We love wine. We love the taste, the stories, the history, the passion the winemakers have for their craft, and the role that wine plays in cultures around the world. Taking wine tours, or drinking local wine at the very least, are some of our favorite ways to learn more about the places we visit. So, when we booked our tickets to New Zealand, we knew that a wine tasting was in our future. However, we weren’t at all prepared for what the Marlborough region has to offer.
The Marlborough region is on the north east portion of the South Island. It is known for its world-class sauvignon blancs. Yet, as a wine region, this part of the world is still in its infancy. While wineries in parts of Europe are many hundreds of years old, the wine scene in NZ was only started in the 1970s when European varietals were planted here. Those varietals and the climate are a match made in heaven for sauvignon blancs. Pinot noir also has a significant presence in New Zealand, in Otago on the South Island, and Martinborough and Hawke’s Bay on the North Island.
I am not the biggest fan of pinot noir so we saved our wine tour for Marlborough to experience the sauvignon blancs. When we arrived in Blenheim we did some research on wine tours and went with a full-day tour through Bubbly Grapes. We still can’t get over how clever their tagline was: “We’ll drive you to drink.” Kerry, the owner and our guide, was friendly and knowledgable about the Marlborough Region. She picked us up at 10 a.m., and we introduced ourselves to the other two couples on our tour – one couple from Idaho, and another couple who lived in Perth, Australia.
During previous wine tours we’ve visited three or four wineries throughout the day, talked to the winemakers and even toured vineyards. After we got in the van with Kerry and our tour mates, we realized this tour was going to be a bit different. When Kerry ran through the schedule for the day, she talked about hitting three or four wineries before lunch, and then a couple after lunch as well.
We were excited for all of the different places we were going to try, but we didn’t take her “pace yourselves” as seriously as we should’ve. At our first winery, we tasted nine different wines. At our second, we tasted another six. We hit four more wineries before the day was over, not to mention two boutique gift shops where we sampled liquors such as butterscotch and peach schnapps along with a chocolate factory. I have a headache just thinking about all the alcohol we consumed. Never in all of our wine tours have they been as generous with their number of samples, between six and nine different kinds of wine at all six wineries!
Rock Ferry Winery was our first stop. It is an organic and biodynamic winery producing a tremendous variety of wine though only produces around a few thousand cases each year, making it one of the smallest producers in Marlborough. Biodynamic processes utilize natural farming techniques pioneered by Rudolf Steiner. These practices include planting compatible crops near the vines to maintain soil nutrition, using select plants to provide a form of insect repellent, and even following the lunar calendar to guide pruning and harvesting. One of the varieties we were surprised to see in Marlborough was a Tempranillo which was quite good, and Rock Ferry is one of only three wineries in the country to make this. We also tried our first ever pinot blanc here. Typically used to help balance wines, the pinot blanc grape is often not even acknowledged on the bottle, but at Rock Ferry they use this subtle grape to create a wine out of nothing but pinot blanc. It was very obvious that creativity and innovation is a central part of their focus and they provided some of the most exotic wine varieties we saw in Marlborough.
Cloudy Bay, our second stop, was mere minutes away but couldn’t have been more different. This vineyard produces substantially more wine than Rock Ferry but with a much more concentrated range mostly made up of sparkling wine, sauvignon blanc, and pinot noir. The setting was more refined which is no surprise since it is owned by Louis Vuitton Moet Hennessy, but with small touches that still made it feel warm, inviting, and approachable including a hutch with cutouts showcasing soil samples from around the country and a row of different jars to help identify scents commonly found in their wines. Here again we had a large number of tastings (six) with the most interesting being a comparison between a 2005 and a 2015 sauvignon blanc. We learned that as sauvignon blanc ages, it takes on certain vegetable-like flavors and aromas. Ben thought it smelled like canned spinach. If you ask him why he knows what canned spinach smells like, he will tell you an adorable story about how he thought he could be Popeye if he ate canned spinach when he was younger. Needless to say, while we do love our vegetables, mostly the non-canned kind, we don’t like vegetable flavors in our wine.
Whitehaven is a strange beast in the NZ wine world as it’s one of the largest producers in the area, but basically doesn’t have a presence here (seriously – no tasting room in the winery, just a little storefront outpost). Approximately 90% of their wine is exported to North America. The reason this stop was on our itinerary is because it was the favorite winery of the Idaho couple who were with us on the tour. The story of how the winery came to be was an interesting one, as the couple who started it wanted to change careers. After spending several years on a yacht they met up with friends who had a vineyard and then bought land in Marlborough to start a winery of their own. This location was also the first time during our tour we tried a lower alcohol wine. Apparently the New Zealand government is really pushing for those who make alcoholic beverages to reduce the percentage of alcohol in each drink. What this means for Whitehaven is mixing their juice with yeast strains which process sugars differently and ultimately lessen the percent of alcohol by volume. The wine we tried had 9% alcohol while most wine is in the 13% range. However, this doesn’t come without challenges. The wine had a very interesting nose, described by people on our tour as smelling like body odor, which is a result of the yeast producing more sulfur; a quirk that winemakers are still trying to overcome.
Giesen was our next and possibly the most important stop. Here we ate lunch. They had a great menu which included wood fired pizzas, NZ green lipped mussels, and charcuterie boards. Once we ordered we made our way over to the bar to do yet another tasting. By this time we had tried a lot of sauvignon blancs so we requested a few more reds from the woman who was behind the bar including a lot of different kinds of pinot noir. When the food came we enjoyed a mix of smoked fish, meat, cheese, pate, and pickled vegetables. So delicious!
*Disclaimer* – At this point we’d had approximately 25 pours of wine and had done a liquor tasting at a boutique shop. We were still enthusiastically trying wine, but weren’t able to give them our full appreciation. Our palates were not able to pick up on the flavors the winemakers had worked so hard to produce and there was more water being consumed than wine.
Saint Clair was winery number five. This was my favorite tasting room simply because it felt like we were sitting in the vineyard. The floor to ceiling windows of the tasting room, which was located in the midst of the vines, provided a really cool setting. Saint Clair has won many awards through the years and you can tell this family owned business is passionate about what they do. Given we weren’t able to give the wines our full attention during our tour, we subsequently bought a few bottles of the wines we tried and they are wonderful.
Wither Hills was the last stop on our tour. This was a beautiful winery that sat up high and gave wonderful views of the vineyards below. However, we can’t give you many details on the wine since at this point we were, to put it eloquently, smashed. We are looking forward to trying their wine again when we are in better shape.
Although our ability to appreciate everything coming out of Marlborough fell off towards the end, we still think doing a wine tour and exploring what the local wineries have to offer is the best way to get a “taste” of this region!