Jen and I are no strangers to wine: we’ve been to more wineries than I can count, had two wine refrigerators at home fully stocked in addition to a rotating selection of reds, whites, and sparklings. So we were excited by the many opportunities here in New Zealand to taste – and drink – local wine. The first time we saw a sign reading Winery, I turned immediately into the parking lot. Straight 8 Estate is in Canterbury – not exactly a major wine region. This is where we realized that New Zealand is a big Riesling-producing nation and we picked up a bottle of Gased, Straight 8’s sparkling Riesling. We loved the tasting but unfortunately, this was the one thing we’ve had stolen from us here. We set it to chill before our Milford Sound dives, planning to enjoy it that evening. Alas, someone else decided we had no need of it. Regardless, our tasting experience at Straight 8 set the stage for what we had in store: a friendly person at the cellar door, knowledgeable about the wine, the region, and eager to share recommendations for places to go and things to do in this incredible country.
Although we stopped at another random winery along the way, it wasn’t until we got to the Gibbston Valley that we truly began to know New Zealand wine. The Gibbston Valley is located in Central Otago, allegedly the world’s southernmost grape-growing region. At 45 degrees South, it has similar growing conditions to Oregon and Burgundy at 45-47 degrees North. Not surprisingly, the region is known for Pinot Noir. We stopped at four wineries one day and only bought one bottle. I found myself using the word “minerality” throughout the day. What I meant was “gravel.”
Which is what the Pinot Noir here tasted like: picking up a handful of dirty gravel and sucking on it. Perhaps our palates are off but even the ones touted as easy drinking were too rocky for us. We did discover a lovely white at Wild Earth, a bottle of which we later enjoyed.
In time, we made our way to the heart of the South Island’s wine production: Marlborough. I’m a big drinker of Sauvignon Blanc but I tend to prefer the grassy, herbaceous ones of California to the fruit-forward ones from Argentina, Chile, and those exported to the U.S. from New Zealand. Jen, however, was ambivalent when it comes to Sauvignon Blanc, willing to enjoy a glass from time to time but more partial to reds. What we tasted here changed both of our minds.
“Asparagus! Green pepper? Tomato plant? Vegetal, definitely vegetal.” Uttered first by Jen at Wairau River Wines, these words became our delighted refrain when handed a Sauvignon Blanc in this area. Wairau River exports some of their wines to the U.S. but not the Reserve that we so enjoyed. This appeared to be a trend: wineries export to the U.S. but keep the really good stuff here in New Zealand.
Over the course of three non-consecutive days, we hit 11 wineries in Marlborough and if we’d had another day, we would have visited more. The first day, we had the van and realized at our second winery that we’d need to stay the night and spend the following day on bicycles. We still managed to drive to a third winery before finding a place to stay and setting out on foot for one last tasting.
On bicycles, we stopped at five including what became one of our favorite South Island wineries: Omaka Springs Estates. Margaret, a friendly woman from the middle of the United States, shared her enthusiasm for wine, New Zealand, the winery’s sheep, olive trees, and all things travel. We stayed quite a while here chatting and tasting both wine and olive oil. We left with a bottle of Sauvignon Blanc and the assurance that we can find it outside New Zealand.
A Dutch woman we met here, upon learning we were heading to Marlborough, recommended we check out Te Whare Ra. This is a small, family run winery where one of the two winemakers staffs the cellar door. She was a fountain of knowledge on wine, wine-making, and the region, and we finally got our answer to why some of the vineyards around here have little nets on the grapes. Quite simply, they keep birds out. And it turns out that the guns one hears in wine country from 7am until sundown are shot off by wineries without nets aiming to scare off the birds. The nets are unmanageable for larger wineries that have mechanized picking so although their naked grapes make for better photos, the routine gunfire is a little unsettling.
We enjoyed our Marlborough wine tasting so much that when we passed back through the area on our way to the North Island, we stopped off at two more, barely making it to each before closing. We’d hoped to hit one more but the day got away from us and we knew we’d soon make it to the North Island’s wine regions.
Wineries We Visited
Wines of Note
|Chard Farm||None but a donation is requested||None, as far as we’re concerned||Lovely grounds, decent chardonnay|
|Peregrine Wines||None||Rastasburn Riesling 2010||The architecture reminded us of Dominus, the manager on duty lived on Roatan, and we had a grand time talking and tasting.|
|Brennan Wines||$7||B2 Pinot Noir Rosé 2011||Great place for a picnic and a game of pétanque, plus they sell wine by the glass|
|Wild Earth||$5||Chelsea Riesling 2010||Located at the Goldfields Mining Center, this is a beautiful place to spend an afternoon and the wines were some of the best we had all day|
|Winery||Tasting Fee*||Wines of Note||Our Comments|
|Wairau River Wines||None||2012 Reserve Sauvignon Blanc
2013 Pinot Gris
|Where Jen fell in love with true Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc|
|No. 1 Family Estate||None||No. 1 Rosé and Number 8 Cuvée (if you know us well, you can probably guess who prefers what)||Lovely small tasting room at this all-sparkling winery using the Methode Traditionelle|
|Huia||None||Huia Brut 2009||We celebrated our Tongariro Crossing hike with a bottle of this|
|Framingham||None||2009 Montepulciano (and all reds, really)||A venue for live music with a great cellar, amazing reds, and an excellent tasting experience; wish we could have sent some home to age|
|Te Whare Ra||None||Toru
Pinot Noir 2012
|Winemaker at the cellar door!|
|Isabel Vineyard||None||Noble Sauvage||Beautiful grounds, no olive oil tastings on Mondays as no fresh bread available|
|Omaka Springs Estate||None||Sauvignon Blanc 2012||Good wine, lots of sheep, and great conversation|
|Highfield Estate||$5||None, as far as we’re concerned||Lovely view, forgettable wine|
|Fromm Winery||$5||Spatlese Riesling 2013
Clayvin Vineyard Pinot Noir 2011
|Like Framingham, if we were heading back to the US, we’d have bought a few to cellar|
|Rock Ferry||None||Plenty that would probably be fine with food||Also provides tasting of the winery’s Gibbston Valley reds|
|Drylands Cellar Door||None||Selaks Breeze Sparkling Sauvignon Blanc||Tasting room for multiple wineries including widely-available in the US Kim Crawford|
* Tasting fees are subject to change and everywhere we went waives the tasting fee upon purchase. Some places didn’t actually charge us the fee regardless whether we bought anything.