In Blenheim, Jesse Mulligan finds a wining, dining dreamland
You could be forgiven for thinking of Marlborough as the big bully of New Zealand wine country: home of the oldest vineyards, the biggest brands and that famously stinky sauvignon blanc.
Before this weekend, I can't recall the last time I bought wine with Marlborough on the label, because it seemed too ... predictable. But there's a problem with avoiding predictability: you just become predictable in a different way.
As I learned over three days, the Blenheim region has small vineyards doing big things, and big vineyards working on small projects of love, just for the joy of it.
The food is good too - from no-frills to fine dining, you can eat well for days without visiting the same place twice. Here are my favourite food and drink discoveries in the region:
Top of the list is Herzog - a winery restaurant offering spectacular degustation dining at an international standard. Herzog zigs where other places zag: we did seven courses and seven wines, without tasting beef, lamb, chicken, sauvignon blanc or chardonnay.
Hotel D'Urville is only a couple of rungs down the fine-dining ladder, and you'll be able to walk back to your hotel afterwards. From exquisite small plates to big, griddled beef, the cooking is perfectly judged.
Beyond Herzog, lunch is your best bet for vineyard eating. Brancott Estate Heritage Centre is an architectural masterpiece, perched on a hill with views to Wellington. Portions are generous - clams and affogato both recommended.
Wither Hills is another must-visit. One of the big winners at this year's Air NZ Wine Awards, they also take food very seriously. Rib-eye steak is everything meat should be - a touch of char, a touch of blood, but mostly just mouthfuls of juicy goodness.
For something more casual, try a burger at Scotch Bar in Blenheim. The "Sir Edmund Hillary" reminds you of the magic good beetroot and egg bring to a proper burger.
You'll find good coffee at Ritual Cafe and Figaro's. Try the salads at the former and the bagels at the latter.
At Seresin everything is organic, biodynamic and generally a different class to any winery you'll visit; and Nautilus does the best bubbly: following the exacting methods of Champagne, for half the price with twice the love.
A visit to a mussel or a salmon farm is a good way to learn more about what you're eating, while enjoying the Marlborough Sounds. Family-run Marlborough Travel offers boat cruises to both.
When the money runs out, try a walk and romantic picnic at Monkey Bay, accessible only by walking track. Halfway along is a bench seat perfect for proposing to your partner. The view is so good, they may just say yes.By Jesse Mulligan