We've often remarked that the region reminds us of California -- vineyards with a backdrop of grassy rolling green hills that turn brown in the summer -- a compelling landscape for an afternoon drive. Wine tour vans transport from winery to winery for responsibility-free tasting. Bicycle touring is another way to see the wineries and vineyards, but is one of those activities that sounded good before we got here. With no bike paths and with tourists still learning which side of the road to be on, we don't see how this could be safe or fun, especially after a drink or two. It is also seems a bit overwhelming to attempt to seriously evaluate wines by spending the entire day tasting. Our biggest tasting day included just three wineries, and we preferred to visit just one per day. In any case, a tasting day will conclude in the late afternoon as the vineyards close between 4-5PM. We tasted at about a baker's dozen of vineyards in the Marlborough region.
Without exception, the Cellar Doors have been great with attractive but simple decor using lots of wood and stone. Most of the vintners do not charge for tastings, and some only charge if you do not make a purchase. Our undereducated but eager to learn palates were never made to feel inadequate, but of course cellar doors are there to sell wine.
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Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir are the region's best grapes, although most vintners also make Chardonnay and many have Gewurtztraminer, Riesling, Merlot and Syrah. Experimenting with new varieties is ongoing and the most interesting new red wine for us was a Tempranillo. Some even make sparkling wines, known as "bubbles" here.
|Auntsfield's original cellar|
New Zealand has fairly recently almost totally moved to screw caps in lieu of either natural or synthetic corks. We didn't visit a single vineyard using cork. The entire industry moved towards screw caps starting in about 2001 and all but a few small boutique vineyards use screw caps. Vineyard staff we talked to said that the cork-tainting problem has completely gone away and that screw-capped New Zealand wines are being universally well-received around the world.
It was also interesting to note some of the vineyards moving towards sustainable practices. Yealands Estate vineyard in the Awatere Valley is fully sustainable and carbon-neutral, as are about 6 other vineyards in New Zealand. (There are over 40 vineyards in the Marlbourough region.) When we tasted at Yealands, we expected the sustainable "badge" to be accompanied by higher prices. Not only was this not the case, the Yealands wines were some of the very best we had sampled.
|Vines at Seresin|
Another aspect of the business we found especially interesting was the use of the endangered New Zealand Falcon to "patrol" vineyards and keep away grape eating birds. In 2005 the Falcons for Grapes program reintroduced the raptors with the assistance of some vineyards in feeding chicks and monitoring nests. The jury still seems to be out as to the success of the program, and we did not observe any Falcons while in Marlborough, although one of the owners at Auntsfield sees them regularly near the south end of their property.
Our "immersion" in Marlborough wines was enjoyable and educational. Not only did we learn a lot about local vineyards and terroir, but a good deal about viticulture and winemaking. Our eyes were opened to some extremely good white wines, especially sauvignon blancs and pinot gris. Riesling varieties are very good here, too, and dry compared to German rieslings we've had before. We'd heard that some of the best New Zealand wines weren't being exported, but that's probably only for smaller vineyards. Most wines we tasted are available internationally and we're sure to be looking for New Zealand wines on US shelves.