World-famous for its vines, Marlborough is now getting a reputation for craft beer, writes Isaac Davison.

At a fine dining restaurant in the heart of New Zealand's wine country, our host is cracking open beers with the handle of a teaspoon.

Josh Scott, founder of Moa Brewery in Blenheim, wants us to try every beer he has ever brewed. He has hauled a cardboard box of bottles from his small brewery to his father's restaurant over the road and plonked it in the middle of a dining table, to quizzical looks from neighbouring diners.

"You know what's really useful for opening beers? A seatbelt clip. It's the perfect shape," he says, wedging open a Belgian-style beer.

We are in Marlborough for a mid-winter weekend, when the grapevines are pruned back to dry stumps and the cellar doors open to roaring fires inside. It is not a day for a fruity, light white wine, and instead I am nursing an Imperial Stout, thick as oil, with a chocolatey foam staining the glass.

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Moa is Marlborough's upstart, a craft beer brewery wedged between industrial-sized vineyards in the home of sauvignon blanc. It is one of a small cluster of breweries in the region that are increasingly included on wine tours. Neighbouring vineyards say beer is not a threat, but they have one eye on the rise of craft beer in the market.

"Kiwis used to go upmarket with Steinlager Pure," a staff member at a famous Marlborough vineyard tells me. "Now they're buying $12 craft beers at nice restaurants."

Aside from the 10.2 per cent stout, which I can almost chew on, Scott's beer is at the lighter end of the craft beer spectrum. He's not into making "hoppy monsters", he says.

As the first New Zealander to become a certified cicerone (the beer-making equivalent of a sommelier), he speaks with satisfaction about the growing beer lists in the town's eateries and the "40-foot beer aisle" at supermarkets. When he orders beers at a bar, he chooses five at once. At home he has four beer fridges set to different temperatures.

Moa brewer Josh Scott. Photo / Supplied
Moa brewer Josh Scott. Photo / Supplied

Scott trained as a wine-maker and helped out on his father Allan Scott's vineyard, but he had an epiphany when he drank a Sierra Nevada pale ale in California. He founded his brewery soon after, in 2003, naming it after the moa that used to inhabit Marlborough when it was a swamp. There have been bumpy moments along the way but Moa is now exporting to the US, UK, Australia and Brazil. Scott says he does not have the vintner's midnight anxiety about frosts or shifts in the weather. And with beer-making, "you can have a dream and get up the next day and make it. In wine, it's 18 months before you see it happen."

The next day, the sky has cleared and we opt for a more traditional Marlborough activity: wine-drinking.

A day-long tour is best undertaken by bike, either in groups or with a personal guide. Many of the region's 100 wineries sit on the Wairau Plain between the Richmond Ranges and the Wither Hills, and the terrain is dead flat. Over four hours we cover around 7km with our guide Karen, of Explore Marlborough tours, and reach five vineyards — enough to get a range of tastes, but not enough to send us veering into hedges.

Most cellar doors offer sauvignon blanc, but winemakers often champion more unusual varietals, like gruner veltliner, an Austrian white wine with a flavour somewhere between a chardonnay and a riesling. Many Marlborough vineyards also offer a pinot noir; most of them have plum and cherry flavours and are much lighter than their North Island equivalent. There are also a few tart rieslings, grown in the stony soil by the sea and with a whiff of kerosene in them.

Each vineyard we visit has a story. Most were founded by travellers passing through who saw an opportunity — Germans, Dalmatians, Italians and British. At the famous Brancott Estate, the founders lined up the first rows of vines with a rifle sight and piece of string. At a nearby boutique vineyard, the ground was so stony that the growers used a crowbar to prise open the earth.

Every conversation touches on Marlborough's soil. It can change every 100m — silty and loamy on the plain, where the sauvignon blanc and chardonnay is grown; stony near the coast, which captures heat and produces good aromatic wines; and clay and glacial outwash in the foothills, where the pinot noir is grown.

Brancott Estate vineyard. Photo / Supplied
Brancott Estate vineyard. Photo / Supplied

One of the stops on the cycle tour is Seresin, a biodynamic vineyard. It has a rough charm and appears to be part-farm and part-winery. Companion plants grow between the vines to attract bugs and eliminate the need for pesticide. Goats, chickens, and pigs and a thoroughbred wander among the rows. All the animals have a purpose. Some trim the grass, others provide fertiliser. What are the pigs for? "Eating," says one of the staff.

We are hungry by the time we reach the next stop, the Tuscan-styled restaurant at Giesen's vineyard. A generous platter includes a fine jar of duck liver pate, which I scrape clean with a spoon, then my tongue. After wolfing down honey-cured hapuku, I'm completely full. I lower my bike seat and we press on, sated and pedalling slowly.

If wine fatigue sets in, there are other options for tourists in the region.

We are pointed in the direction of Omaka Aviation Heritage Museum. The name evokes a fusty, provincial exhibition and I don't hold high hopes as we park next to an unassuming hangar.The reality is a surprise. A guide opens a door into a cavernous building chocka-block with stunning World War I aircraft owned by Sir Peter Jackson.

"How long do you have?" asks our guide. "Forty-five minutes," I say. He looks concerned. The next time I look at my watch, I realise I've been transfixed for an hour and a half.

A quarter of the aircraft are original planes, and some are arranged into elaborate dioramas, swooping from the ceiling — or in one case crashed into a tree, engine oil dripping into a snowy landscape. Among the highlights are uniforms previously worn by French ace Rene Fonck, a brilliant aviator who was considered "not very French" because he didn't drink or womanise. A frayed tunic belonging to America's highest-scoring ace, Eddie Rickenbacker, still has his oily fingerprints on it. In a separate room, next to a diorama of the Red Baron's crashed Fokker triplane, are actual parts from Manfred von Richthofen's aircraft and one of his silver "kill cups".

There are also deeply personal pieces, including log books, photographs, engagement rings, and rare war medals.

Later, still sleepy from the wine, we head for the coast and park on a gravelly spit near the Wairau Bar. Vanuatuan and Nepalese seasonal workers in tatty rugby jerseys cast their fishing lines into a fast-flowing estuary. It's a contrast to the immaculate vineyards and glamour of wine country, and a reminder of the workforce and hard graft that goes into making the wine we've been drinking. When the wind begins to pick up, I drift back into town again along quiet country roads, as a lone hawk drifts lazily above the vines.

WHERE TO EAT
Hanz Herzog Estate: A cosy bistro in a pretty white homestead. Casual, warm service and a wood fire, plus a cat wandering among our legs. Good for schnitzel, steak and a chocolate torte dessert, which my wife says is the only thing she ever wants to eat again.

Brancott Estate: Stunning restaurant built for the Rugby World Cup with floor to ceiling windows and a view across half of wine country. The cheese souffle and the sauvignon blanc "Letter Series B" makes me consider settling in for the afternoon.

CHECKLIST
Getting there: Air New Zealand flies daily from Auckland to Blenheim.

Accommodation: Quality Hotel Marlborough is at 20 Nelson Street, Blenheim.

The writer travelled to Marlborough courtesy of Choice Hotels and Destination Marlborough.