No, not Marlboro Country with cigarettes and rugged men on horses. In New Zealand, Marlborough country is in the far northeastern corner of the South Island and is the largest wine-growing region of the country. The international wine press says that Marlborough produces the best Sauvignon Blancs in the world, which is quite a claim to fame given that 40 years ago the region primarily grew fruit. Just like parts of the Willamette Valley or Yakima and Tri-Cities in Washington.
It was my second week in New Zealand and I was ready for some serious wine tasting in this renowned area, even though Sauvignon Blanc is possibly my least favorite wine after Pinot Gris. It’s the best in the world, I reasoned, so I will like it. The previous week in the Nelson region (near Abel Tasman National Park to the west of Marlborough), there were also some very nice wines, but not world famous ones. (My favorite vineyard there, as an aside, was a small boutique winery called Milcrest—brilliant winemaker and head and shoulders above anything else I tasted there.)
But back to Blenheim, which is the major town in the Marlborough region. It’s a farm town trying to transition to a cool town, with a bit more work to do. The best restaurants seem to be at the wineries for now, but I could tell that the downtown was starting to “turn,” with some new bars and restaurants catering to the increasing tourist traffic.
Suzanne (my sister’s friend who I was traveling with at this point) and I stayed at a B&B a few kilometers outside of town in a self-catered cottage. Self-catered is the Kiwi term for having kitchen facilities, and at this one, the breakfast part of the B&B meant the proprietors brought freshly-laid eggs from the chooks prancing about the property. (And milk and bread and jam and butter and such.) St. Leonard’s has 4 cottages—all done in shabby farmhouse chic. Plenty of room and a lovely veranda overlooking the adjacent vineyards made for a fine stay. Best of all, they had a stable of mountain bikes, so I could ride every morning (trying to get in shape for the Central Otago Rail Trail 4-day ride in February. (Watch for a blog post after I do it!)
My overall impressions of wine-tasting in this region were that the tasting room people were pleasant, as they are everywhere (although how they can say the same thing over and over all week long is beyond me). But the fellow wine-tasters were an odd lot. Instead of making casual conversation with other people, it seemed that each group kept its distance. And many people seemed to rush in and out—as if checking the wineries off the list instead of tasting the wine. A smile and engaging remark was, more often than not, met with a short response and no eye contact. Was it the American accent? Who knows, but it was an odd experience. I know many of my readers have either been to or even worked in the region, so I’d be curious to hear your reactions to this.
Over the course of the week, in addition to the bike rides, visits to the lovely Pollard Park with gardens and shade trees, and a stroll through the homey Sunday farmers market, I did get to taste many wonderful wines. Some of the wineries I went to included Fromm (my favorite), Hans Herzog, Spy Valley, Seresin, Highfield, St. Clair (another favorite), Wairau River (with a wonderfully light and puffy gorgonzola soufflé for lunch), Georges Michel, and Cloudy Bay—probably the one Americans are most familiar with.
Cloudy Bay has large picnic grounds outside the tasting room and Jack’s Bar, with fresh oysters, scallop ceviche, prawns, and local cheeses. I had lunch there with new friends (from another cottage at St. Leonard’s), drinking Cloudy Bay sparkling wine and hearing stories about life as young professionals in Auckland. Many thanks to Ursula, Simon, and Graeme for the invitation and the good times.
The Marlborough Wine Trail is mostly flat land, with a few minor hills at the edges. To the north, the hills are wooded with obvious clear-cuts slashing the landscape and views. To the south, it could be central California, with golden grasses on treeless hills waving in the ocean breezes. Or gale force winds. Even though the skies were cloudless and the temperatures in the high 80s, when the wind kicked up (they call it the northwesterlies), it was ferocious.
Wind, wine and world-famous sauvignon blancs—what is the conclusion? I still don’t really like sauvignon blanc, even at its best. The Pinot Noirs from the area were very nice, but not as luscious as the Central Otago Pinot Noirs where I was headed next. I wondered if Marlborough was suffering from getting too big and famous too fast and hoped my next destination would change my mind about the New Zealand tasting scene.
Stay tuned for a report about a completely different region soon. And in the meantime, if you are in the southern hemisphere, open a bottle of sauv blanc on a hot afternoon and enjoy the grassy, passionfruit flavors; if you are in the northern hemisphere, find a Central Otago Pinot Noir from New Zealand, enjoy it in front of a fire looking at the snowstorm, and see if you agree with my next blog post.
The color of the water was an impossibly translucent turquoise near the shore, so clear that shells twenty feet down were easily visible. As the water deepened, the color turned to an equally improbable shade of azure. It wasn’t an ad for a tropical resort, but rather the Tasman Sea along the coast of the Abel Tasman National Park on the northernmost tip of the South Island of New Zealand. (more…)
Like anywhere else, place names in Australia say a lot. They range from pure British history (Queensland, Darwin, or Adelaide) to Aboriginal names (Tootgarook, Mooloolaba, and of course, Uluru). Even if you can read the name of the place, it doesn’t mean you can say it. For example, Melbun is the way to pronounce Melbourne. The good news: Sydney is pronounced Sydney and Perth is Perth. (more…)