Blenheim, at the center of the Marlborough wine-growing region, is among the warmest spots on the South Island. That said, it’s still winter here, and last night the temps approached freezing. High overcast on Saturday morning revealed snow on the mountains that surround the Wairau River valley that is the heart of the Marlborough region. We avoided the early morning chill through the simple strategy of staying in bed until it was really late. We put together a do-it-yourself breakfast with silky, free-range chicken eggs with yolks the color of mangos, toast with home-made grapefruit-lemon marmalade and quince jelly, some fresh OJ, and coffee. Delicious.
Thus fortified, we packed up and headed out for a short round of wine-tasting. Let it be noted that we know virtually nothing about New Zealand wines beyond the fact that they’ve managed to make sauvignon blanc drinkable – a not insignificant accomplishment. Nevertheless, when in Rome…
We made three stops, all within a few kilometers of our B&B. At each winery, we were offered a similar lineup: a sparkling wine, Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Riesling, Gewürztraminer, and Pinot Noir. Also at each winery, we were the only visitors on this winter Saturday. In summer, crowds are three and four deep at the tasting bar, but wine-tasting is evidently a summer sport here in New Zealand. We ended up buying a classic Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc at our first stop, a slatey bottle of Riesling at the second, and a bargain-basement Pinot Noir at the third stop.
The Marlborough region is remarkably compact: perhaps 15 km from east to west, and half that from north to south. Grapes are planted on the valley floor as well as surrounding slopes, mixed with pasture land and the occasional copse of evergreens. In mid-winter, it feels and looks not unlike the Willamette Valley, although the surrounding mountains are considerably higher and more rugged.
One thing we enjoyed (and which was certainly a result of our off-season visit) was the casual friendliness we encountered at each stop. It amuses me that our accent throws Kiwis off: they don’t immediately peg us as Americans and typically ask where we’re from. Without exception, people have shown a charming (and justifiable) pride in their country and seem genuinely pleased that we’re visiting. I don’t doubt that in the midst of summer tourist season, that natural friendliness gets strained, but in the doldrums of mid-winter, New Zealanders’ inherent hospitality is on full display.