Destinations

A travel guide to New Zealand's Marlborough region

Much like the Marlborough mainstay – sauvignon blanc – the New Zealand wine region’s character is evolving.

By Larissa Dubecki
Marlborough vineyards.
In any game of word association, Marlborough and sauvignon blanc must rank in the same league as gin and tonic, or Elton and John. Tucked in the north-east corner of New Zealand's South Island, the region has become synonymous with the grapes that have put it on the global viticultural map.
It's impossible to underestimate the power of this symbiosis. A lightbulb moment in the 1970s spawned a regional industry that now produces more than three-quarters of New Zealand's grapes, and 86 per cent of the national harvest is sauvignon blanc, which thrives with Marlborough's long sunny days, loamy soils and low rainfall.
"It's impossible to escape it in these parts," says Margaret Sutherland, of the organic, family-run Dog Point Vineyard. "So many people work in the wine industry that locals call it two degrees of separation."
From the air, the staggering extent of Marlborough's wine-centrism is laid out before us in a neat display of corduroy patches. With geometrical precision, the vineyards blanket the wide valley and stretch into the foothills of the Richmond and Black Birch ranges. It's here that the wineries with deeper pockets are experimenting with grapes grown at ever-higher altitudes. "You just can't find land down in the valleys any more," says Sutherland. "Every spare inch seems to be taken by vines."
A helicopter ride is highly recommended, especially if the pilot takes up requests to follow a family of wild deer, or flocks of sheep dashing across the highlands. This is central casting New Zealand high country, with a stop at Middlehurst Station, a merino stud whose owners pull a batch of pastries and muffins from the oven and serve them with tea, while we overlook a landscape that can accurately be described as epic.
The chopper ride certainly reveals you don't need to be a member of the swish-and-spit crowd to find Marlborough alluring. As well as running 11,000 merino sheep and 1200 cattle, Middlehurst Station is embracing Marlborough's new groove by hosting mountain bikers, hunters, corporate groups and anyone who wants to get away – far away – from the rat race. It's from this bird's-eye vantage that we view the snow-dusted peaks of the Kaikoura Ranges threaded by ice-blue braided rivers that course into Marlborough Sounds.
The snowy peaks of the Kaikoura Ranges. Photo: John Laurie
Australians made 1.4 million visits across the Tasman last year, and as Marlborough's appeal to travellers grows, its attractions are being honed for the long-short stay. We take a 30-minute flight south-west from Wellington across Cook Strait to Blenheim, although the three-and-a-half-hour ferry ride to Picton through Queen Charlotte Sound is regarded as one of the most picturesque ferry rides in the world. Marlborough lends itself easily to a three-night visit, although there's plenty to encourage a longer traipse through an area with 34 cellar doors in easy cycling distance of each other, and two ski resorts.
The Kaikoura Ranges. Photo: John Laurie
But first, the sauvignon blanc. Much like the region itself, the wine is evolving. Not simply the single-note cliché of cheap supermarket bottles, it's growing in complexity and maturity as winemakers explore the possibilities of barrel ageing, wild fermentation and producing preservative-free.
A tasting at Dog Point demonstrates this evolution. Its Section 94 Sauvignon Blanc, aged in French oak barrels for 18 months and bottled without fining, is complex and full bodied; a textural riposte to the grape's fruity reputation. This is sauvignon blanc in witness protection, ready to rejoin polite society.
Down the road at Te Whare Ra Vineyard & Winery, cows roam the vineyards in dormant season, performing the double duty of mowing the grass and fertilising the earth. Run by wife and husband, Anna and Jason Flowerday, one of the oldest small vineyards in Marlborough also uses seaweed to nourish the soil. "We prefer the smaller, more handmade approach to wine," says Anna, and she explains the Maori notion of kaitiakitanga, or guardianship of the land. The Maori word mana, which translates roughly as integrity, has been adopted as the slogan of the Marlborough Natural Winegrowers.
Just as pithily, she describes their new-style sauvignon blanc as "the unplugged version – not loud and shouty, almost acoustic". But it's not just sav blanc that should be on the traveller's radar, she says. Pinot noir and riesling are emerging as regional heroes, while chardonnay is starting to turn heads. At last year's New Zealand Wine of the Year awards, Marlborough vineyards took varietal trophies for sparkling, gewürztraminer, pinot gris, riesling, grüner veltliner and chardonnay, as well as sauvignon blanc.
Te Whare Ra Vineyard & Winery co-owner Anna Flowerday. Photo: John Laurie
"I just love the depth and diversity of Marlborough wines," says Anna. "I love it when people come to Marlborough for sav blanc, but I love it even more when they go away with something different. That's
the next chapter in the Marlborough story."
In the midst of all this ambitious winemaking, The Marlborough Lodge is an oasis of calm. It was built at the turn of the 20th century as a convent for the Sisters of Mercy in Blenheim, then it was relocated in the 1990s, transported in pieces 10 minutes north to Rapaura. In 2016 a thorough makeover transformed the building into a 10-suite boutique lodge, the graceful two-storey weatherboard prettified with white ornate trim and deep, shady verandahs.
The Marlborough Lodge's converted chapel. Photo: John Laurie
The fireplace in the lounge is blazing when we arrive; bottles of the region's finest rest on ice. My room is the grandly proportioned former chapel (although I prefer to think of it as the Mother Superior's room) with a votive-like chandelier and ecclesiastical windows that give vivid snapshots of more than six hectares of park-like setting. Just outside, a lawn clipped with military precision is encircled by lavender hedges; a family of ducks paddles on a creek fringed by willows. There's a wine shack for tastings with views back to the lodge, and a mighty outdoor stone fireplace.
Alain Hauswirth, The Marlborough Lodge's head chef, has an impressive kitchen garden and orchard at his disposal, and access to stellar regional produce. "The highlight is really the seafood," he says, with a particular shout-out to Cloudy Bay surf clams and Ora king salmon from the Sounds, supplanted by the likes of locally hunted wild game, Cranky Goat cheese and Marlborough Garlic's black garlic.
A local pioneer – the Swiss expat brought the first espresso machine to Picton in 1995 – Hauswirth serves a menu as charming as the dining room. Kingfish crudo, served simply but spot-on with charred lime and local olive oil. Local scampi on saffron risotto finished with crayfish butter. Beef tartare, bright with horseradish. The menu changes every night, a way to make sure lodge guests don't get palate fatigue. But there are other attractions in this part of the world.
Kingfish crudo at The Marlborough Lodge. Photo: John Laurie
Hans Herzog is one of the region's more unusual wineries. The Swiss-born Herzog comes from a family whose winemaking history stretches back to 1630, and he's indulged his interest in experimentation by planting 30 grape varieties in his vineyard of almost 12 hectares along the Wairau River. "Hans is known as the kind of guy who doesn't sell wine to make money," says sommelier Pierre Girard. "He sells wine to make wine."
Girard leads us though a blind tasting in the barrel room before settling us in a dining room filled with antiques and curios. The meal is designed around European sensibilities: a galette of lightly cured salmon and fermented onion served with the estate's skin-contact pinot gris; gurnard in vadouvan sauce finds its match in the Herzog pinot noir, all ballasted by sourdough from an outdoor woodfire oven.
The barrel room at Hans Herzog. Photo: John Laurie
At some point while in Marlborough, it becomes necessary to find the yang to the wine lover's yin. The Sounds may have been designed explicitly for this purpose. Geologists say the Sounds are a series of drowned river valleys, although the Maori explanation that it was created in a battle between Maori navigator Kupe and a giant octopus seems just as plausible. This sinuous network of coves, peninsulas and islands comprises a fifth of New Zealand's coastline, with bracing coastal walks fringed by native forest, and on-water adventures such as kayaking and sailing.
Queen Charlotte Sound. Photo: John Laurie
The Queen Charlotte Track is the jewel in its crown. Its full 70 kilometres is about a four-day walk, but we set off on a far less ambitious 10-kilometre walk from Resolution Bay to Furneaux Lodge, with daypacks, lunch and moral support from staff at Wilderness Guides. The Beachcomber ferry to the hike's starting point is part of the adventure. The dolphins are too shy to reveal themselves, but the river pauses at a rock shelf where a young male fur seal lolls about with only terns for company.
Our fellow hikers cover the extremes of preparedness: two women with bulging daypacks and Nordic walking poles are planning a two-hour walk; a wild-haired man with a supermarket shopping bag in his hand and rubber thongs on his feet sets off alone, ignoring the concerns of the ferry staff that he's woefully ill-equipped.
The Queen Charlotte Track. Photo: John Laurie
The track lives up to its mighty reputation. Any time the gradient induces puffing it compensates with jaw-dropping views of blue-green water and deserted coves through unexpected gaps in the bush. It loops gracefully around the coastline, wide and easy, although walking at speed through the occasional muddy quagmire is an act of faith. Clusters of baches start to appear, the humble (and more recently not-so-humble) beach shacks that play a central role in classic New Zealand holidaying. (The shopping-bag man reappears when we reach the lawn and wooden huts of Furneaux Lodge.)
We head out of Endeavour Inlet on a water taxi and zip across Queen Charlotte Sound to Picton, from where it's a 20-minute drive to Rapaura, lured by the siren song of The Marlborough Lodge. Boots off, I climb the polished kauri-pine staircase and I'm happily back in the Mother Superior's room. It requires patience to fill the deep bath to a good soaking level – all the better to wash away my sins.
Inside The Marlborough Lodge. Photo: John Laurie

Getting there

Air New Zealand flies direct to Wellington from Sydney up to 12 times a week; from Brisbane up to five times a week; and from Melbourne up to seven times a week with regular connections to Blenheim in the heart of the Marlborough wine region. airnewzealand.com.au

Where to stay

The Marlborough Lodge This former convent reopened in 2016 as a luxury lodge with 10 guest rooms on a property of more than six hectares amid the vineyards, 10 minutes' drive from Blenheim airport. It's adjacent to the Rapaura Tennis Club and has a swimming pool open in the warmer months. The lodge is well located for tours of cellar doors and can arrange regional tours. From $1600 a night, twin share, including breakfast, pre-dinner drinks and canapés, and multi-course dinner with matched wine. 776 Rapaura Rd, Marlborough, themarlboroughlodge.co.nz
The Bell Tower on Dog Point This boutique luxury accommodation on the western hillside of Dog Point Vineyard includes two private rooms in the main house, each with ensuite, or the adjacent self-contained French Barn, which sleeps five. Dog Point Vineyard is open for tastings by appointment only. Rooms from $500. 71 Brookby Rd, Fairhall, dogpoint.co.nz/stay
The Marlborough Lodge. Photo: John Laurie

Where to wine

Framingham
The home of offbeat aromatic wines, a punk soundtrack and winery band the Renwick Nudes, this winery hosts harvest parties, cellar gigs and art events. 19 Conders Bend Rd, Renwick, framingham.co.nz
Nautilus
This winery won the varietal trophy at the 2018 New Zealand Wine of the Year Awards for its biscuity Cuvée Méthode Traditionnelle, just one more to add to its mantelpiece. Its cellar door, ranked among the region's best, is open daily all year round; personal tours of the winery can be booked in advance. 12 Rapaura Rd, Renwick, nautilusestate.com
Scotch Wine Bar & Wine Shop
Buzzing with the brio of Blenheim's young, thoroughly international wine industry, the star of this wine bar is a 2000-strong cellar and a list built around vignerons taking the road less travelled. It's ably backed by a share-friendly menu based on Middle Eastern flavours. 24-26 Maxwell Rd, Blenheim, scotchbar.co.nz
Wairau River Wines
An excellent lunchtime option, the winery is open for tastings and lunch daily. Sample the family-owned estate's wines, including gewürztraminer and albariño, before or with lunch in the garden. 11 Rapaura Rd, Rapaura, wairauriverwines.com

Tour

Marlborough Tour Company
This family-run business offers half- and whole-day tours of the region's wineries, as well as seafood tours by boat. marlboroughtourcompany.co.nz
Wilderness Guides
A one-stop shop for exploring the Marlborough Sounds and Queen Charlotte Track, whether by foot, mountain bike or kayak. They run guided tours and offer equipment rental. The Waterfront, Picton, wildernessguidesnz.com