Marlborough Wine Trail

While there are other grape producing areas, 52% of the wines in New Zealand come from Marlborough. Not surprising then that tasting wine is a major tourist draw to this area and as November draws to an end we are seeing people arriving in much greater numbers, especially Americans.  Brown "point of interest" Marlborough Wine Trail signs are all around between Blenheim and Renwick. Paper maps are readily available as well.

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.

Click here for larger images with captions.

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
Auntsfield Estate was the first vineyard, a Scotsman planting a few vines to make his port back in the 1800s, although the vineyard did not survive prohibition. Montana, or Brancott as it will soon be known as to prevent confusion with the US state, is the largest and led the way planting Sauvignon Blanc back in the early 1970s, which was the real start of the New Zealand wine industry. Production has exploded in recent years, and the current recession has burst the wine bubble. We've seen several vineyards for sale and some have gone up for auction. Also, many of the wineries are no longer New Zealand owned.

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 trend that may be emerging in the New Zealand wine industry is biodynamic viticulture. The Seresin Estate vineyard was one where we tasted wine produced using biodynamic techniques, some of which seem to have a spiritual or even mystical orientation. They claim that other vineyards are starting to embrace this practice. We were not as impressed with the Seresin wines as with some others, but they were certainly very good. Unlike Yealands, the Seresin wines were quite pricey, and are only exported internationally to restaurants, not retail distributors.

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.

1 comment:

  1. Wow, could it be that we exchanged with the same couple you did in Blenheim: Mick and GG, we just finished our 3 months there!! And next we're headed to Fairbanks in 60 days, we must be in a parallel universe to you!! :)