Day 160: On The Wine Trail

Sun. 20th January 2013

A great way to go wine tastingWe’ve had lots of suggestions from friends as to things we ought to do whilst in New Zealand (thanks to everyone who has helped) – everyone seems to have good memories of their visit here. One thing that we needed absolutely no prompting for was to have a day’s wine tasting in the Marlborough region centred around Blenheim. Today is the day. The sun is shining, the sky is clear and blue and we have a map showing us where the vineyards are. If that isn’t ready, I don’t know what is.

Ripening in the sunThe only real problem that we have is that we are spoilt for choice. There are so many wineries in the area – how do we know which ones to choose? In the end we formulate a plan. We must go to Cloudy Bay because it is so famous (even though we are likely to be disappointed) and we want to go to Forrest Winery because we once met the owners at a wine tasting event back home. Those two mark the extremes of our cycling and we can then fit in others around them. Also, we make sure to get our chores and blog writing done before we leave – we may not be in a state to concentrate when we get back to the van.

The vineyards stretch on and onWe take one of the side roads out of town – not only is it less busy, but it has fields of vines on either side. Each field is labelled with the owner’s winery. Sometimes we pass a name that we recognise. The road is flat – indeed the entire valley, sandwiched between two mountain ranges is flat. Flat valley means that it was formed by a glacier and not a river(???) – more importantly, the cycling is easy. The green of the vines set against the dark colours of the distant mountains and the cerulean sky. What a lovely day.

Where do the mountains end and the sign begin?We are a bit apprehensive about going to Cloudy Bay winery. It is probably NZ’s most famous wine and the Sauvignon Blanc that other wineries compare themselves against – and generally they try and say “we’re better, but less expensive”. Well, what a treat we were in for. The whole setup was beautifully done. The tasting room was tastefully decorated (and had a long window in one wall giving views of row upon row of barrels of wine maturing away; they had a garden where you could sit out for your tasting if you wanted; the staff were really pleasant and helpful; you could taste a couple of wines for free and it was only NZ$5 (£2.50) to taste a further 6 wines from their tasting list.

Allan Scott Winery - just opposite Cloudy BayAnd the wines – oh, joy! We have been drinking wine whilst we have been here (it would be rude not to) but we have chosen from the budget end of the range in the supermarket (around NZ$10). At Cloudy Bay, these are not those wines (but still typically only NZ$30 – 40). Boy, could you taste the difference. As we tried the wine, the staff were more than happy to talk to us and to talk about the wine – and the more we chatted with them, the more friendly they got and the more samples they were willing to give us as they enthused about wines that we wouldn’t have otherwise tried. My favourite wine here – hard to say, but possibly (and very surprisingly) the Riesling where they managed to tone down the mineral/paraffin taste of so many New World Rieslings yet keep it dry (unlike most German Rieslings) and really let the fruit come to the fore. It was gorgeous – if you ever come across a bottle, buy it!

Great lunch at Allan Scott wineryWe spent nearly an hour in Cloudy Bay and bought a bottle of their Pelorus sparkling wine (named after a Pelorus dolphin named Jack who was famous in the 1870s for guiding ships into harbour – the winery logo is also a dolphin). By then it was lunchtime and by good fortune and good planning, the Allan Scott winery directly opposite Cloudy Bay had both a tasting shop and a restaurant. Again, our policy of taking our time and talking to the staff pays dividends as they open a bottle of their high-end Chardonnay especially for us. For the past couple of weeks, our lunches have been mostly Cup-A-Soups and sandwiches, so it was a real treat to sit down in the restaurant for a light lunch and a glass of wine. I made two discoveries: I really like Waldorf Salad; and the Alan Scott Gewürztraminer is sensational – apricots and lychee with a touch of citrus. Not sweet, but really tasty and able to stand up to the vinegar and blue cheese in the salad dressing.

Two down four to go (at Forrest)If we (wrongly) had low expectations of our reception at Cloudy Bay then we also (wrongly) had high expectations of Forrest winery. Not that we were badly treated but the staff didn’t have the zest that we had experienced at the other wineries. Name dropping that we had previously met the owner brought little reaction. Still, whilst making our selection as to what wines to taste and talking through the list with the staff – and pushing back on one of their suggestions paid dividends as we got an extra wine to taste. A lovely way to spend an afternoon – sitting out in the garden and sampling some (more) top quality wines. My favourite wine here was the Chenin Blanc – often a little bland, but here full of fruit and citrus.

The cellars at FramingtonThere is no rest though as we have two more wineries to fit in before they close at 5pm. First up is Framington. Again our ‘get the staff talking’ policy pays big dividends (the conversation this time is around Gordon Ramsay, provoked by the ‘F’ logo on their wines. While we are slowly working our way down their tasting list (we must have tried a dozen wines here), a tour group comes in. They are perfunctorily given 3 wines to taste and a standard spiel and then leave again. The group will have paid NZ$90 each for their wine tour.

Not a bad days work!Our last stop is at Fromm Winery set up by a Swiss couple. This is the smallest of the wineries that we have visited today but, once again, they are more than happy to talk to us about their wine. The  only bad news part of the day comes when we have to cycle back again. It is probably 7 or 8km back to Blenheim and our van (we have probably cycled around 30km in the day) and worse, the wind has got up a little and it is in our face – and our legs don’t seem to work as well as they did on the way out.

So, what have we learned from our day on the wine trail? Quite a lot, I think:

  1. It can be a really cheap day out. Tastings at the wineries were either free or between NZ$5 – 10 (nominally per person, but in each case we split the tasting between two). You don’t have to buy the wines!!
  2. Do it yourself, don’t be a gringo and take the coach tour. We were treated far better than the coach parties were;
  3. Talk to the staff at the wineries. You will learn more and get to taste more wines;
  4. The best winemakers can really make a difference. Every winery we went to made (at least one) Sauvignon Blanc – but they all tasted differently. Its not just the grape but also the winemaking process (try Cloudy Bay Te Koko for a very different Sauvignon Blanc);
  5. Riesling is the most extraordinary versatile grape and I was wrong to poo-pooh it for all this time!

Needless to say, it was a great day. But there are so many more wineries here, we are so tempted to do it again tomorrow!

[If you want to see a Google map of our cycle route, it is here]

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