NZ (5) the Marlborough wine region
I've mentioned before how I think that visiting wine regions is important: you can taste as much as you like and read as much as you like, but it is only when you see where the wine comes from that it really clicks.
Over the last couple of days in Marlborough, this has certainly happened for me. There's so much to say, I don't really know where to start, but here's a woefully brief account.
Flying into Blenheim, you land right in the middle of the vineyards of the Wairau Valley plain: this is the heart of the wine region, and it's flat, with a sea of vines in all directions and not a lot else.
Five minutes after landed I had picked up my hire car, parked it, and was taken off by Damian Martin of Ara. Ara is an impressive new project: in a subregion of Marlborough some distance inland from Blenheim, Ara have started developing an enormous terrace of 1600 hectares. They've already put 400 hectares or so in, and they are tilting for the top. The vineyards are brilliantly run, with closer spacing than is normal for Marlborough, and a focus on Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir. Two wines have so far been released under the brand 'Composite', and more will follow. One to watch.
I spent the afternoon and evening with Damian - he invited me to his home (he has a French wife and three charming bilingual children) where we dined well on green lipped mussels (these are approximately four times larger than normal mussels, and are delicious) and salmon. We drank Ara wines, and finished with a beautiful Te Mata Coleraine 1998.
On Sunday morning I was up early to drive round the Wairau Valley taking pictures, before heading over to Montana's Brancott Winery. The vivid, startlingly intense sunlight was welcome after Saturday's leaden skies and biting wind. Katie Speakman, the Tour and Business Development Manager, drove me round the three main subregions of the district: the Awatare Valley, Wairau Valley and Raupaura. I learned a new word: hoon. Katie is with child, and needs her sleep, yet lives next door to some hoons who kept her awake all Friday night partying. Noise control confiscated their stereo system (again) but they just moved on next door... And I thought Blenheim was a sleepy rural town.
I lunched with Patrick Materman, who is the chief winemaker for Montana and the other brands that are made at the immense Brancott winery. We tried through quite a lot of wines, and had some fun discussions. Did you know that with 3000 tons of Pinot Noir passing through the winery here, this is perhaps the world's largest producer of this noble variety?
I left just before 4 pm, and headed out of town to Picton, some 25 kms away. This is where you catch the ferry to Wellington, and it is at the head of the Marlborough sounds. I took the Queen Charlotte Drive, a winding road through the sounds, with spectacular views all along. It was indescribably beautiful in the late afternoon sun - one of the world's great drives (am I getting carried away?).
After heading back into Blenheim, I wandered into town hoping to find something to eat. I opted for the Whalehaven restaurant, where I dined well, alone. Solitary dining can feel a little lonely, but I had a good book, a glass of Riesling and a couple of glasses of Pinot Noir, and had a thoroughly enjoyable time. I went to bed feeling immensely grateful.