World class wines in an area that resembles the Napa Valley of California. Fabulous lodges with great food. And kayaking in deep blue waters that feel like the Gulf Islands of British Columbia.
I arrived in the Marlborough region of New Zealand, the far north end of the South Island, knowing I’d be tasting some of the world’s best – and most popular – Sauvignon Blanc. Somehow I didn’t realize the area had such jaw-dropping scenery, as well.
Upon arrival at the small airport in Blenheim, my guide from Marlborough Tours and I motored over to Fromm, an old-school style winery run by a family from Switzerland. The emphasis here is an organic, dynamic wine-making, with an emphasis on Chardonnay and Pinot Noir and Syrah, with very little Sauvignon Blanc.
At Wairau River Wines I was able to try some classic Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc; with that stunning fruit-forward yet dry and racy style that folks around the world seem to love more than any other. They also have a fantastic patio out back and a big patch of lawn where kids were playing football/soccer while adults sipped wine.
My favourite stop was probably Framingham, mostly because the winery is run by a guy who’s a fan of punk rock (and a musician in a punk band) and who plays everything from The Clash to The Damned in his tasting room; a change of pace if I ever saw (or heard) one. Outside you’ll find a patio with lots of pink and yellow roses, as well as sayings from famous rock stars or lyrics from songs, including at least one from Canada’s own Neil Young.
They do absolutely fantastic Riesling wines at Framingham and some lovely Italian-style reds.
Brancott Estate has a modern, minimalist winery on top of a hill overlooking the valley and is a great place to sip a variety of products; everything from racy Sauvignon Blanc to Sauvignon Gris, which I had never tried before. It tasted similar to a B.C. Pinot Gris to me and would be fantastic with salmon (better than Sauvignon Blanc would be) and soft cheeses.
They also make a variety of low-alcohol wines.
“These are great at lunch,” a winery worker tells me. “Fourteen per cent alcohol is great, but to me the object of wine is to have two glasses, not one. So something around nine per cent is that much better.”
I like her thinking.
Our final stop is Cloudy Bay, one of the best known Sauvignon Blanc producers in the country. It’s a fantastic product, but I’m also drawn to their floral, peachy Chardonnay.
Wine has certainly helped put Marlborough on the map. But the area also is famous for having a remarkable 20 per cent of New Zealand’s entire coastline. There are pockets and bays and nooks and crannies galore along the mainland and a series of islands that make the area feel like British Columbia.
I take a 20-minute ferry ride from the town of Picton to Lochmara Lodge, an isolated resort/hotel on a beautiful bay. Rooms are located in a series of small buildings on a hill overlooking the water. They also do rehabilitative work with adorable green-and-red parakeets called Kakariki.
They have a happy hour from 3:30 p.m. to 5 p.m., where you can get a 15-minute foot massage and a glass of wine or a beer for $30. And how good would that be?
I had a fantastic dinner of venison with braised red cabbage, along with a nice Merlot from Hawkes Bay on the North Island. But the best part was getting up early and listening to the exotic birds calling one another in the trees around the lodge, making a bit of a knocking sound that echoed out over the water and had me positively entranced. I also took out one of their kayaks and saw silky, black stingrays skimming through the clear green-blue water.
As great as that was, it got even better during my three-hour kayak trip back to town with Sean from Wilderness Guides, checking out the Marlborough Sounds. After a safety demo and a kayaking lesson, we set out on a 10-km paddle that took us past diving cormorants, seals basking on bronze-gold rocks and tiny blue penguins. We spotted one group of penguins at one area, then another a few metres away. Slowly the two groups swam towards each other and started chattering. Sean was fascinated, saying he’d never seen such a thing happen. The birds got quite chatty all of a sudden, as if in some kind of dispute. Then they all swam off together in the same direction, apparently having decided that the best breakfast lay in that direction and not somewhere else in the bay.
We couldn’t get terribly close, but it was a hoot and-a-half- to hear them and watch their behaviour. We got within a few meters of the seals, however. Sean explained that the animals are quite fast and could nip into the water in a split-second if they felt threatened.
Not only did we see tons of great wildlife, but Sean explained how folks in the area are eliminating invasive plant species and helping re-establish kiwi birds in the region.
I finished up with a great lunch in Picton at a pretty, waterfront spot called Le Café, where they served up sensational fish with a tomato puree and a great salad with shredded carrots, beets and pumpkin seeds. One of the cafes had large bean bag chairs set out on the patio so folks could get comfy and watch the boats come and go in the harbour. Nice.
“This part of New Zealand is just wonderful,” one local tells me. “At this time of year (March) the weather is more settled and the water’s still warm. I can wake up on a Sunday and my biggest decision is whether to go hiking, take the boat out or go skiing in the resort about 90 minutes away.”
FOR MORE INFORMATION: www.newzealand.com, www.marlboroughnz.com
FLYING TO NEW ZEALAND: Air New Zealand does a great job getting you from North America to New Zealand. Not only do they have great service in regular economy and premium economy (great seats for sleeping), you also get wonderful Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc on board. Some wines can taste flabby and fat at 35,000 feet, but the acidity and zippy flavours of New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc make it a wonderful sip at high altitude.
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