By mid-morning light breezes have swept away the overcast dawn, leaving only wispy clouds. It’s February – high summer in New Zealand – and the scent of flowering lavender is in the air. My husband and I are in the Marlborough wine region, located at the top of the South Island, and we’re about to start two days of cycling through the vineyards.
“Ready?” says Jo Hill, handing us a map to nearby cellar doors. About 40 of Marlborough’s 140 or so wineries are open to the public – many are within easy cycling range – but Jo suggests we visit at most five a day. “By the fifth winery, your tastebuds are shot,” she explains.
Jo and her husband, Steve, own Wine Tours By Bike in Renwick. The village is in the broad Wairau Valley, home to many family-owned and some corporate wineries, such as Cloudy Bay.
Jo’s map lays out a 20-kilometre circuit for the first day. I hope I’m up to it – it’s been a while since I spent that much time on a bicycle. Our route, she says now, avoids most highways and hills, but adds as we leave, “There’s just one wee hill.”
Glen and I push off to a wobbly start on the crunchy gravel driveway and turn our sturdy three-speed bikes onto a quiet country road, already among grape vines.
Today, the Marlborough wine region, made up of the Wairau Valley, Southern Valleys and Awatere subregions, is known around the world for its sauvignon blanc – ‘savvy’, as the locals call it. But it wasn’t always so. This was farming country in 1973, when Frank Yukich of Montana Winery in Auckland bought land south of Renwick and planted vines. Among the grape varieties he tested was sauvignon blanc. Marlborough’s sunny days and cool nights created a surprisingly pungent wine, tangy and aromatic, soon to fulfil Yukich’s prediction “Wines from here will become world famous.”
In 1979, the year Yukich released his first sauvignon blanc vintage, a young Irishman working in the liquor business in Christchurch, Ernie Hunter, also planted sauvignon blanc in the region. In 1986 he entered his wine in The Sunday Times Vintage Festival in London, England – and won both the gold medal and the popular vote. It stunned the wine world.
“New Zealand sauvignon blanc was so different it surprised everyone,” says Jane Hunter, an internationally respected vintner who has managed Hunter’s winery since her husband’s death at age 38 in 1987. “It was our oak-aged sauvignon blanc,” she adds. “Back then we didn’t do the work we do now in the vineyards, and the sauvignon blanc was really grassy – quite greenish and very overpowering.” Aging it in oak barrels created a more mellow and elegant wine, she explained. Hunter’s Wines won the competition three years in a row.
The trophies were game changing for New Zealand wines. “There had been nothing new in the world of wine for centuries,” says Tessa Nicholson, a reputed New Zealand wine writer and editor. “Now it’s a worldwide phenomenon. It has gone from nothing to more than 23,000 hectares and NZ$1.2 billion in wine exports.”
“Is this the wee hill Jo warned us about?” I wonder aloud, as a half-hour later I am pedalling hard to get up the short but steep hill to Seresin Estate.
But it’s worth it. At the top is a horse-drawn wagon, and Melissa Rae, originally from Lapland, Finland, but who has worked at Seresin for ten years, invites us on board. She takes us to a lookout over the sunny valley. Six or so kilometres to the north, the Richmond Range is banked with rainclouds. These mountains and others to the south moderate Marlborough’s weather, making it the sunniest region in New Zealand – the Maori named it ‘the place with the hole in the clouds’.
Melissa tells us Seresin’s vineyards are among a handful in Marlborough to be certified biodynamic. It is more restrictive than organic, she explains. “If we take anything from the land we put it back, that’s the principle.” To qualify, vineyards must be farmed in a way that promotes soil health. Everything – from mulch and fertiliser to sprays – is made on the estate.
At the small cellar door, manager Fran Broad has lined up four wines on the antique wood counter for us to taste. She pours the sauvignon blanc, which slides over our palates with a tangy crispness and touch of sweetness – delicious. The chardonnay, riesling and pinot noir – the latter a Marlborough up-and-comer – are also exceptional. Olive oil and honey are made on the estate, too. Fran opens a bottle of olive oil infused with lemon for us to sniff.
We are at the bottom of the hill before Glen realises that he didn’t pay for the bottle of oil he came away with. He turns his bike back up the steep slope. He returns laughing. Fran gave him the oil. “She says I earned it!”
Fifteen minutes later we veer onto a picturesque lane and cross a stream edged with old willow trees to arrive at Bladen Wines’ cellar door. Owners Dave and Christine Macdonald arrived in Marlborough in 1989, part of a wave of small wineries that started up after Ernie Hunter’s success.
Christine, a cheerful brunette in her 50s, poured us an off-dry gewürztraminer, sweeter than the savvies and creamy on the palate. “We’re quite chuffed with this gewürz,” Christine says with a smile, adding that Cuisine, one of New Zealand’s top food magazines, rated it second among 33 New Zealand gewürztraminer wines.
She and Dave were in their 20s, living in Wellington and working in jobs a world away from wine when they “got caught up in the fire that was happening here,” she says.
“We bought this bit of land – pure paddock – off a farmer. It was stony and dry,” Christine continues. They commuted from Wellington to Marlborough on weekends for three years, planting pinot gris, semillon and gewürztraminer grapes. “The varieties we liked to drink,” she says. They later added riesling and sauvignon blanc.
They banded together in a trading company with other small wineries and went to international fairs to promote Marlborough wines. “That was the best thing that happened for all of us,” she added. “This industry has been amazing, watching it grow the way it has,” she says.
So far everyone we’d met had proven Steve Hill right when he had told us, “The beauty of this region is everyone’s small enough that they’re interested in meeting people and passionate about what they do!”
By the time we leave Bladen, it is midday, and we head north to Rapaura Road, known as the ‘Golden Mile’ for the dozen-plus wineries on it. We work up an appetite cycling the two or so kilometres to our next stop, Wairau River Wines, which has a restaurant.
Passing through the winery’s modern cellar door, we enter a busy dining room with a contemporary casual vibe that looks more Manhattan than rural New Zealand. We’re shown to a table on a covered patio overlooking a lush, manicured lawn.
We order the house speciality, a double-baked blue-cheese soufflé, with rocket, pear and walnut salad, and, of course, a glass of pinot gris. The soufflé was light and luscious and the wine a perfect pairing. We linger over a second glass.
The winery’s owners, Phil and Chris Rose, farmed lucerne and alfalfa on the family farm here in the 1970s, says marketing executive Gemma Lyons. It took a court battle for the Roses to get permission from the district council to plant grapes. Farmers objected to the change in use of the land, the forestry industry feared they wouldn’t be able to use sprays if grapes were growing nearby, and church groups objected to alcohol.
Would the district council have relented sooner, we wonder, had they known that land planted with vines here would be valued today at NZ$250,000 a hectare?
We visited two more wineries that afternoon, ending the day at Te Whare Ra (Maori for ‘house in the sun’). Owner Anna Flowerday, 42, greeted us at the small cellar door.
Some of the riesling, chardonnay and gewürztraminer vines planted on the 14-hectare wine estate go back to 1979, she says. “Marlborough makes great sauvignon, but it equally makes great aromatic whites of other kinds.” Anna and Jason planted sauvignon blanc, pinots and syrah. “I’m quite proud of this pinot,” she says, pouring tastings of the organic red.
Te Whare Ra was named ‘Winery of the Year’ for 2014 by Raymond Chan Wine Reviews. A New Zealander with more than two decades of wine judging, Chan called Te Whare Ra the “modern and young face of winegrowing in New Zealand,” and cited its wines and respect for the environment.
“That’s what gets me out of bed in the morning,” says Anna. “I want to be the best. If people have only got one day and can only see five wineries, I want to be on that list.”