From Marlborough’s cultural head-turners to the wines, craft producers and dining heroes of Blenheim, plan a flavourful fling to eat and play, writes Mike Yardley.
Sandwiched between the Wither Hills and the Richmond Ranges, Blenheim’s vine-wreathed carpet of the Wairau Plains looked so mellow in the late autumn sunshine as I readied myself for some tastings on the Marlborough Wine Trail. As New Zealand’s largest winegrowing region, revered for its globally-acclaimed zingy Sauvignon Blanc, this wonderland of vines and wine groans with temptations. Marlborough produces 75% of New Zealand’s wine with 85% of that being Sauvignon Blanc.
Home to 120 wineries and over 35 cellar doors, Marlborough’s 27,000 hectares of vines equates to roughly 30,000 rugby pitches. It’s not just world-famous Sauvignon Blanc that Marlborough does so well. Personally, I’m not a fan of the pungently aromatic, fruity and herbaceous varietal. But Marlborough’s Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris, Chardonnay and Riesling are all top-notch, catering to a wide palate. Drifting between the cellar doors and tasting rooms is one of life’s great pleasures.
I was particularly excited to encounter Rock Ferry, a stirring organic winery, that has scooped a stash of gongs at the Organic Wine Awards. The 3rd Rock Sav Blanc 2019 is a cracker, with fruit from the Wairau Valley, exuding great freshness and balanced by crisp acidity. Many Marlborough wine producers also grow red grapes in Central Otago and Rock Ferry’s Pinot Noir is absolutely divine, all dark plums, cherries and ripe fruit notes. I also drooled over their Orchard Vineyard Pinot Blanc 2017, a rarer variety in New Zealand, where the dominating flavours are almond and ripe pear with a sharp even acidity. It goes great with seafood.
Sauvignon Blanc and oysters – could there be a better pairing? Visiting Blenheim without popping into Cloudy Bay would be like going to Xian and missing the Terracotta Army. At Cloudy Bay, in the warmer months, have your fill of oysters at Jack’s Raw Bar, a very swish affair, swathed in well-groomed lawns and gardens, adorned in hanging egg chairs and oversized couches. It’s a glamorous cellar door, with grand views of the rows upon rows of wine oak barrels, in the cellar. The $10 Cloudy Bay tasting experience serves up their gorgeous Pelorus Sparkling Non Vintage, Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. It’s a must.
I’ve been a long-time admirer of Nautilus wines, which are typically pure and ethereal, while also packing a punch. At the top end of wine country’s “Golden Mile” on Rapaura Rd, Nautilus Estate sweeps the board with their elegant Chardonnay, seductively fruity Pinot Noir and complex, yeasty bottle-fermented sparkling wine.
Another legendary wine name in Marlborough is Allan Scott. As one of the true pioneers, Allan’s name is synonymous with the wine region, having planted the first vineyard in 1973. After working with Montana and Corbans, he eventually established Allan Scott Family Winemakers, which still remains a true family affair. You’ll definitely want to partake in their cellar door experience. You can try every wine they have, any day of the week, via their self-serve Enomatic machines. From premium sparkling wine to exclusive Pinot Noir, I felt like a kid in a candy shop sampling their glorious award-winning wines.
Feeling peckish, I was primed for lunch and eager to savour the culinary flair of Allan Scott Bistro. Head Chef Matt Heath and his stellar crew from the Picton Food Cartel, are at the helm of Allan Scott Bistro, serving up a superlative vineyard dining experience. The atmos is casual and vibrant, with modern-fusion food and perfectly paired wines. There’s an underground food movement operating out of Allan Scott Bistro, changing the way food is delivered to the customer. The menu changes every couple of weeks!
Everything is sourced within a 50km radius. It is hyper-local paddock to plate experience. I feasted on a platter of Massaman Beef Cheeks and Harissa Pumpkin topped with smoked hummus, nuts, seeds, pomegranate molasses and a green herb dressing. Plus a side of duck fat agria potatoes. Sensational. No reservations, no-frills, just an effortlessly cool vibe.
Rapaura Road is also home to the fabulous The Vines Village. Set amongst 4 hectares of lakeside grounds and gardens, this alluring hub encompasses a wine cellar, café and assortment of boutique stores. There’s bike hire available too, if you want to tootle through the vines. But despite Marlborough’s blockbuster reputation in the grape stakes, it’s not just wine that this plucky region is producing with finesse.
I enjoyed a great gin tasting at the Vines Village, sampling the delights of Elemental Distillers in the Gin Room. (They also have a very cool refill bottle service for Roots gin.) Founded by Ben Leggett and Simon Kelly this craft distillery delivers premium craft spirits and liqueurs with complete transparency of all ingredients, processes and production, from root – to cup. Garnering accolades aplenty, Roots Marlborough Dry Gin is a crisp and robust ‘London Dry’ style gin, bottled at a bold 45% alcohol by volume.
The Juniper is wild foraged from North Macedonia, while the New Zealand botanicals include Gisborne grapefruit, coriander seeds from Hawke’s Bay, organic Motueka hops, wild foraged gorse flower from Marlborough and Kawakawa berries from the Kāpiti Coast. Their Navy Strength dry gin (54.5%) includes the addition of organic Akaroa giant kelp and Hawke’s Bay hemp seed. As you do. They do a great line of Bitters, too. I had the pleasure of meeting Ben and hearing about their exciting plans to develop a gin garden at the Vines Village in the coming months.
Marlborough also has a thriving craft beer scene and one of the new boys on the block is Boom Town Brewing Company. Taking its name from Blenheim’s nickname ‘Boom Town,’ Clive MacFarlane established the brewery four years ago with a mission of producing craft beer by locals for locals. The Marlborough businessman has gone with the grain, shifting from fine wine to craft beer, after running the fine wine shop, Wino’s, for nine years.
Underpinned by a sense of place, of local craftsmanship and fun and discovery, Boom Town’s head brewer, Jackson, creates crisp, smooth, easy drinking craft beers. There’s the Alabama APA, Whites Bay IPA, Marlborough Lager, Baby Boom Pale Ale – and the biggest seller, Pelorus Pilsener. Locals have been buzzing about the Boom Town Beer Garden over summer, a go-to for fresh tap beers, sun, pizza and relaxed vibes in the warmer months.
The garden is located behind The Alcove, which operates between Friday and Sunday, with a roaring fire and atmospheric courtyard. (This was formerly the cellar door for Giesens.) All of the Boom Town beers are on tap and many glass pours to choose from. Taco Shack head up the kitchen, whipping up delicious tacos and snacks. Children’s food options are available and there’s even an enclosed playroom just for them. www.boomtownbeergarden.nz
One place you must dine at in Blenheim is Gramados Restaurant and Bar. Inspired by a small town in southern Brazil, Gramados has fostered a consistently red-hot following for its authentic, expressive cuisine and Brazilian-themed atmosphere. I was there on a Monday night and the place was packed to the rafters. Beyond the bar, the kitchen comes alive with flashes of steam and flame, and the smell of spices infuses the air.
Brazilian-born head chef Saulo Camillo Nunes appeared at our table to walk us through the menu, with the infectious charm and natural showmanship I had heard so much about. “Our food is a fusion of traditional Brazilian food, with a twist of South American flavours,” says Saulo. You’ll definitely want to try the pao de queijo, little balls of cheesy bread, both delicious and comforting, in equal measure. Saulo then brought a small white dish to the table, with several chillies lined up in a row, from mildest to hottest. “See how far you can go,” he exhorted. Mamma mia, the top end specimens were volcanic!
For my main, I ordered the magnificent feijoada, a thick and smoky black bean stew with pork ribs and bacon, served with white rice. True to the spirit of Marlborough, Saulo will implore you to blind taste a variety of wines, as part of your experience. For something different, something exciting and something delicious, Gramados has to be the top of the list. Go hungry.
Also on the food front, be sure to call into The Burleigh, a fiendishly good producer of gourmet pies, The Burleigh’s flaky pastry goodness is drool-worthy. The sweet pork belly and steak and blue cheese pies are big-sellers, but the spicy Jamaican lamb pie takes out top slot on my scorecard. Speaking of indulgence, nestled in wine country, Marlborough’s very own chocolate factory.
Makana Confections, which also does a brisk trade in Kerikeri, offers free chocolate tastings and you can watch the chocolatiers at work through giant windows inside the chocolate factory. The product range is mouth-watering, from macadamia caramel corn to Marlborough pinot noir truffles. But amongst the spoil of delights, the classic macadamia butter toffee crunch wins me over, every time.
For a complete change of scenery, the vintage aircraft displays at Omaka Aviation Heritage Centre are absolutely next-level. The two exhibition halls dramatically showcase classic aircraft from the two world wars. The original Great War exhibition, Knights of the Sky, features Sir Peter Jackson’s personal collection of WWI aircraft and artifacts. The story of aviation in the Great War is vividly brought to life in sensational sets crafted by the creative wizards at WingNut Films and Weta Workshop. Many planes are fully air-worthy, and can be readily deciphered by whether a drip tray is situated under their belly. The magnificently theatrical dioramas and captivating scenes depict the aircraft in compelling context – some recreate actual incidents, like the plane that crash-landed into the only tree standing on Flanders.
And the human stories behind the respective pilots of the aircraft are vividly brought to life. Beyond the flying machines, the treasure chest of rare war memorabilia is incredibly compelling, including personal items belonging to the famous Red Baron himself. I was particularly struck by the display of artefacts connected to Hermann Goering, including the cap he was wearing in 1945 when he was captured by the US 7th Army. You’ll see his formal dress jacket and some of his log-books. Goering spans both wars. Before becoming a drug-addled power-tripping Nazi, he was a First World War fighter ace.
Dangerous Skies, the WWII exhibition opened five years ago and explores the stories of both male and female aviators and their tales of valour from the forests of Germany to the steaming jungles of the South Pacific. Iconic warbirds on display include a flyable Spitfire Mk.14. A variety of aviators are lustily showcased like Russia’s famous female fighter pilot, Lydia Litvyak, the “White Lily of Stalingrad” as the Soviet press nicknamed her. The sheer scale of Russia’s losses in World War II is soberly illustrated with great dramatic effect. Another favourite personal story is illustrated by the mannequin of a Kiwi pilot, James Hayter, who was shot down over England and parachuted to safety, dropping down in the middle of a garden party. The assembled lovelies promptly swooned over him and offered him a stiffener. Just imagine it – quite the floor show.
The collection of magnificent flying machines is indeed magnificent, but the personalised human dimension threaded throughout the exhibitions, and the storytelling prowess, packs a poignant punch. It’s the real magic behind Omaka, warranting its reputation as a place you’ll want to visit, again and again. Scenic flights, in either a vintage Boeing biplane or a Soviet WW2 Yak-3 fighter, are also available.
Recently, the family of deceased aviation collector, John Smith, appointed the Omaka Aviation Heritage Centre to work with them as guardians of his remarkable collection, to preserve and publicly display his trove of hero aircraft. John’s backyard shed in Mapua was the aviation equivalent of an Aladdin’s Cave, fuselages lined up parallel to one another like sardines, symmetrically arranged either side of a fully assembled Mosquito. The Smith aircraft collection includes a complete de Havilland Mosquito, John’s own original Tiger Moth and New Zealand’s most famous P-40, ‘Gloria Lyons’. They will join the Lockheed Hudson, formerly gifted by John, on display at Omaka. www.omaka.org.nz
Where to stay? Overlooking Seymour Square Gardens, the Chateau Marlborough is a locally owned and operated 5-star hotel, on the fringe of Blenheim’s town centre, offering luxury self-contained suites with free Wi-Fi. In the warmer months, cool off in the outdoor swimming pool or relax by the pool with a drink from the bar. A fully equipped fitness centre is on-site.
My spacious suite was comfort personified, with excellent bedding, tea-coffee making facilities, and a 42-inch flat-screen TV. Quench Restaurant & Bar is open daily for breakfast and dinner and offers outdoor dining. Private dining is available in the Barrel Room. As you’d expect, Marlborough wines feature prominently on the wine list and the restaurant has been a regular winner of the NZ Beef & Lamb Awards. It’s a sterling hotel, loved by leisure and business travellers alike. www.marlboroughnz.co.nz
From the sensory natural pleasures of the Marlborough Sounds to the cultural head-turners, wines, craft producers and dining heroes of Blenheim, plan a flavourful fling with the Top of the South. Make your first port of call, the region’s official website for the latest visitor tips and insights. https://marlboroughnz.com/