We’re en route the Marlborough wine district via Kiwi Rail’s Coastal Express. The journey is celebrated as one of the jewels in New Zealand’s tourism crown. The utterly bucolic route takes us along the east coast of the South Island via a rugged sheep and cattle strewn tract of land. The train makes its way north through my old winemaking stomping ground, Waipara (sniff, sniff), running parallel to the glorious Southern Alps to the west and the Teviotdale Hills to the east. We’ve just left the seaside town of Kaikoura where, on this sunny fall day, the dolphins are playing in beachfront waters alongside a flock (we’re in sheep country, folks) of paddle boarders.
The beauty of this coastal ride rivals the Tranz Alpine train route we took yesterday. The Tranz Alpine leaves from gold rush mining town Greymouth on the west coast and crosses the Southern Alps through the exceptionally stunning Arthur’s Pass, ultimately weaving its way to Christchurch.
I think New Zealand has cornered the market on nature’s awesomeness.
I’m at a loss for words when it comes to describing the vistas we’ve seen on the South Island. I’m a proud Canadian, and we’ve got our share of nature’s bounty, but it’s like the vista gods took the best of Canada and packed it into 268,000 kilometers (making NZ a bit bigger than Britain, a little smaller than Japan and about the same size as California). The audio commentary on the train also just advised us that in 1893, New Zealand was the first country to give women the right to vote earning it the moniker the “social laboratory of the world”. This bit of news further cements my growing passion for this country.
We’ve just hit the Awatere wine district. Vines stretch uninterrupted from the train tracks all the way to the eastern shore, some 10 km away. The train flies by but I’m guessing the view is all Sauvignon Blanc. The audio commentary tells us growers here in Awatere think their trademark Sauvignon Blanc grapes have a richer, fuller flavour vs. the more savoury and herbaceous notes found in the Sauvignon Blanc up the road in Blenheim. All I know is with this many vines you’re looking at harvester vs. hand picking. The explosion in popularity of Sauvignon Blanc has made New Zealand the most successful new wine producing country in the world. These fields scream commercial wine production and over 80% of vines in this region are SB.
Marlborough is New Zealand’s largest wine making region with about 150 wineries and 650 grape growers. There are two key regions: the prime real estate Wairau Valley which is a wide river valley stretching from the Spenser Mountains in the west to the Pacific Ocean at Cloudy Bay and the Ataware Valley which we’ve just passed through. Marlborough has the highest sunshine hours in New Zealand and represents 75% of New Zealand’s total production. They’re on track to produce 308,000 tons of grapes this year up from 233,182 tons in 2015. Last year’s vintage suffered with almost every varietal and every region affected by early frost and lower yields. Overall, New Zealand was down 20 -30%. The good news is 2016 looks to be a significant improvement with most of the grapes now harvested.
Marlborough has cornered the market in highly aromatic, fruit forward, consumer friendly Sauvignon Blanc, upstaging their (mostly) up-market French counterparts in the Loire’s Sancerre and Pouilly-Fume regions (and also in Bordeaux’s Entre Deux Mers,). While 80% of grapes here are bread and butter Sauvignon Blanc, they also produce cool climate friendly Pinot Noir and Chardonnay and aromatics Riesling, Pinot Gris and Gewurtztraminer.
We’ve booked a wine tour with Sounds Connections out of Picton. I plan to taste my way through the next few days so a car isn’t in the plans and sadly, I lack the stature of Jancis, Hugh and Jaimie (wine review gods) so there will be no driver provided by the Marlborough Wine Tourism movers and shakers. Net, I am at the mercy of Don – our host – who has selected four wineries to visit. Don has lived in the Marlborough region his entire life and has booked three family-run wineries, which is a home run.
Up first is Hunter Wines – one of the pioneers in the region. Hunter’s first vintage was in 1982, and the head of the company, Jane Hunter has helped put Sauvignon Blanc and New Zealand on the global wine map. Jane Hunter is the most awarded woman in New Zealand’s wine industry and she’s led Hunter through 34 vintages collecting over 160 gold medals along the way. We sample a range of varietals and vintages. My favourite is the crisp, dry, 2015 Sauvignon Blanc. It brims with tropical fruit, framed with the region’s classic vegetal and savoury notes. This is an elegant food-friendly wine.
We move on to Nautilus Estate, another family run operation down the road from Hunter’s. Nautilus planted their first vines in 1985, the same year as the venerable Marlborough producer, and Sauvignon Blanc producer emeritus, Cloudy Bay set up shop. According to Don, there are 33 cellar doors open to the public in the Blenheim and Renwick area. Many of the headline grabbing producers are not open for public tasting – so we won’t be visiting some of my regional favourites – Greywacke or Dog Point (which my son generously brought back as a souvenir from his 2013 New Zealand visit :).
Nautilus shares a variety of regional favourites. I’m loving the bubbles. The Cuvée Marlborough Brut non-vintage is a traditional method sparkling wine (of course we can’t call it Champagne, cuz we’re not in France but the process is the same). It’s biscuity, nutty and oozes bright fruit flavours with a big crisp finish. Their 2015 Pinot Gris is highly perfumed and screams ripe pear and honeysuckle. It goes down beautifully with the Over the Moon Tomme buffalo and goat cheese I’ve just bought (winning best in class at the 2010 world cheese championships).
We’re on to Forrest Wines – the creation of a husband and wife team, both of whom are wine loving doctors who threw in the stethoscope to try their hand at wine production. John and Brigid Forrest started making wine in 1988 and they now own seven vineyards totaling 130 hectares. I love the R&D perspective this family brings to winemaking. Building on the research that says wine has medicinal benefits, the Forrest’s have created a light style offering called “The Doctors'” where they’re experimenting with lower levels of alcohol with their off-dry Riesling and Sauvignon Blanc varietals. They have a high bar, which is taste parity with their full alcohol versions. Of course the structural trade-off between alcohol is always more residual sugar (if you see a lower level of alcohol on a bottle of wine it means the fermentation was stopped before all the sugar was converted to alcohol which also means the wine – could also have a bit of co2 spritz – which in my humble opinion, this Riesling did).
This is a terrific 2014 Riesling, which boasted classic cool climate fresh green apple and lime primary fruit flavours and the sweetness was nicely offset with a vibrant acidity. I would buy this in a second if I didn’t have the north island to traverse!
Our final stop is the acclaimed boutique Fromm vineyard. Original owner Georg Fromm hails from Switzerland and in 1992 he recruited legendary fellow Swiss winemaker Hatsch Kalberer. Fromm’s success has come from their minimal intervention philosophy, rich valley floor clay soils, and organically farmed, low cropped and hand picked approach to fine wine production. They are humble in all they do, producing 8000 cases a year letting the individual sites express themselves. The 2014 Pinot Noir is rich, concentrated ripe red fruit and is ready for drinking although the intense fruit structure would easily buy it time in a cellar.
It’s been a great day with Don who has every regional wine fact about Marlborough securely tucked in his head. Don knows most of Blenheim’s winemakers and cellar door staff, particularly the smaller, family run wineries. The area celebrates the culture of the vineyard with regular festivals and vineyard bike rides and runs. It’s much more than just grape production here. It’s a tight knit group who support each other cuz you never know when you’ll need a helping hand.