts will tell you a wine has ‘hints of stonefruit’ and I’ll be like – ‘where did you squeeze the mandarin?’
“It’s supposed to be fun!” she concludes, with a grin.
Gibbston Valley Lodge & Spa is a 30-minute drive from downtown Queenstown. A pre-booked daily shuttle can provide return transport. Rooms start from NZ$449 per night, including breakfast, evening wine tasting, gym, sauna and hot tub access, plus discounted e-bike hire. Winery tours start from NZ$36 per person or choose neat add-ons like two-course lunch and a winery tour (NZ$100).