Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Vineyards by Bicycle

The Marlborough area around Blenheim is very flat. Hence it makes sense to travel round by bicycle. Assuming there is no wind. Therefore on a very windy and blustery day (north-westerly) we hired bicycles and set off to visit as many wineries as we could manage in a day. The English chap who runs the outfit recommends some wineries for us, and proposes a route. I'd say he suggested no more than about 25 wineries. I love a challenge. We set off in a north-westerly direction.

The happy look before we start

Same person several hours later

On our bikes, Dad with the comfy seat, we cycle along the roads lined with vines. There are two other couples doing it today too, a pair each of Dutch and Swedes. The bikes have special panniers designed to hold bottles of wine in case we have the compulsion to purchase, which is of course why the they do tastings. The majority of wineries offer tastings for free in their "cellar doors", or shops at the winery, but a couple charge us $NZ 3-5. Dad usually uses the old "do you have a distributor in the UK" line, very classy, and even takes the name and address for the authentic "I might buy your wines" look!

The bikes here seem to have their brakes reversed, so I would be worried about going over the handlebars, but for their complete ineffectiveness anyway. I'm also worried about my right pedal snapping off, and there are strange noises coming from the chainset. Interestingly the chap tells us not to bother locking the bike for safety, partially because in NZ they are very strict about wearing cycle helmets, so as long as you take that with you, the bike is effectively immobilised!

Matua Malborough

Our first stop of the day, and we've been told that they have a nice rosé. The first wine we try is a riesling, which in general I am not keen on, but surprisingly this one has a great burst of flavour, and is well-balanced, not too sweet.

The nice lady here explains that Matua is now owned by, of all the companies, Fosters! As she puts it, one of the world's "most well-known yet least consumed labels". Oh dear. She does say that they don't interfere in the running of this place though, it's more of a marketing and distribution thing. The big Montana winery is owned by Pernot, so the independent labels are now sadly in the minority. I try the rosé. It's not especially nice.

Kathy Lynskey

Next up to the independent and "boutique" (read "small") winery owned by Kathy Lynskey. They produce about 6,000 cases a year, and go for the premium market, plus produce an award-winning and quite mild (first pressing) olive oil - lots of the vineyards here are lined with olive trees as wind-breakers, though as the girl here points out, olive trees are not very suitable for this task as they don't have deep roots themselves and tend to fall over. They do like the chalky soils though, which is the same as the grapes, hence they mix well together.

Lots of lavender about

Kathy Lynskey's merlot is good. I wonder if this is the time to make the first purchase.


Next on the the small village of Renwick, which is more or less in the middle of all the wineries. We have been tipped off that there is an English pub somewhere here, and indeed, a few minutes later we hit the Cork and Keg for a couple of pints of best and some nuts.

Cork and Keg

Happiness is a good pint

The problem in New Zealand is that although there is the suggestion that there is some good beer, it all tends to be a bit fizzy and chilled. I'm not an entirely happy boy, but it's still a world apart from Becker or Cristal from Chile! I'm not allowed a second pint, we have to move on. Hmph!

On our bikes, we go in search of lunch, past more vines and the all important grapes.

Cellier Le Brun

We were supposed to eat here but the restaurant is closed Mondays and Tuesdays, which is, as the lady there helpfully points out, "a real shame as the food is really good". Thanks. Anyway, whilst we're here…

The interesting feature of Cellier Le Brun is, as the name implies, their cellar. Luckily they are quiet, so she offers to show us.

The winery was built at the edge of a small hill so the cellar could be cut into the hillside. It's a large cavernous space, lined with cobwebs on the ceiling, and on both sides, densely packed bottles of wines, at least two layers deep. It's impressive, and cool, away from the hot sunshine baking the outside.

Out of the cellar, we sample their sparkling wines before moving on - she has suggested we head up to another winery to eat, Wairau River.

Wairau River

In a lovely spot, and across the road from Nautilus, another brand I recognise from back home, we find Wairau River. This is a family-run winery - the parents live the other side of the estate by the river, and the five children all help out - some running the restaurant, others helping with the wine. We sit outside in a pretty spot and order blue cheese soufflé for Dad and mussel chowder followed by salmon for me, washed down with a bottle of their Sauvignon Blanc. There is a cheese platter on the menu, but we have to move on as we're running out of time, plus we've been told there is a nice cheese platter at Grove Mill.

Grove Mill

We arrive in a panic, as there's not much time and cheese to be eaten, but by the time I've finished trying their wines, we have 25 minutes to get back to the bike base, and we haven't started the cheeses! I organise a take-away, and we set off along the main road, the quickest route back. It's a fair way to go still, but we make it back with enough time to spare that I can suggest the second pint was appropriate at the Cork and Keg after all.

Into town, pick up bags from the friendly Bella Vista Motel, then we take the bus to Nelson and I enjoy a nice snooze on the way, despite the chap pegging it along like a maniac. Two hours later we arrive in the dark, and wander up the main street, Dad getting occasional stares - I imagine they are thinking "why is that elderly gentleman backpacking?"! Out in the evening, we suffer the usual problem of everywhere being closed. It would seem everyone in NZ eats dinner at 6pm then promptly goes to bed. We manage to get into an Indian restaurant just before they close at about 9:30pm - only us and the wildest insomniacs eating at this crazy time of course. Tomorrow we head to Abel Tasman National Park.

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