Marlborough is New Zealand's largest wine region with dozens of cellar doors - and more than 100 winemakers. Add to that the bounty of produce that grows and thrives here, and a visit to the region becomes a pilgrimage for gastronomes as well as oenophiles.
Sauvignon blanc may be Marlborough's bread and butter, but that's by no means all it has going for it.
Wairau River Wines
Wairau River is one of Marlborough's oldest family-owned wineries - and is still very much part of the family. Phil and Chris Ross planted their first vines in the 1970s and now daughters Pip and Caroline Rose are in charge of the cellar door, restaurant and kitchen and son Sam is in the vineyard, wine-making.
Sitting right at the end of Rapaura Rd (also known as the Golden Mile, thanks to the sheer concentration of wineries and vineyards that run the length of it), Wairau River is ideally located for visitors to pull in, taste a few of their very approachable offerings and enjoy a meal.
The grounds themselves are lovely - wide green spaces ideal for families, shady dining options on the grass and the sheltered veranda, and bar and fireside dining options inside. The wines are award-winning and the food is delicious, each dish on the menu offering a wine match suggestion (better order early if you want the chilli salt prawns, they sell out regularly).
Sometimes looks matter. At Arbour, the plates are beautiful (but there is substance as well as style). Co-owner Liz Buttimore's approach to hospitality is both polished and reassuringly relaxed - from her Melbourne and Margaret River background, this is a host who understands what a fabulous dining experience entails. No hovering, no peddling, but there at your elbow when information is required.
Here they offer feasting menus - keep it simple with the Eat Local option, or go all out with The Many, which, on a clear Marlborough night in October, featured sourdough with whipped butter, locally raised New Zealand King Salmon, foraged onion flowers, diamond shell clams, lamb shoulder croquettes, wild venison, fresh pasta with a mild goats curd and walnuts. It was followed by two desserts. Two! Good luck.
Mills Bay Mussels
The drive from Blenheim to Havelock is beautiful - wide green valleys and well-kept farmland gradually give way to a town. If you haven't been to Havelock, you're in for a surprise - this is a pretty fishing village with a hint of Scandi flavour - especially on a grizzly overcast day. Come for the scenery, stay for the mussels and vibe at Mills Bay Mussels, where Art Blom, a passionate and cheery Dutchman, serves green-lipped mussels in ways that will surprise many Kiwis.
Sustainable, healthy, cheap and plentiful, Blom is on a mission to change how we think about and treat mussels - visitors here are invited to have a shucking demonstration at the table, and Blom will lure you from chowder, to grilled, to eating them raw with a dressing if you're feeling it. Such is his enthusiasm, I challenge you to resist.
In a region filled with charming Europeans, Stephan, the charming Swiss co-owner of FROMM is about to charm your socks off. This family-owned business is one of the smallest wine producers in town - and yet their hospitality game is one of the best. Be greeted at the cellar door and led into the Barrel Room - a cool and dark wood-panelled chamber where visitors can taste a selection of the estate's wines. Each wine is organic and has been grown, handpicked, processed and bottled on site. Production is small - they make just 70,000 bottles a year, and about half of that disappears overseas, so grab a bottle when you see it.
The wines are intense, organic, and worth savouring (whether that's the glass or leaving the bottle in the cellar for a few more years).
They're also sticklers for a cork here, which most guests will figure out quickly as they walk past the estate's incredible collection of more than 700 corkscrews, dating back to the 16th century. If you've been on the screw caps for years, pick up a FROMM corkscrew on your way out.
The wine industry can be a stuffy one, so refresh your palette at Framingham, which has been voted New Zealand's top winery for two consecutive years. This is small-batch winemaking with a punk-rock leaning - if the Gothic font on the label wasn't enough of a giveaway, look to the Nobody's Hero pinot noir, which takes its name from Belfast punk rock band Sticky Little Fingers, and the merch, which includes trucker caps and skateboards.
The philosophy is, however, serious. Small-batch wines, made from grapes grown only in the Wairau Valley, this winery produces only about 50,000 cases a year, so when they're gone, they're gone. They also support the charity Music Helps/Awhina Puoro, giving away a portion of sales each year.
Saint Clair is another lovely spot for a meal. Modern and cool but friendly and bright, the kitchen and restaurant know what they are doing - a dish of pan-fried, just-caught grouper was delicious in its buttery sauce and piled high with a spring salad - just the right mix of naughty and nice.
The estate overlooks vineyards as far as the eye can see, until you hit the Richmond Ranges (those are the dark, surly hills to the north of the Wairau Valley). The label has a range of wines and the stories of each are told on the label. The Pioneer Block's Cell Black, for example, is named after the former detective who grew the grapes that went into this 2020 sauvignon blanc.
If you're celebrating, reach for the Saint Clair Dawn. Named after the family matriarch, Dawn Ibbotson, this is a pinot noir chardonnay methode traditionelle, created in 2014 to celebrate Dawn's 100th birthday. Dawn passed away earlier this year, age 107. Cheers to her.
Would you care for some romance with your wine tasting? At Hans Herzog, pull up a chair in the stunning gardens, which are sheltered by, and overlook fountains, statues and a uniquely small but varied holding of grapes.
There are 28 varieties within this picturesque high-density, low-yield estate and everything is harvested by hand. The Herzog family's wine-making history goes back to the beginning of the 16th century - Hans himself moved from Switzerland to New Zealand in 1994 after finding his perfect patch on the banks of the Wairau River.
Here the approach is both traditional and experimental - where else would you find tempranillo planted alongside gruner veltliner alongside saperavi and montepulciano? Where else do you leave with an understanding of terms such as vigneron and phenolic?
In an historic Victorian convent, you'll find Harvest, the restaurant that services the beautiful Marlborough Lodge. The lodge originally sat in Blenheim, but in the 90s was moved to its current position, a large green estate in Rapaura. Here you'll dine surrounded by gardens and vineyards, but if you're dining after dark, the foliage is brought inside on the deep green walls and the large-scale Karl Maughan artwork that hangs above the banquette seating. The menu here is ever-changing, as the focus is on what is seasonal and local. You can be sure, however, that at least part of your meal will be served from the chef's true love - an enormous Mibrasa charcoal oven, which roasts and smokes and chars your local lamb or grass-fed beef or baked tuatua to perfection.
Heads, hearts and tails may sound more like a bucket of butcher's offcuts, but at Elemental Distillery they're talking about gin - Ladies' Delight, Mother's Ruin, Old Tom - that delicious spirit that's been popping up all over New Zealand lately. Here they're distilling in a stacked pair of converted shipping containers out the back of a cafe on Rapaura Rd. Visitors are welcome to pop their heads in and owner Ben Leggett might be on hand to give you a flying tour of the place (look left, look right, and you're done - this is definite boutique, for now). They also produce a hand sanitiser called Heads & Tails that has the most delightful gin scent (but don't worry, the smell wears off in moments so your boss won't be looking sideways at you).
Make sure you also check out their range of homemade bitters. Although still a relative unknown in New Zealand, bitters are the essential ingredient you need to bring to your cocktail game, to add fragrance and complexity to just about any drink (the first-ever cocktail was the Sazerac - simply cognac, sugar, a rinsing of absinthe and a dash of bitters). Time to level up.
The Cloudy Bay estate is a smooth operation - as one of the region's first winemakers, they've honed their hospitality to a fine art. There are stunning outdoor spaces to enjoy when the weather is warm, but on cool days the fireplace and long-room bar overlooking the barrel room are perfect places to curl up.
The tasting experience is tailored to you - whether you spend a couple of bucks on a "sauvignon blanc immersion" or take a tailor-made session to really get to know the brand's stable with an ambassador of the vineyard.
With good reason, Cloudy Bay is best known for its Pelorus methode traditionelle. It spends 24 months maturing in the bottle, resulting in flavours of apple, kaffir lime, and something toasty, plus some elegant fine beading (that's wine-speak for little bubbles). This is a very easy drop, and one that it feels completely okay to drink before lunchtime, so cheers.
Wither Hills is named for the Wither Hills themselves - this cellar door and restaurant lies in the Wither Hills' lee. Here visitors can pop in for a tasting any day of the week - (or a tour and wine-blending session) and then, once properly acquainted with the wine list, make their way to the restaurant, which is a very popular spot for a sunny-day lunch. While you eat, staff will be able to take through the drinks as you go, stopping to answer questions and offer tasting notes. On the lunch menu, the local Cloudy Bay clams are served in chilli miso butter and there's a strong vegetarian menu offered.
Run by Simon and Jane Waghorn and two of their daughters, Arabella and Libby, Astrolabe is a truly special proposition. Known for their sauvignon blancs (although the range is wide and interesting), tastings here - in an old sheep shed that is now the most charming tasting spot in Blenheim, if not New Zealand - are by arrangement, so email ahead to avoid disappointment. You'll find yourself surrounded by wild flowers and bouquets made from homegrown herbs, green beans and fresh artichokes, empty wine barrels and wicker furniture, and just the faintest scent of farm animal that in no way detracts from the salty sense of the sauvignon blanc or the richness of the pinot noir.
Just as beautiful as the setting are Astrolabe's labels, as pretty and collectible as a Cicely M Barker illustration, and worth savouring as much as the wine.
This story was first published in the New Zealand Herald Travel on 22 November, 2020