Monday, December 12, 2011

Wine tasting in New Zealand's Marlborough Region

Cellar Door at Allan Scott Winery
My first impression when flying into Blenheim, the small town in the heart of New Zealand's famous Marlborough region, was that all the vineyards are flat. Not that there's no hills around, but the grapes are planted in the valley, as far as the eye can see. I suppose that isn't so strange, but coming from the Pacific NW we plant grapes on slopes. Here, they cover the valley floor. 

 As our tiny Air NZ plane landed we emerged into a perfect early December summer day. Mild, quite breezy and gorgeous. Mere minutes after landing we were on our way in a rental car to our first winery, just a mile or so down the road. With just a day and half to enjoy the region we had to get down to business quickly. 

 The region is fairly compact in size and easy to navigate to many of the top wineries in a short amount of time. The casual, friendly attitude and plentiful tasting rooms ("cellar doors" in NZ) made it easy. We managed to hit 4 stops the first afternoon and a personal best of 10 wineries day 2! Here's some of the highlights. 

Allan Scott Winery
Our first stop revealed three great surprises about wine tasting in New Zealand.   First, the wineries charge only a nominal fee for tasting, if at all, which is credited toward any wine purchase.   After getting used to the hefty $20 or higher tasting fees in California and even now in Oregon, it was a refreshing change.   

The second great surprise is that New Zealand makes a lot of wonderful sparkling wine, or Methode Traditionelle, from Sauvignon Blanc or Pinot Noir.   While at Allan Scott we had the opportunity to taste their amazing sparkling and of course we had to purchase a 3-bottle pack.  A great start to dramatically increasing our airline baggage fees. 

The third surprise is that some of the best restaurants in New Zealand are located at the wineries.   Allan Scott features Twelve Trees restaurant, a lovely outdoor setting under an arbor.   What an amazing experience to sit down, order a beautiful lunch, then taste some wine while waiting for the food to arrive.  When its ready, your server fetches you from the tasting room.   The food was incredible - we enjoyed New Zealand Green Mussels with white wine sauce and a Salmon Carpaccio as well as delicious crispy potatoes with aioli.   One of the best meals of my trip!   

A Beer Stop on the Way

Next on the agenda was a recommendation from our car rental agent - a must stop micro-brewery in the heart of wine country. The Moa Brewing company is a unique spot that offers tasting of their award-winning beers and ciders.   Good news, you can buy beer in a 750 ml (the size of a wine bottle!).  Although our favorite, the 5 Hop, only comes in the more traditional size.

Back to the Wine!
After the beer detour we were back on the wine trail.  Next stop was Hunter's winery, one of the early pioneers in the business and headed by one of the first woman winemaker in New Zealand.  In the U.S. we think of an ideal Marlborough Sauv Blanc  as crispy, grapefruity and acidic.    We were starting to learn that while this style is certainly popular, the New Zealanders are saving their best for the home crowd.  Their best in this case is a bit of barrel-aging giving the "Sauvie" as I heard it called a slightly creamier finish that is irresistible.   This is a great winery to visit as they also have a native garden, sculpture walk and resident artist-in-studio. 

More delights on the way at Lawson's Dry Hills, which was one of the early pioneers to push the screw top.   New Zealand has fully adopted the screw tops as superior to corks - we never missed our corkscrew once on the trip! 

Villa Maria Winery
The largest, most "commercial" winery presence we saw on our trip was Villa Maria, noticeable for their large facility right near the Auckland airport.   We visited their tasting room in Marlborough and enjoyed their super friendly & helpful service in hooking us up with a shipping box to check with our baggage (since by now we could easily see a case of wine or more was coming home with us).   We also left with one of their sparkling rose' which we haven't tried yet - but while in country we did have an opportunity to try their Sparkling Sauv Blanc which was superb. 

From here we took a local's advice to visit Auntsfield, where the very first grapes were planted in Marlborough in 1873.  The vines have since been replaced but they have an amazing hobbit-looking wine cellar built into the side of the hill.   It was walking up to the tasting room at Auntsfield that we saw the most incredible sight on the hillside - the grasses were waving in the wind in a unique way that looked like waves.  I've heard of "amber waves of grain" but this was a most beautiful and unique sight. 

Captivating Sculpture at Nautilus Winery
Our favorite winery of the trip was Nautilus.  Not sure why exactly we both agreed this was the best - I think it was a combination of a perfect tasting room atmosphere (just the right blend of friendliness and casualness), outstanding wines, and some great sparkling (that they actually had open for tasting!)  They have extensive distribution in the US as well. 

Time for lunch!  
The most amazing Thai beef salad ever - Wairua River Winery
We hopped across the street to Wairua River Winery to take advantage of their free wi fi (a rarity in New Zealand) so we could catch up on a few e-mails while having a bite from their amazing restaurant.  Again, gorgeous outdoor tables under a sun awning make for a perfect setting for their delightful food.   And then the star of the show. . . the most incredibly perfect Thai Beef Salad arrived.  Yum. 

If you like sparkling, the No. 1 Family Estate does nothing but, with several to taste in their cute, tiny tasting room.   We also were big fans of Bladen's lovely outdoor "cellar door" setting. 

In all, wine tasting in Marlborough is a delight.  Just remember to "Stay left" when driving (after a few wineries this might be tough) and be sure to save room in your suitcases for a few unforgettable bottles that you can't get at home!

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