Touring a wine region

WINE TRAIL TALES

“What’ll it be boys, burgundy or claret?”, asked the gravely-voiced owner of Bordeaux Wines on Lincoln Road. It was 1975. As a recent convert to wine I’d decided to visit every winery in Western Auckland with a wine-wise friend. We’d started our tour by calling on the curiously named winery simply because we’d never tasted its wines.

“Er … can we try the claret”, I replied. Claret, the Englishman’s affectionate name for the red wines of Bordeaux, seemed the most appropriate choice. As the owner pulled the cork I swear that smoke came out of the bottle neck. The wine was dreadful but we mumbled polite words of appreciation. We were invited to inspect some fermenting wine in the small tin shed that served as a winery. I watched in fascination as the owner’s cigarette ash grew longer, finally falling into a wooden vat of young wine. We left without buying a bottle.

Thirty years later Lincoln Road is no longer the heart of the wine industry, Bordeaux Wines no longer exists and the quality of New Zealand wine has greatly improved. Wine tourism has become a serious business.

A Hawke’s Bay winemaker explained, “It’s very important for us to meet our customers so that we can explain why our wines are special. The winery next door is growing the same grape varieties as us and yet our wines are very different to theirs. We each use different techniques in the vineyard and winery to make our own particular statement through our wines. When our wines are side-by-side on the supermarket shelf they are, for example, both Hawke’s Bay Chardonnays at a similar price. How does the customer know which wine to buy? Our cellar door gives us the chance to explain why our wines are different and of course to let visitors try before they buy. My neighbour will do the same. The customer can then make an informed choice and buy the wine that bests suits his or her taste”.

Wine drinkers can stick to the wines they know. That’s safe but boring. They can take a chance and choose a wine they’ve never tasted. That’s exciting but risky. Or they can try before they buy and choose a new wine on the basis of taste – that’s the best of both worlds.

The opportunity to “try before you buy” is the most compelling reason for joining the wine trail. I’ve eves-dropped on many over-the-counter conversations which go something like this: “I’d like a dry wine.” “This Chardonnay is deliciously dry. It’s our latest release and is selling like hot-cakes. Everyone loves the wine’s rich, buttery flavour.” “That’s nice, but have you got anything slightly less dry?” “You’ll love this fruity Riesling … etc.”

The person behind the counter may be the owner, the winemaker or perhaps a part-time assistant who works only on Saturdays. They know a lot about the wines they sell, if not about wine in general and the winemaking process. It’s surprising how much you can learn about wine simply by chatting over a sales cellar counter as you sample the range of wines on offer.

An increasing number of wineries now charge for samples. Some provide a tray of glasses with a complete range of wines. A few deduct the cost of wine samples from any purchases you make. I like to pay for samples because it reduces the obligation to buy. Others feel affronted if the winery charges a fee. If you feel strongly one way or another it might be worth making a few phone calls to establish the ground rules. Wine trail maps and brochures provide directions and opening hours but in my experience they seldom cover the sensitive issue of a fee for tasting samples.

It pays to plan ahead. My daily tour typically covers three wineries that specialise in different wine styles. For example, in Marlborough I might choose a winery that makes some of my favourite white wines, such as Forrest Estate (tastings), a winery that I respect as a red wine producer, like Fromm Estate (tastings) and perhaps a sparkling wine maker such as Cellier le Brun or No 1 Family Estate (tastings). I’d take a wine and vineyard tour at Forrest and plan to have lunch at Cellier le Brun or, better still, take my own lunch and enjoy it in the vineyard with wine produced from that vineyard.

Don’t try to tackle too much. It’s a good idea to intersperse your wine tasting with other activities. For instance, I might start the day in Hawke’s Bay with a visit to a weekend Farmer’s Market or visit The Big Picture in Central Otago; a fascinating “virtual wine tour” that includes a wine tasting.

Any wine tastes better when you’ve visited the winery. It tastes absolutely delicious when you discovered it while chatting to the owner or winemaker. Savour it amongst the vines and it’ll taste like nectar from the Gods.


TOURING TIPS FOR THREE WINE REGIONS

HAWKE’S BAY

Hawke’s Bay is a large and diverse region making an equally diverse range of wines. You can collect a Wine Trail brochure from most wineries or the Information Centre at Napier or Hastings. The region offers a number of very good winery restaurants as well as vineyard accommodation. Chardonnay is the region’s best white wine although just about every white wine you can think of is produced here. There are a growing number of very good Pinot Gris labels as well as the hot new wine, Viognier. The best reds are made from one or more of the grape varieties grown in Bordeaux; Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Malbec and Petit Verdot. You’ll also find a number of excellent reds made from Syrah (known as “Shiraz” in Australia). Different climates can influence wine styles. Wines from the warm Gimblett Gravels area, for example, differ from wines produced from cooler coastal or high altitude inland sites.

My Favourite Winery Restaurants

Top Ten Wineries to Visit

MARLBOROUGH

The first vines were planted only just over 30 years ago but Marlborough is now the country’s largest wine region. Grab a wine trail map from any winery and explore the sprawling, vine-carpeted Wairau Valley. Don’t forget to visit the very beautiful Awatere Valley, 15 minutes drive from Blenheim toward Kaikoura. You can travel around Marlborough by car, balloon, bicycle or tour bus. Marlborough is best known for Sauvignon Blanc although the region makes many great white wines, including Riesling, Gewürztraminer, Chardonnay and Pinot Gris. Pinot Noir is the main red wine although wines made from other varieties can be found.

My Favourite Winery Restaurants

Top Ten Wineries to Visit

CENTRAL OTAGO

If you like great Pinot Noir in an alpine setting then head for captivating Central Otago. The region is a collection of fascinating and quite separate wine districts. Gibbston is the most intensively established region about 30 minutes from Queenstown. Another 20 minutes further on is Bannockburn, rated by many as the district that makes the region’s finest wines. It’s worth heading for Alexandra to explore a few long-established wineries as well as the many newcomers. Back through Bannockburn to Cromwell you can head for the beautiful lakeside village of Wanaka and pass several emerging wine districts on the way. Pinot Noir rules in Central Otago but don’t forget to sample the area’s exquisitely vibrant Riesling, lush Gewürztraminer and intensely-flavoured Pinot Gris.

My Favourite Winery Restaurants

Ten Top Wineries to visit


TEN TIPS FOR VISITING A WINERY

  1. Phone ahead or check the winery web site for opening hours and facilities
  2. If you plan to taste wine, designate a non-drinking driver
  3. Plan to visit no more than three wineries in a single day
  4. Describe your favourite wine styles to the salesperson; they will guide you toward the wines that best suit your taste.
  5. Try before you buy – there’s no better way of choosing wines that hit the spot.
  6. If you plan to taste quite a few wines, use the spittoon
  7. Check out the bargain bin if there is one
  8. If you are buying a quantity of wine, ask about a case discount
  9. Add your name to the winery mailing list for early notification of new releases
  10. Take a picnic and enjoy lunch among the vines

First published in Taste Magazine NZ – Sep 2005.

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