Marlborough is near the north end of the South Island and is famous for its Sauvignon Blanc (as I understand it, Marlborough’s Sauvignon Blanc put NZ on the international wine map) and, to a lesser extent, its Rieslings. It was sunny and dry and largely flat with mountains on its flanks, and I shook my fist at the weather gods that the first day of good weather I had on the South Island would be the day it mattered least.
I went to several wineries, some of which (particularly some of the bigger ones) I found unappetizing both in wines and atmosphere. So here are my favorites, should you ever be inclined to visit the place:
Framingham: famous for its “classic Riesling,” which has won a bucket of awards. I bought a bottle after trying four different Rieslings they had available. It was delicious but not sweet, definitely on the dry side and a good wine to give to people who turn their noses up at the varietal. I look forward to stir-frying something spicy to serve with it. Or just drinking it in the back of my campervan next time I watch The Two Towers.
Bladen: a tiny family winery I would have missed had the knowledgeable but unpretentious woman at Framingham not recommended it. They had only four wines available for tasting and purchase, not including any Riesling, which they were planning on bottling in a couple weeks. Their Gewurztraminer (another varietal found in Marlborough) was particularly good and not at all like the cheap, sweet, gag-worthy Gewurztraminers you may have encountered on the lower shelves of your local supermarket. Nicely floral but not overpowering and not sweet! A good one for Thai food, or for watching The Fellowship of the Ring in the back of my campa.
Prenzel: not a winery but a place that makes liqueurs, olive oils and syrups. A lot of their stuff was too sweet for me, but they had a citron vert liqueur that was amazing, and also an excellent gin, plus friendly staff eager to have me sample everything. The first place I’ve ever been where I had to say “no thank you, I don’t want to try that. Or that. Really, no need to pour me another…”
Lawson’s Dry Hills: very laidback, with a guy whose been making wine forever for other people and finally started out on his own. The Pinot Rose I tried was fabulous… dry but not puckery and complex without being, you know, “difficult.”
I won’t name names, but not all staff at all wineries were friendly. One young guy went on and on about how he kept having to “put in place” (his words) customers who came to tastings with stupid ideas, such as that they liked chablis but hated chardonnay, and he was ever so tired of correcting people who had the audacity to argue with him. At one point he said “I must sound like I’ve a big head” and I couldn’t resist saying “yes, but keep going. You’re
amusing me” which caused him to tone things down a bit. Just a touch.
(And no, he did not correct me at any point… I think it’s a little awkward when there’s one person serving and one person tasting because what is there to do but look at each other. I tend to have a poker face when I taste wine which I guess can be off-putting to people doing tastings. Unless it’s something really obvious, like the asparagus notes in Villa Maria’s Sauvignon Blanc (another nice winery with friendly staff), I don’t say anything and I certainly don’t stand there swirling my glass reverently saying “tartufo on the nose, sun-kissed wet slate on the finish” or anything. I think he was interpreting my silence as cluelessness and just itching to put me “in place” but wasn’t sure where to start.)
Anyway, the only other place I’ll mention without naming was one of the big name places, with a snobby woman who, when I thanked her for the tasting without buying anything, snapped “that’ll be $2!” like I was shoplifting. (It was the only tasting that cost me anything.) I mention it not because of her, but because one of the Rieslings they had was… oaked. Gott im Himmel, why would anyone oak a Riesling?? That’s like making a gorgeous souffle and
then pouring malt liquor on it! I tried it… I had to, just to make sure I wasn’t judging too harshly.
(I hate oak, which in the eyes of many wine snobs relegates me to the hopelessly pedestrian, but I’m not going to pretend to like it just to seem more knowledgeable. So there.)
One thing that surprised me about Marlborough was the lack of foodie hotspots. I couldn’t find a decent bakery or place to buy cheese anywhere. One winery was selling cheese… the same prepacked pieces you find at the supermarket, only double the price. And no good bread anywhere. Prenzel was even using mushy soft bread for their olive oil tasting. Really surprising, and disappointing. Maybe I missed it, though when I mentioned this to a baker in Kaikoura, he agreed readily and said what little product they do have in Marlborough is baked industrially in Christchurch and shipped up the next day!