Rachel Walne – Leeds Manager.
The scenery is nothing short of spectacular here on South Island, New Zealand. Marlborough is situated on a wide, flat river valley flanked on one side by the golden Wither Hills and on the other by the green and luscious Richmond range. Being positioned on the same latitude to that of Burgundy in France it experiences abundant sunshine during the day followed by cool nights. This results in a long, slow ripening process which is perfect for growing grapes. Even now after having worked for Majestic for just over 9 years, I feel incredibly fortunate to have been 1of 6 Majestic store managers to have been whisked away to experience some of the best that New Zealand has to offer. Marlborough is infamous for its tropical fruit influenced, herbaceous and pungent Sauvignon Blancs (78% of plantings here) yet there is so much more to be discovered.
Our hosts for the week were John and Jo Stichbury at Jackson Estate who welcomed us at their homestead in the 26°C sunshine when we arrived handing us all a beautifully chilled glass of their Sauvignon Blanc. Just what the doctor ordered after having been travelling for nearly 36 hours! We were to prepare ourselves for a busy week tasting wines and being taken on winery and vineyard tours before the grand finale of the Marlborough Food and Wine Festival on our last day.
Day 1: Villa Maria Winery:
Our first day started with a winery tour at Villa Maria where they have just finished building a vast barrel hall to house their wines. It was here that we sat and tasted a flight of 14 of their wines with winemaker, Jeremy McKenzie. It was eye-opening how many different styles and grape varieties are actually produced in the Marlborough region and by one producer. We tried everything from the Private Bin Sauvignon to their Single Vineyard, to unoaked Chardonnay, Gewurztraminer, and the Reserve Cabernet Merlot. After a tasty picnic lunch in their Awatere valley vineyards overlooking the river, we continued our tour of the vineyards and witnessed the chalky soil structure which is so important in ensuring quality fruit production. We ended the day with a barbecue back at the winery watching the sun set from the balcony overlooking the vineyards.
Day 2: Jackson Estate:
Jackson Estate is a family-run winery based in the Wairau valley of Marlborough. It was founded by John and Jo Stichbury in 1988 on the estate cultivated by John’s grandfather since 1912. The huge 140 year old gum tree which adorns the wine labels stands majestically behind the homestead. Our day began with a tasting of Jackson Estate’s wines with Mike Paterson the winemaker. Jackson Estate’s winery is connected to the neighbouring bottling plant by a pipeline which enables the wines to be bottled without needing transportation and allows the wine to be at its optimum freshness. We enjoyed a quick tour of the bottling plant watching it in action before leaving for the coast and the Marlborough Sounds. We travelled out of Blenheim and headed north to Picton where we spent the afternoon out on Queen Charlotte Sound on a luxury launch drinking Jackson Estate wines basking in the sunshine. Never let it be said that tasting wine is hard work! That evening we followed it up with a barbecue dinner at the Stichbury homestead where we were delighted by some of the wines that John has kept in his cellar. This included tasting a 2001 Sauvignon Blanc under screwcap versus one under cork. Where the wine under cork was oxidised and lacked fruit character, the wine under screwcap was still pretty fresh with a rich buttery dimension to it. The screwcap versus cork debate continues but with the evidence we saw, it’s hard to question the screwcap’s advantages.
Day 3: Wither Hills Winery:
Wither Hills Vineyards originally founded by Brent Marris in 1992, are now owned by Lion Nathan. They own 350 hectares of vineyard across the Wairau valley with some vines over 20 years old. They also operate a state-of-the-art-winery and cellar door just outside Blenheim. Their aim is to produce the best premium Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Pinot Gris and Pinot Noir. We felt very much at home when we arrived under a heavily clouded sky and torrential rain at the winery. After a tour of the winery and a Pinot Noir tasting with Nadine the winemaker at the winery, we were then taken out to a sheep farm to participate in a traditional New Zealand experience! The heavens had opened so we had a barbecue lunch in one of the barns of local green-lipped mussels and scallops (a perfect match for their Sauvignon blanc) before being given a sheepdog display, and shearing sheep ourselves! We spent the evening back at the winery where we had a fabulous dinner of monkfish, veal and mascarpone semifreddo by candlelight in the barrel hall surrounded by barrels of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. A wine-lovers paradise.
Day 4: Cloudy Bay and The Ned.
Following a tasting held for us by Nick Lane the winemaker at Cloudy Bay, we continued on to the Waihopai valley and met Brent Marris at the entrance to his vineyards. Named after “the Ned” which is the highest peak in the Marlborough region at 909m above sea level. Since leaving Wither Hills, Brent Marris has not been sitting still. A new high-tech modern winery is in the process of being built in the middle of the vineyards. Work to make the vineyard and winery operate with as little impact on the environment as possible has meant that the current vineyard buildings are built into the landscape and have a turfed roof. There is also a pair of falcons who they are encouraging to nest which will reduce the need for nets and bird-scarers. We spent the rest of the afternoon on the river bank in the vineyards where we tasted The Ned wines – Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Grigio, Pinot Noir and a sumptuous Noble Sauvignon Blanc dessert wine. Much to everyone’s disappointment due to its residual sugar and potential alcohol levels, current EU legislation prevents the Noble Sauvignon Blanc from being imported to the UK.
The remaining 2 days of our visit were much more casual and naturally involved a bit more wine tasting and guzzling more of the amazing seafood Marlborough has to offer. The one thing about our stay in New Zealand that stood out above all was how welcoming and friendly everyone we met was towards us. We immediately were made to feel at home from the moment we arrived and wanted for nothing for the duration of our stay. We were particularly spoilt by the quality of wines we tasted too and struck by the passion behind those that make them. The diversity of wine styles produced goes well beyond the iconic Sauvignon Blanc Marlborough has become infamous for, so it is worth broadening your horizons and trying something new. New Zealand is definitely one country that I for one will be heading back to – if only to sample another chilled glass of Riesling with those delicious green-lipped mussels again!
Recommendation Day 1: Villa Maria Private Bin Riesling: The Riesling vineyards are situated in the Awatere and Wairau valleys to achieve maximum ripeness and freshness. Grapes are gently pressed after being harvested in the cool temperatures of the morning. The wine demonstrates lime, apple and passionfruit abound. A crisp and refreshing slightly off-dry style which is perfect as an aperitif or with lightly spicy foods.
Recommendation Day 2: Jackson Estate Sauvignon Blanc: Grapes are sourced from 12 different vineyard sites for this wine. A short period of ageing on light lees takes place to encourage depth of flavour before blending and bottling. Aromas of tropical fruits, gooseberry and lime prevail, with a herbaceous note and an element of minerality. Crisp and fresh with a balanced acidity and a long finish.
Recommendation Day 3: Fairleigh Estate Chardonnay: If it’s value for money you’re searching for then the Fairleigh Estate range is it. Remaining true to the grape varietal, this Marlborough Chardonnay displays mango, peach, butterscotch and vanilla. It has been hand-picked and barrel fermented to produce a well-balanced and fruit-driven style. Easy-drinking and a great match for risottos or roasted chicken.
Or Wither Hills Pinot Noir: Having undergone 14 months in french oak barriques, this Pinot Noir is still full of ripe black cherries, but with a touch of earthiness and sweet cinnamon spice on the finish. Full-bodied and smooth it is the perfect match to roast NZ lamb or any barbecued meats.
Recommendation Day 4: The Ned Sauvignon Blanc: A wonderfully vibrant Sauvignon Blanc with flavours of gooseberry and passion fruit. It remains elegant however, with a herbal and minerally finish reflecting the terroir of the vineyards and rivalling the quality of a Sancerre.