Blenheim: Magic in Marlborough

By Barney McDonald

Barney McDonald enjoys the taste of a Cloudy Bay experience.

The Cloudy Bay estate is a suave operation in Marlborough.
The Cloudy Bay estate is a suave operation in Marlborough.

As soon as I arrive in Blenheim, I'm whisked away to view the Cloudy Bay estate of vineyards from atop a central hill that affords expansive views over the sprawling valley below. The east coast is in the distance, as are the Richmond Ranges to the west. Both border the Wairau Valley, where 255ha of land contribute the grapes for the winery's award-winning nectar.

It feels a bit like surveying the arid fields of Umbria or casting one's eye and mind over hedge-bound English pasture, a veritable statement of fecundity and wealth.

That may be the case but we're not here to wax eulogistically about a winery that produced its first vintage in 1985 and never looked back. We're here to look forward, to a new project happening in this Marlborough valley, thanks to the innovative ease of Cloudy Bay's suave operation.

In the spirit of expansion, the vineyard is opening its doors on a new enterprise that coalesces the region's culinary appeal in the form of bountiful seafood.

Jack's Raw Bar opens to the public on December 1. Designed to serve the finest raw victuals alongside the vintner's specialties, it's a haven for anyone in the thrall of the ocean's bounty.

Cloudy Bay Winery's senior winemaker Tim Heath.
Cloudy Bay Winery's senior winemaker Tim Heath.

Unfortunately, I lack a certain sophistication of palate, preferring to eat creatures that don't live in a shell or under any other kind of inhibition, so I'm delighted when senior winemaker Tim Heath, viticulturalist Jim White and co-conspirators Steve Planthaber and Stephanie McIntyre take leave of their toils between the vines and accompany us on a leisurely, sun-drenched sail up a small segment of the sounds to a distinctly uncloudy bay.

In the spirit of the occasion, a couple of the fellows don scuba gear and dive for fresh shellfish, which is duly prepared for lunch on the stern of the boat, happily washed down with copious bottles of the winery's excellent Pelorus Vintage Brut. Luckily for me, juicy steak is also prepared, avoiding the need to confine myself to a liquid lunch.

As if to prove that Cloudy Bay is indeed a major player in the region, a small pod of dolphins inquisitively wander into the vicinity of the boat, perhaps anticipating a few shucked shellfish thrown their way. Expectations dashed by the gluttonous crew and guests, they continue on their way, shooting little fountains of water from their blowholes.

Another highlight proves to be Australian Heath's astute music taste. Kicking into action with The National's latest album as the boat casts off, he proceeds to bring up Joy Division's and The Cure's greatest hits on his iPod, providing an unlikely yet memorable soundtrack to a cruise in paradise. Prophets of urban decay? Nobody should care when the hills and bays and sky are this unspoilt. Like Steve Coogan listening to Atmosphere as he and companion Rob Brydon drive through the moors in The Trip, it's all about context. And the quality of the wine.

In fact, this trip has other elements in common with Michael Winterbottom's witty film with Coogan. That journey is ostensibly about sampling the food and wine in remote regions of the north of England. We're in the very north of the South Island, sampling food and wine, though we have the luxury of sticking to a particular locale and the even greater luxury of staying in the winery's own VIP accommodation, whimsically christened http://www.cloudybay.co.nz/News-Events/News/The-Shack. This two-level, four-bedroom modernist idyll, built to replace a much older building razed to the ground by a hapless guest, is the quintessence of comfort and proximity, located a stone's throw from the winery's Cellar Door and soon to be bombarded Raw Bar.

Back on terra firma, it's quickly obvious a spirited foundation has been laid for a very entertaining evening involving a VIP launch of the Raw Bar, taking place in the splendour of the Cellar Door courtyard, with a wonderfully haphazard array of mature trees obfuscating the view of vines in the distance. It's a relaxed environment in which to reveal to a few dozen guests the delicious fare on offer, from Cloudy Bay's new season sauvignon blanc to the aforementioned seafood delights.

I'm happy to report the sav works a treat, tantalising the tastebuds like an expensive chardonnay without pretension, airs or grace, though in truth it does possess a little of the latter, subtly and enjoyably.

The winery's website declares the sav is "widely regarded as the quintessential expression of the acclaimed Marlborough wine region". All I'll say is I agree it's a fine wine, possibly the best in that fair land, though more drinking/research would need to be done to ascertain such merits.

Meanwhile back at The Shack, a mid-evening meal is arranged, with Cloudy Bay's young experts on hand again to talk us through the lamb and fish, or generally to provide excellent company amidst several more bottles of brut and sav, with the occasional beer to cleanse the palate. The rest of the evening is a blur, and yet visions of dancing to Matthew Dear or Colder keep recurring in the darker recesses of my subconscious.

Suffice to say, it wasn't hard finding my bed, even if I wish I hadn't been able to find my head. Such is the nature of good hospitality and a fine beverage of a grapey variety to toast to health, Ian Curtis and the revitalising qualities of the south.

Further information: See cloudybay.co.nz.

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