Monday, 15 December 2008

Marlborough wine tasting

On 6-7 December, a group of about ten friends got on the morning ferry from Wellington to Picton, then on to Blenheim for an overnight stay. A friend of ours is a climate consultant for a number of vineyards in Marlborough's wine growing region, and had suggested we join him for a weekend of wine tasting at some of the wineries he consults for. Great idea!

As a non-drinker, I was still keen to go along and enjoy the experience. Bubbly Grape Wine Tours were our hosts for the afternoon. Our driver informed us that there are 101 wineries in Blenheim. Given how tiny Blenheim is, that is a huge number! We had four chosen for us to visit. Given that it's been about four years since I stopped drinking alcohol (and hardly drank much before then anyway), here is my uneducated opinion of the wines we tasted.

First stop was at Wither Hills. Their tasting room building features stunning architecture, a lovely cellar, and the most comfy bean bags you can imagine right on their front lawn! If we didn't have other wineries to go to, some of us might have finished our afternoon right there. Our host explained some of the nuisances of the wines they produced and we got to sample a selection.
  • 2008 sauvignon blanc - this had a passionfruit taste and was incredibly yummy. I didn't realise it at the time, but it was my favourite wine of the day.
  • 2008 Rarangi sauvignon blanc - this is the same sav, but only using the harvest from a specific vineyard (Rarangi). It had quite a lemongrass taste, and I didn't enjoy it as much as the first sav, but friends liked it and bought a bottle, their first of many.
  • 2008 pinot gris - this is the only aromatic wine I usually enjoy.
  • 2007 chardonnay - I found this quite oaky in taste.
  • 2006 pinot noir - this had quite distinctive cherry and plum flavours.
Cloudy Bay was our next destination. Most people recognise Cloudy Bay as having a widely-accepted good name; its name is synonymous with quality. I can see why: pure class, all the way. This is the selection that greeted us upon arrival:

Wow. Ten miniature glasses of wines, all laid out, with water at the end, and a printed list. Our host was Australian, with questionable pronunciation of Maori words (at best), but she was very knowledgeable about the wines Cloudy Bay had produced. Here's their selection:
  • Pelorus NV - Pelorus is the sparkling wine label for Cloudy Bay and features the Pelorus dolphin insignia. This non-vintage bubbly was very fruity, and I think someone in our group bought a bottle or two.
  • Pelorus Vintage 2004 - this had a more subtle flavour (and also made a sale or two).
  • 2008 sauvignon blanc - this was also very fruity and delicious. My pick from Cloudy Bay.
  • 2005 Te Koko - this was a more subtle sav, named for the region. Not quite as tasty for me.
  • 2006 chardonnay - I found this really oaky. Not sure I could finish a glass of this one.
  • 2007 pinot gris - this was the standout pinot gris of the day for me. Delicious!
  • 2005 riesling - this was incredibly sweet.
  • 2006 Gewurztraminer - I wasn't keen on the oily texture of this wine.
  • 2006 pinot noir - this was light and quite pleasant to taste.
  • 2004 late harvest riesling - I couldn't cope with this; it was far too sickly sweet for me, so only made one sip. My friend bought a bottle, though, and finished our samples, too, along with everyone's leftover bubblies ...
Our third winery was Nautilus Estate. We were given a tour around part of the vineyard and found out a lot about the process of commercial wine making and the importance of frost protection. A decent frost can set a vineyard back 3-4 years overnight!

Nautilus's alternative label is Twin Islands. Apparently most wineries have an alternative label of B-grade wine (although some, like Cloudy Bay, only allow A-grade wine to be accepted) and each vintage is tasted and assessed by samplers who determine whether or not it is fit for sale under their label. Some which don't make the grade are sent to other wineries for bottling and branding under a generic label, and the really bad stuff gets discarded.
  • 2008 sauvignon blanc - we got to pour ourselves some of this straight out the vat. It was unfiltered, so quite cloudy, and containing some impurities like seeds and pith. It tasted really fruity and was much-enjoyed by our group. Lovely!
  • 2008 chardonnay - this was very subtle in flavour and my favourite chardonnay of the day. We got to drink it straight out of the barrels, poured from a large syringe.
  • 2008 pinot noir - a very smooth flavour, and my favourite pinot noir of the day. Way to go, Nautilus! Again, sampled directly from the barrels and poured from a syringe.
  • 2008 pinot noir clone - the cloning process was explained, but I don't recall most of it. This clone had a stronger taste than the original pinot noir. Neither will be ready for bottling for another year or so (I think!).
  • Twin Islands pinot noir chardonnay - this is a sparkling wine. I enjoyed its light taste.
  • Nautilus cuvee brut - and the sparkling just kept getting better. This was my bubbly pick of the day. Yummy!
  • Twin Islands 2007 pinot noir - very light in taste and delicious.
Our final stop for the day was Fairhall Downs. They are a bit further off the beaten track and very much a family affair. They opened their cellar especially for our group. (It pays to know the right people.) Fairhall Downs Estate is set amongst rolling grounds, and with the sun at just the right angle it was the perfect way to end our day of wine tasting. Their alternative brand is Torea, or 'barbeque wine', as our host explained.
  • Torea 2008 sauvignon blanc - very fruity 'barbeque wine', ie its purose is not necessarily to be the toast of the town.
  • 2008 sauvignon blanc - this was far more subtle than the Torea, and I preferred its flavour.
  • 2008 pinot gris - this was partly hand-harvested, which is unusual for white wines. The taste wasn't particularly memorable for me.
  • 2007 chardonnay - also not very memorable; I'm not sure why.
  • 2007 pinot noir - a bit too oaky for me, but friends bought a bottle. Overall, I enjoyed Fairhall Downs wines less than those we tasted at other wineries.
I learned a lot over the weekend. If you are planning on doing a wine trail yourself, I'd highly recommend booking ahead and asking for a tasting for your group. While many wineries will accommodate people off the street, the ones who were expecting us gave us really interesting tours and were better equipped to deal with groups, and they were all free. Keep an open mind, even if you think you only like certain types of wines. I was surprised how the sauvignon blancs ended up being my favourites, as I'd switched to chardonnay several years ago (before stopping drinking at all). We're keen to try another tour, either in the same region or closer to home in the Wairarapa or Hawkes Bay. It also pays to bring someone 'in the know', if you can; we think our connections helped at Cloudy Bay. ;-)

An almost perfect weekend (I would have liked my sweetie to have been able to join us), and what I thought was a near-impossible goal was achieved: #83 - Have a computer-free weekend (all of Sat/Sun).


Kelly said...

Oh what a lovely sounding weekend! I'd love to do something like that with a group of girlfriends.

Anonymous said...

Sounds like you had a great weekend! Congrats on accomplishing something else!

Jenny at the Wine School said...

That is a fantastic trip! I am very jealous of your New Zealand tour.