Marlborough: Grape escape

By Maria Slade

Cycling through Marlborough is picturesque, says Maria Slade, especially when there's wine at the end of the road.

Cyclists in the 2011 Forrest GrapeRide. Photo / Richard Briggs
Cyclists in the 2011 Forrest GrapeRide. Photo / Richard Briggs

My husband is suffering from cycle anguish. I may have made the term up but the condition, I can assure you, is very real.

It occurs when you take a cycling-mad spouse on a weekend to Marlborough for the popular 101km Forrest Estate GrapeRide - and do not allow him on a bike.

Alas, it is his wife who is entered into the event, a dilettante whose training has consisted of the occasional pedal to work when the weather is nice. He finds himself as crew, fixing brakes, adjusting the seat on my borrowed bike and riding around in the support van.

I feel a moment of marital guilt as I stand at the relay transfer station in picturesque Havelock waiting for my teammate to complete the leg from Picton. But I get over it as I set off on a crisp early autumn morning along the remaining 29km to Blenheim.

It is bliss cycling along a country road under a cloudless sky, the hills of the Marlborough Sounds behind me and the vineyards of the Wairau Valley ahead.

It matters not a jot that I am passed by virtually everybody.

At one point I think I have probably gone about half the distance when a sign appears saying "10km to go", with a smiley face. This is all very do-able. The "5km to go" sign has two smiley faces.

I concede that had I ridden the entire 101km, including the hilly 34km from Picton to Havelock with views of Queen Charlotte Sound, this might have been a different story.

The more serious cyclists in our group say "oh", when I report my onehour, 15-minute time. But I am content that I have not let the side down.

We never do find out our team's result because of a comedy of errors involving a faulty gear derailer and a failure to hand over the team transponder, but once the first glasses of cool Marlborough sauvignon blanc are poured it doesn't seem to matter.

Besides, we now have a far more important task to perform. It is a solemn Forrest Estate tradition that at the end of the ride 100 "virgins" must trample the first grapes of the season.

Virgins of grape-crushing or virgins of another variety are not specified.

The winery turns the brew into the GrapeRide 100 Virgins pinot noir, and returning riders to the event are entitled to a bottle of the previous year's vintage.

I have visions of us gracefully treading on the precious new fruit. In fact, it is more like the vintner's equivalent of mud-wrestling.

I will say only that freshly stomped grape juice stings and the lads round the back of the winery look uncomfortable as a stream of pink-soaked females ask to use their hose.

After a long, hot shower I manage to get the grape bits out of my hair and we head off to sample some of the local cuisine.

Marlborough is not just about cycling and vineyards. It is also home to a successful salmon industry.

At Blenheim's Hotel d'Urville, we are treated to an entree of tempura salmon with medjool and lime relish and creme fraiche dressing.

It has a light batter around it, comments hubby, who is fast getting over his cycling chagrin with a drop of syrah. No it doesn't, says me. Executive chef Maree Connolly later confirms the almost ethereal tempura batter.

It is a treat to see where your food comes from and the next morning NZ King Salmon - the largest farmer of Pacific King Salmon, or Chinook salmon, in the world - takes us out to one of its farms in Tory Channel.

The Interislander ferry glides past as we watch staff harvest the slippery beasts, carefully herding them from one net to the next so as not to stress them. A drop of clove solution to sedate them, the slip of a knife, and the fish are in ice-filled barrels on a barge docked alongside and headed for the Nelson processing plant. The product will be in Auckland the next day.

We have to be back up north ourselves so we retrace our steps to Blenheim. There is just time for a quick lunch at Highfield, a picture-postcard Tuscan-style vineyard a mere six minutes from Blenheim Airport.

Sales and marketing manager Pete Coldwell laughs at the quaint Auckland notion of being there half-an-hour before your flight. Instead, he pours more Elstree Marlborough Cuvee, the match with Highfield's award-winning Regal sushi salmon caesar entree, as we look out over a vista of endless vineyards.

Cycling and vineyards are an excellent match, in my view. Next year I may try the GrapeRide's 42km taster circuit around the town's wineries.

And guess what? My husband's coming - with his bike.

IF YOU GO

What: The annual Forrest Estate GrapeRide, a 101km cycling event from Blenheim to Picton, Havelock and back.

Where to stay: The Mercure Picton.

Where to eat: Hotel D'Urville, 52 Queen St, Blenheim.

Highfield winery, 27 Brookby Road, Blenheim.

- NZ Herald

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