Offcuts: tasting Marlborough

Sadly, Julian’s already left and is back to work, so I was on my own for this one. I don’t have his sense of style or skill at interacting with tasting room staff, so all faults here are entirely my own.

I’ve never been to Marlborough before; we arrived yesterday at around 5:30pm to discover the entire town rolls up its sidewalks at 5:30pm… including the tourist information desk, which meant it was a bit tricky finding our accommodation at Walnut Block cottages (which, by the way, is by far one of the loveliest places I’ve ever stayed – the room is fantastic, the view over the vineyards is incredible, and the hosts are beyond generous with help and breakfast supplies). Mad props are due to the helpful, friendly staff at the Marlborough Vintners Retreat, who helped us with a free map and directions to our lodgings. (Their hotel also looked incredible and is very well situated for most of the wineries around here.)

I figured that it’d be a good idea to get started right at 9am, which meant our first stop was Saint Clair winery. We pulled up right at 9 only to find their door locked. Thankfully, right across the parking lot is Traditional Country Preserves, a lovely homemade jam and tourist stuff shop (or is that shoppe?) run by fantastically friendly Kiwis; they’ve got most everything you’d want in a wine country shop, what with homemade preserves, olive oil, lavender, all that kind of good stuff. I didn’t sample anything, but I do hope that the quince preserves survive the trip home to California this weekend and that they taste good.

Ten minutes later, Saint Clair’s door was still locked, so we kept going. We passed a home honey-making business called J. Bush on Old Renwich Road and called in for some lovely old school honey: nothing fancy, just high quality manuka and borage honeys in sturdy packaging and at insanely reasonable prices ($7.50 for the manuka, $4.50 for 500g of the others). We then pulled into Allan Scott, which theoretically opened at 9am, only to find an unlocked door and a cheesy gift shop stocked with all kinds of tat. The wines looked okay, but after waiting around five minutes, we left; it was beginning to feel like we’d never actually get around to tasting anything!

Cloudy Bay is just across from Allan Scott, but we had to detour back to our room for allergy medication – coming from a Californian winter, I wasn’t prepared for all of the things that are in bloom down here. Ouch! A couple of Sudafed later and we could at least breathe and smell things again normally.

Back at Cloudy Bay, I was taken aback at how similar it looks to Cape Mentelle, where we’d visited six years ago. I suppose it’s all owned by LVMH these days and the original owners are long gone, but it was kind of cool to run into a building thousands of miles away that looked so similar. They’ve just remodeled to make an even bigger tasting room; it’s cavernous and designed for the hordes of tourists that show up (about 250 on busy days like yesterday, I’m told). Still, the staff were friendly and knowledgeable (although it seemed like the manager was wearing heavy makeup and perfume, which was kind of shocking; it could have been a customer’s perfume, but I noticed it especially when the manager stopped by).

We went through their entire lineup – they were pouring vintage Pelorus at no charge as well just because it was New Year’s Eve. I failed to take proper notes, but they go something like this: NV Pelorus sparkling wine is a lot of fun but not particularly serious; vintage Pelorus is bready and yeasty but with a surprising core of pure NZ fruit in there (one of my favorite wines); sauv blanc is what it is and amazingly good considering the huge volumes that are produced; the chardonnay is probably the best thing they’re doing right now, managing to keep it all in balance and properly French but without sacrificing the exuberance of NZ fruit, the gewuerztraminer is fine but nothing special, the pinot noir is an excellent example of Marlborough pinot, with a relatively smooth, sweet nose followed by a bit of earth and solid tannins on the finish. There was also a pinot gris that didn’t merit much attention (apparently pinot gris is the big thing for NZ consumers at the moment, so everyone’s making one) and the first of many nearly indisgtinguishable Marlborough rieslings (a little residual sugar, acidity that seemed a little week, some light honey and bread on the nose, but overall not too exciting).

Next up was Daniel le Brun’s company, No 1 Family Estate. We pulled up in front of the sign that said Open Wednesday through Sunday… and they weren’t. Nope, locked shut. WTF? Ah well. There was also a small sign that said you could taste some at Domaine Georges Michel, just across the road, so we popped in there. The tasting room staff was a strapping fellow with an outrageous moustache and a vaguely Dutch accent, which seemed odd; the wines were uniformly kind of odd, with a definite banana note to their reserve pinot noir. The sauvignon blanc was done in a gently wooded style that added some texture to the finish but otherwise not much; overall, I’m not sure what to say about the wines other than they’re somewhat amateurish – and very fairly priced for what they are, so I give the place a thumbs up. They do a dessert wine fortified with marc that’s not bad, too.

Herzog is a small winery started by a Swiss winemaker who eventually emigrated to NZ to spend all of his time down there. I was highly skeptical of the operation – their Web site seemed a bit posh and the $195 tasting menu (with paired wines) at their restaurant seemed just a wee bit ridiculous given the location – but surprise, surprise, their wines (and their tasting room) really do bring the game you’d expect at that level of pretension, er, competence. All joking aside, their chardonnay was exceptionally lovely, managing to hit all the bases without any component dominating: nice, biscuity notes, rich mouthfeel, excellent finish, fresh pears and cashews, all that good stuff. Even their montepulciano came across as entirely appropriate for the site and very well considered. Yes, it costs $20 to taste all six of their wines – the highest tasting fee I saw today – but it was worth it, at least to me. Their fake Bordeaux blend was quite good as well, exhibiting somewhat greenish notes which (to me, at least) work exceptionally well with Merlot (cf. the bottle of Osoyoos Larose Julian and I shared last week). The pinot noir was also textbook for the region, with warm, somewhat simple fruit finishing in an earthy, firmly tannic fashion that is pleasing (if not perhaps as awesome as a Bannock Brae or Mt Difficulty wine).

Many years ago, I saw some bottles of Huia wine in San Francisco… and didn’t buy any if only because I thought the label looked naff. Stupid of me, really, especially after trying their wines today, helped out by the winery’s moggie hanging out in the corner of the tasting room. All of their wines were uniformly excellent; they do a sparkler that’s sat on lees for 5 years, giving it a very hard core, aged character that’s not unlike extended maturation wines from Argyle in Oregon (read: love it or hate it; it’s a distinctly savory effect that I very much like but may be a bit dead for most wine drinkers). Their gewurztraminer was one of the stars of the day: think tarry, peppery roses with green notes, a firm, dry finish and incredible mouthfeel. Their other whites seem to use the same trick: they have vineyards on both sides of the valley here, with cooler-climate fruit being used as well as warmer-climate fruit from the valley floor. Different soils, different everything, so when it’s all mixed together you get a great balance of different wines in the same glass. I could happily drink their chardonnay all night long, for sure. Big thumbs up to friendly, welcoming tasting room staff as well.

Nautilus Estate is one of those huge wineries I’ve seen at Tesco a hundred times and never thought to try; the wines they had were OK and would probably taste better labeled Tesco’s Finest. Still, their regular pinot was as good as any (even if their reserve tasted of horrible, bright raspberry lollies), staff were great, and their higher end chardonnay wasn’t bad. Nothing special, though, unless it’s on sale, in which case go for the pinot.

Te Whare Ra looked closed (I saw an ancient, dilapated sign but not an actual tasting room), so we slogged out to Clos Henri, where I paid five bucks to taste the worst wines of the day. Ugh. I had my hopes up, too – French winemaker making wines in New Zealand with an eye to terroir? Sounds good, right? No. Instead, you get a inane tasting room built in a church of sorts (watch out for the lectern, it’s in the way of the spitoon) staffed by an actual French person (a comely lass in her early 20s, ooh la la) who is not au courant with basic English vocabulary (words such as yeast and fault were not ones she had heard of). We tasted two sauv blancs and two pinots; the sauvingnons were tired and flabby with nothing much going for them… and the second of the two pinots smelled flat out faulty in a way I’m not good at describing. Basically, it smelled like it had a major refermentation problem, or a problem with yeast selection… or maybe even microbullage gone horribly wrong, but I couldn’t figure out what the hell was wrong with it. Given that staff couldn’t do anything other than smile and point at the display case with rocks in it (hey! look! terroir!), I wasn’t able to figure out what went wrong; then again, they’re possibly mistaking wine faults for terroir. Hey, it wouldn’t be the first time…

Spy Valley is a winery I’ve seen around a lot that I’ve also avoided because of the labels: they’re so awesomely, consistently well designed that I always assumed the wine must be crap. I mean, why else would you bother, right? Surprise, I’m wrong again. This was another high point of the day. It’s not a boutique winery – their stuff seems squarely aimed at the US $10 price point or thereabouts, or at your typical Tesco shopper – but what they do offer is a wide range of consistently stylish, well made wines. They are now producing a reserve range of wines called Envoy that’s aimed at the hospitality industry, but I think they’d be worth seeking out; the chardonnay was another fine example of everything in its right place and a definite match for the Herzog (at considerably less money). Their two stickies are also delicious – and the merlot was, I think, a real surprise and quite good. Of course, it probably won’t be good every year given the climate here, but at least that one vintage was good.

Seresin’s entrances are marked only by their trademark handprint on large slabs of rock, which is a nice touch, giving the place a real feel of exclusivity… that is completely dashed when you get to their tasting room, which is in a nondescript building that actually looked like a real, live winery… because it is. So: double bonus points for honesty and cleverness. Five bucks to taste here, absolutely worth it given the range of what was on offer. Wines generally very good, organic (and soon to be certified Biodynamic), all somewhat softer and mellower than the competition, with elegant labels. I would love to have tried their wooded sauv blanc but they’re down to 24 bottles left to sell and not pouring (which reminds me, Cloudy Bay sold out of theirs as well – hm, is this a new trend). They had lovely jars of honey for $21 available that still strikes me as the cooler winery tasting room trend; I’m not a fan of boutique olive oil for $30, but give me honey made in the vineyard from the local plants and I’ll buy it, especially if it’s all tarted up in French packaging. They were also super nice and gave us the $10 tasting fee back; $21 for fancypants honey and lots of wine tasting? Excellent value to say the least!

We were faint with hunger at this point in the day, so I suggested we head over to Montana/Brancott, figuring that even if the food wasn’t fabulous, at least it’d be a huge place so we wouldn’t have to wait long for our tucker. The food was in fact moderately fabulous; Dan had a lovely John Dory fillet that was perfectly done, but my Brancott Burger was crap (just too messed with; simple meat, bun, and cheese would have been fine but they added caramelized onions, some weird relish and mustard, and generally couldn’t leave well enough alone). Dan had a higher end Montana pinot with his that was OK but frankly not great (it might have been better served at a cooler temperature, but even so: why buy your pinot from McWine, Inc. when there are smaller wineries with good stuff at cheaper prices?).

Fed and definitely growing tired of tasting, I suggested two more wineries before calling it a day. Lawson’s Dry Hills was super fun, staffed by a wonderful woman who was really exuberant about their wines, again uniformly good and incredibly keenly priced (it’s amazing to find a winery charging the prices they do for such good wine). I was fond of their gewuerztraminer as ever, but the pinot struck me as the best deal of the day at around NZ$22 a bottle, which is I think unheard of for anything that good; it was yet another classic Marlborough wine, with straightforward red fruits followed by firm tannin and earth without being super complex – but when it tastes that good and costs so little, who’s to complain?

Finally, the good humored Wellingtonian tasting room staff at Villa Maria put up with us going through all of their range, including a few from outside the region. Hawke’s Bay syrah and merlot were both delicious and riper than any reds I remember from last visit to NZ eight years ago; they’re now doing a verdelho up by Auckland that had a very bitter (in a good way!) edge to it, and their local wines were, well, okay but nothing great. Hey, it’s another huge winery, so what did you expect? Their botrytised riesling is still however one of the greats, I think; we once drank a decade old bottle and it was truly spectacular.

Anyhow, that’s it from me for now: I’m off to put the 2004 Pelorus and Deutz Marlborough Cuvée NV in the fridge. It’ll be 2009 in just a few short hours – it’s time to celebrate and not think too much about what’s going to happen to the 10,000 hectares planted in New Zealand over the past few years (that’s an increase of 48% in just five years – who the heck is going to drink all that wine?) or anything depressing like that. 🙂

Happy New Year! May your 2009 be happy, healthy, prosperous, and TCA free.

One thought on “Offcuts: tasting Marlborough

  1. Your post is a tonic, and makes me wish more than anything that I had been able to accompany you on the day. My thoughts will be with you as you toast in 2009. I might even hunt down a bottle of Pelorus myself… 🙂

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