The Flavours Of The Marl­bor­ough Sounds

Taste & Travel - - Contents - byWAHEEDA HAR­RIS

WAHEEDA HAR­RIS ex­plores New Zealand wine coun­try.

IT’S A WINDY DAY AS I LEAVE NEW ZEALAND’S NORTH IS­LAND FOR THE South Is­land, heading west from Welling­ton to Pic­ton. Strong gusts keep pas­sen­gers off the ex­te­rior decks of the In­ter­is­lander Ferry as the ship swiftly sails through the Cook Strait. But as the ferry en­ters the Marl­bor­ough Sounds, the winds calm, the sounds of birds sur­round us and the ver­dant forested hills are a lode­stone for ev­ery pas­sen­ger’s cam­era.

Al­though home to less than 5,000 peo­ple, the town of Pic­ton is the ma­jor trans­porta­tion hub for the north­ern edge of the South Is­land. A half hour down the road is the town of Blen­heim, the cen­tre of all things wine in the Marl­bor­ough re­gion and home to Wither Hills Vine­yards.

This strik­ing, mod­ern cellar door and restau­rant sits in the midst of the fer­tile Wairau Val­ley, birth­place of New Zealand’s Sau­vi­gnon Blanc. Wither Hills Head Chef Ross Har­ri­son, re­cently re­turned to the re­gion where he was born, along with his team of chefs has re­launched the Wither Hills restau­rant with a fo­cus on sea­sonal and lo­cally sourced in­gre­di­ents. His in­spi­ra­tion — us­ing the vin­tages in the menu, like the award-win­ning Wither Hills Pinot Noir Rosé, the Early Light Pinot Gris, or Early Light Sau­vi­gnon Blanc.

Lunch be­gins with a creamy and earthy mush­room risotto, which pairs well with the Wither Hills Sau­vi­gnon Blanc. The next course is seared veni­son sourced from nearby Mountain River, ac­com­pa­nied with roasted baby veg­eta­bles and a glass of Tay­lor River Pinot Noir. And the sweet fi­nale: a silky lime cheese­cake served with blanc de blanc ice cream and Wairau Val­ley Ries­ling.

On the way to my ho­tel, rolling hills, farms and vine­yards stretch out in ev­ery di­rec­tion. The Wairau Val­ley (Maori for many wa­ters) be­came known in the wine world in the 1980s, thanks to Sau­vi­gnon Blanc and now also for Pinot Gris, Rosé, Ries­ling and Pinot Noir. As the largest wine re­gion in New Zealand, Marl­bor­ough’s 20,000 hectares ben­e­fit from an­cient glacial soil, end­less sun­shine and mul­ti­ple river sys­tems.

Din­ner at Ar­bour is an easy de­ci­sion. With the Just Feed Me op­tion, pa­trons can choose three, four or five courses and leave the de­ci­sion mak­ing to the kitchen. Chef Bradley Hornby and his wife/part­ner Liz But­ti­more wel­come guests to an el­e­gant din­ing room, or in warmer months to the gar­den, of­fer­ing a menu that is def­i­nitely within the 100-mile edict. Fea­tur­ing in­gre­di­ents from Marl­bor­ough, each dish is as beau­ti­ful as it is tasty, re­flect­ing the bounty of the area’s nu­mer­ous pur­vey­ors and pro­duc­ers. Some high­lights from the a la carte of­fer­ings in­clude cured Ora King Salmon with black gar­lic and pick­led pump­kin; fresh moz­zarella with but­ter­nut caponata and pine nuts; and wild veni­son, cele­riac, pick­led cab­bage and carmelized al­li­ums.

Marl­bor­ough’s tasty charms can eas­ily be found on land as well as on wa­ter. Marl­bor­ough Tour Com­pany guides me through the next morn­ing’s tast­ing of va­ri­etals at some of the most pop­u­lar cellar doors, such as Wairau River and Al­lan Scott. My guide Matty also gives me a glimpse of his fam­ily farm, fea­tur­ing grape vines and or­chards of av­o­ca­dos, wal­nuts and ap­ples.

The af­ter­noon is spent ex­plor­ing a small part of the 4000-square-kilo­me­tre Sounds with the Seafood Odyssea Cruise. We’re shown the ar­eas that pro­duce Re­gal salmon, Cloudy Bay clams and Green­shell mus­sels as we taste and in­dulge in more chilled Sau­vi­gnon Blanc. And to help walk off the fresh sea­wa­ter feast, we dock at the Whenanui Re­serve, for a 20-minute hike up the hill to view Shake­speare Bay from above.

Back in Pic­ton a wa­ter taxi is my ride back to laid-back Lochmara Lodge. The sun is set­ting as I pass a group of Blue pen­guins fo­cused on fish­ing for their din­ner. I ar­rive at the rus­tic ac­com­mo­da­tion, wel­comed to sit by the fire. To close a day of end­less eat­ing, I order the duck con­fit with Chi­nese pan­cakes in my room and, with a glass of Pinot Noir, revel in the quiet sur­rounds on my bal­cony. The lodge is only

ac­ces­si­ble by wa­ter; the sound­track is the gen­tle sound of wind through the tree leaves, my evening en­ter­tain­ment look­ing at the stars as the moon rises in the sky.

The next few days are spent discovering the quiet beauty of the area with short hikes to ex­plore the nearby hills and learn­ing about wildlife at the lodge’s Wildlife Re­cov­ery Cen­tre, partly housed in a for­mer glass-bot­tom tour boat. Per­ma­nently moored, the Un­der­wa­ter Ob­ser­va­tory gives guests the abil­ity to see the Sounds be­low the sur­face: stingrays, anemones and abun­dant schools of fish. Each night I am wel­comed back to the lodge, happy to chat with guests and staff about my day. Within the cosy Lochmara Café, I en­joy tast­ing more Marl­bor­ough wines and seafood — like the daily Lochmara ce­viche, and the Ku­tai Tast­ing Plat­ter — lo­cal mus­sels made three ways.

De­spite its global rep­u­ta­tion, the Marl­bor­ough Sounds wine re­gion is with­out pre­ten­sion. That’s one of the rea­sons that Hans Her­zog came here to es­tab­lish his win­ery. The Swiss winemaker felt re­stricted by the rules of his home­land and in his patch in Marl­bor­ough he has a mul­ti­tude of cer­ti­fied or­ganic va­ri­etals, in­clud­ing the classic Sau­vi­gnon Blanc, Chardon­nay, Pinot Gris and Pinot Noir, as well as lesser known Viog­nier, Arneis, Mon­tepul­ciano and Tem­pranillo. The Cellar Door and Restau­rant em­body Old World el­e­gance but em­brace the mod­ern

tech­nol­ogy of the Co­ravin Wine Sys­tem, which al­lows tast­ing from bot­tles with­out pulling the cork.

My last meal in Marl­bor­ough is in the Hans Her­zog gar­den, over­look­ing the vine­yards, savour­ing slow-cooked lamb shank and freshly baked bread. I raise my glass, mak­ing a wish to re­turn to this wel­com­ing South Is­land wine re­gion.

PHOTOS THIS SPREAD CLOCKWISE FROM TOP LEFT Har­vest­ing grapes; Marl­bor­ough vines; Pris­tine seafood at Ar­bour Restau­rant; Wis­te­ria in spring at Hans Her­zog win­ery.

… Marl­bor­ough’s 20,000 hectares ben­e­fit from an­cient glacial soil, end­less sun­shine and mul­ti­ple river sys­tems…

PHOTOS THIS PAGE FROM TOP The na­tive Tui; Wither Hills Restau­rant.

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