The sign read ‘Haere mai ki te whenua o Aotearoa’ which mercifully was translated below as ‘Welcome to New Zealand’.
It had been a long series of flights – Orlando to D.C., D.C. to San Francisco, San Fran to Auckland, NZ, Auckland on the North Island to Blenheim on the South Island – taking up over 30 hours of traveling time, and we were very happy to finally arrive on our first visit to New Zealand. There was Brad Lewis, Director of Wines for ABC Fine Wine and Spirits, Alex Poreda from Southern Wine and Spirits, Drew Farris from Coastal Wine and Spirits, and myself.
So what do you do after traveling 30 hours with little or no sleep, arriving on a Sunday morning at 10 a.m., and checking in at a hotel that understandably didn’t yet have any rooms ready? Being eminently sensible people we decided to leave our luggage, check out the town, and have a beer.
Blenheim is the major town – make that the only town of any size – in the Marlborough wine region. It is fairly small (population 30,200), laid back, and pleasant. Apart from a few restaurants and cafés there is little catering to the tourist trade as such. Marlborough itself – a large valley reminiscent in size and layout to Napa Valley laid on its side – only became a wine region thirty-five years ago. When Brancott (then known as Montana) Estates first planted grapes in Marlborough in 1976, people thought they were crazy. Now Marlborough as a region is the largest producer of wines in New Zealand. The prime mover, of course, is Sauvignon Blanc – pungent, vibrant, racy, and scintillating are the usual and apt descriptors. Sauvignon Blanc is what New Zealand’s fame as a wine producing country is based on. It has a delicious, upfront style that is unique, unlike anywhere else – British wine critic Oz Clarke has called it “arguably the best in the world” – and they make tons of it.
We were also well aware that Pinot Noir was an up-and-coming player in New Zealand. The cooler climate of Marlborough and of Central Otago – the southernmost wine region in the world – is perfect for this finicky cool-climate grape. We were less aware of the high quality of some of New Zealand’s other varietal wines. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
We finished our Steinlager Pure’s – a delicious, clean, easy-drinking beer – and returned to our hotel where our rooms were waiting for us, and performed our very necessary ablutions. After thirty-something hours – well, you can imagine. We all decided that, as tired as we were, we’d get through the day without sleeping. That way we’d be on New Zealand time with little or no jet lag.
What better way to pass the time than to enjoy some delicious food, a little wine, and some pleasant conversation? Late in the afternoon we walked over to the Hotel D’Urville. We were told it had one of the best brasseries in Blenheim, but we decided to relax in the bar and order a few appetizers. I’ve mentioned in a previous blog my fondness for tapas – quality finger food – and this was the perfect choice for the first night. We ordered some mushrooms in Marlborough garlic with herbs, bruschetta with tomato jam and grilled feta and a Marlborough olive oil drizzle, venison carpaccio with roasted macadamia nuts and capers, and a cheeseboard. The food was excellent and we were suitable impressed with the local olive oil and garlic.
Many of the wines on the wine list were unfamiliar to us. Fortunately we all enjoy exploring new things, so we started with a Villa Maria Seddon Vineyard Marlborough Pinot Gris 2009. We were, of course, familiar with the Villa Maria Private Bin and Cellar Selection tiers, but this was from their higher Single Vineyard tier and it was quite impressive, with pleasant pear, quince, and cinnamon notes. Next we tried a Triplebank Awatere Valley Marlborough Pinot Noir 2009 which was also excellent.
At this point we decided to walk back to out hotel – the Chateau Marlborough – to try a few appetizers at their restaurant. Here we had our first helping of what was to be a staple of our trip – delicious New Zealand green-lipped mussels, in this case served with prawns, tomato, saffron, baby spinach, and crusty bread. For wine we chose an Akarua Central Otago Pinot Noir Rose 2010. It was wonderful. Who says real men don’t drink dry rose? We do, emphatically.
By this time we had gone 48 hours without sleep and were feeling pretty groggy. It was time for a good night’s sleep, so we would be fully refreshed for our morning appointment at Cloudy Bay Vineyards.
(The story of our wine trip to New Zealand will be continued in my blogs next month where we will visit Cloudy Bay, Villa Maria, and much more.)
Bill Stobbs, Wine Supervisor, West Florida