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Exploring New Zealand’s Marlborough Country

My goodness, they’re partial to Sauvignon Blanc (‘Savvy Blanc’ as they call it) in New Zealand.

And nowhere in the country produces more of it than Marlborough, at the top end of South Island. You will have seen the labels hundreds of time in your local supermarket — but to be here is an entirely different sensation.

This charming region accounts for 80 per cent of New Zealand’s entire wine output, and what gives it extra zing is that wine-making only started here in 1973.

Savvy cyclists: There are 171 wineries in the Marlborough region, of which some 35 are open to the public

So this is something of a pilgrimage for wine lovers. Marlborough can be reached easily by plane from Auckland to Blenheim, where luggage arrives on a trailer and you help yourself. Or it’s a day’s drive north from Christchurch. The grapes are grown on flat plains flanked by mountain and there’s an enviable climate (the sunniest spot in all of New Zealand, though the evenings are cool), a focused vibe and the friendliest of people.

There are 171 wineries, of which some 35 are open to the public. We call in first at one of the most famous, Cloudy Bay (after the bay which was given the name by Captain Cook).

Along with its award-winning Sauvignon Blancs, we get to taste some outstanding Pinot Noirs and wonderful Chardonnays. The latter will restore your faith in that much-derided grape unfairly associated with cheap nights out in Essex.

Admire Marlborough’s immaculate straight lines of vines, and if you’re here in March when harvesting begins, then so much the better.

The above map pinpoints the main places Mark Palmer visited on his tour of Marlborough

The above map pinpoints the main places Mark Palmer visited on his tour of Marlborough  

At Wither Hills winery, we join a group which ultimately finds its way into the barrel room for a blending session — and we come out with a Certificate of Completion. It is hardly onerous. After dividing into teams of three, we are tasked with creating the perfect Pinot Noir blend using wines from three different vineyards. We have to name our wine and sell its merits to one of Wither Hills’ master blenders, who then decides which of the teams has produced the best wine.

Mine fails to win the day, but we drink deep from the well of wine knowledge and have tremendous fun in the process.

We have fun staying at The Marlborough Lodge, too, a ten-room hotel that doesn’t look like a hotel. It opened in November 2016 and is set in beautiful gardens.

At one point, it was a convent, hence the chapel in the grounds. Every evening, guests gather around an outside fireplace in the garden for drinks, followed by dinner made almost entirely from local ingredients. The man who owns the hotel is also in charge of The Marlborough Tour Company, one of several outlets offering boat trips on the nearby Marlborough Sounds, a maze of islands, bays and watery reaches.

Mark stayed at The Marlborough Lodge (above), a hotel set in beautiful gardens

Mark stayed at The Marlborough Lodge (above), a hotel set in beautiful gardens

If you’re lucky, dolphins will put in a performance while you feast on local Greenshell mussels (the biggest in the world), salmon and clams.

The main jumping off point for this is the town of Picton (population 4,000), which strikes us as admirably sleepy but is described in my guidebook as ‘hyperactive’ in summer. We are here during the summer, and if this is hyperactive then I’m Usain Bolt.

One evening, we eat at Arbour, set among various vineyards. We start with 40-year-old Storm Shell clams from shells the size of half an orange. I keep mine to put salt in back home.

Dropping in on Peter Jackson’s aircraft museum is a good idea. The Lord Of The Rings director puts on a great show of planes from World War I, and no expense has been spared on the presentation.

Peter Jackson’s aircraft museum is near Blenheim, Marlborough’s big town, but there are only around 30,000 permanent residents. When we call in at a bookshop, a member of staff asks us where we’re from and when we tell her we hail from Britain, she seems full of admiration that we’ve come all this way.

She’s got it wrong. We’re the ones full of admiration — for a region that eats, drinks and makes merry with seemingly such little effort.


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