Aotearoa: Marlborough Country
OK, no, not that Marlborough Country. In Aotearoa New Zealand, "Marlborough Country" means one thing: Wine.
Located at the northern end of the South Island, Marlborough is one of the main wine-producing areas of New Zealand. It produces some very fine white wines, and some decent reds, although the reds lack the depth and grandeur of the Australian wines.
We stayed in Picton, which is the major port of entry for the South Island - it's where most of the ferries from Wellington (southern tip of the North Island) dock. As a result, Picton had the cheapest places to stay, and cheap was what we were looking for.
The morning we set out for the wineries - most of which were closer to Nelson and Blenheim, about 30 km south of Picton. We decided to stop by a state park at first, but we completely missed the state park and instead ended up past Waikawa, driving the very scenic back road to Blenheim. The very scenic back road, much like the River Road, was also very winding and very narrow, and what would have taken us about 20 minutes on the main road took us about 3 hours - though, of course, some of that was a result of frequent photo stops!
We arrived in Blenheim both hungry and thirsty - which was convenient, as our plans for the day (and for the next day, too) involved little outside of winery tours, and several wineries offered not just wine tastings but also lovely cafés. Our first stop was the St. Clair winery, where we stopped for lunch and a lovely Pinot Noir. Their Sauvignon Blanc was an award-winner, but I'm not a big fan of Sauvignon Blanc, so we stuck with the Pinot.
New Zealand is considered to be one of the best producers of Chardonnay. Unfortunately, I really don't like Chardonnay - or so I thought. Chardonnay, especially from California, tends to be very oaky, as it is - go figure - aged in oak casks. However, some New Zealand wineries were creating unoaked versions of their Chardonnays, aging them in stainless steel, eliminating the oaky flavor so the grape itself comes through. And the unoaked Chardonnays were delicious. We introduced them to some friends here at a wine-tasting party, and everyone was quite surprised that a Chardonnay could be that good!
But it's not just wines that Marlborough has to offer. Several places had some champagne, and one place, Cellier Le Brun, specialized in champagne. We liked it so much, we went there twice, once the first day, and once the second. They were one of several places that charged for tasting (though the charge is refunded if you make a purchase), but for the price, they also gave us a brief, informal tour of their cellar, which we enjoyed.
But more than the tour, we enjoyed the champagne. They had several varieties, and we were thoroughly impressed with all of them. Most of all, I enjoyed the taché - which, believe it or not, is a dry, pink champagne. If memory serves (and after that many wineries, I can't be sure it does), it's made from Pinot Noir grapes, and has a very slight hint of sweetness that gives it a breathtaking depth of flavor. Mmmm.
We had better luck at the small wineries than at the large ones; Seifried Estate, one of the biggest wineries, was far more interested in serving the touring buses full of retirees than they were in a couple of random tourists. (We weren't the only ones who had to wait fifteen minutes and still not get served.) Some of our favorite places were Mud House, which featured not only a very impressive Pinot Noir but one of the coolest wine tasting hosts, who told us stories about the vineyard and the local wine trade. Framingham, which specialized in white wines, had not one but two Rieslings, which were both very tasty. (In general, we were quite impressed with the Rieslings.) Huia, named after a now-extinct New Zealand bird with gorgeous plumage, had a wonderful light Pinot Gris and a fantastic Gewürztraminer. Gewürztraminer often tends to be a bit too sweet for my tastes - a bit of sweetness is good, but some of them are sickly sweet. Most of the ones we encountered in Marlborough, though, were off-dry, a great accompaniment for spicy foods. Nautilus Estate had a good selection, and their champagne was fantastic. We also encountered several dry rosés, which are definitely among my very favorite kinds of wine. And there were more that we enjoyed, but we did all of this in two days, and as I said, my memory of the last several wineries on both days is a bit on the hazy side...
At one stop, we saw olive trees, with ripe olives hanging from them. We talked to the hosts and they said, "Sure, you can taste a raw olive if you want - but believe me, you really don't want to." They tried to talk me out of it, but my curiosity had been piqued, so they contented themselves with advising The One And Only to have a camera ready to capture my reaction. Which he did...
Yeah - raw olives are starchy and very bitter, and it mystifies me how anyone ever tasted that and then decided to give them a second chance. Lucky they did, because I love marinated olives...but I've learned that my love does not extend to the raw kind.
We came out of our two-day wineries tour with about 20 wineries visited, and a stash of about 25 wine bottles in the back of the car. (The wine was not only good, but especially with the exchange rate, extremely affordable.) We didn't realize for a while just how much we'd bought, but once we did, we decided we really had to be drinking about a bottle a day in order to have any chance of getting out of the country without schlepping cases of wine through customs.
Even so, we ended up bringing about 10 bottles of wine back in our suitcases...
24. October 2003
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