Land of the long white cloud – II

Cloudy Bay vines

We arrived in Blenheim somewhere in the early evening and checked into a motel (somewhere in between seedy and luxurious). A spot of twitter and internet searching later and we’d discovered a decent sounding restaurant called the Hotel D’Urville. It certainly looked the part in a vintage building with fancy looking furniture, polished surfaces, dim lighting and well adorned staff. Sadly it all went downhill from there. The service was unwarrantably snooty, the food even worse. Everything tasted as if it had come straight out of a fridge. Bland lifeless salmon on top of pasta was a particular low light, as was the salmon mousse with pumpernickel amuse bouche, that did not amuse any bouches.

The only high point in the entire meal was opening the bottle of the 2005 Pegasus Bay Merlot Cabernet we’d purchased earlier in the day. A wine of great length and substance. It’s fortunate that credit card bills take a long time to come through, thus the sting of actually having to pay a substantial amount for blatant mediocrity was less severe than handing over cold hard cash.

The night was due to pick up though. I’d been in contact earlier in the day with Aaron, winemaker and internet marketer extraordinaire for family owned label Fiasco Wines. Aaron’s family had planted some of the first vines in the Marlborough region, and he was now taking the finest of them to make wine of his own. But the reality of the situation for Aaron is that whilst making your own wine is a labour of love that you hope will pay off eventually, you need some money to pay the bills in the meantime.

So in the evenings Aaron is a contract wine maker at a facility on the outskirts of Blenheim and makes wine for labels of epic proportions. We’d been in touch via Twitter and Aaron kindly offered to give Jon and I a tour of the facility.

Marlborough Sauvignon BlancFamous NZ Sauvignon Blanc in grape juice form

I had no real idea what I was in for when we got there actually, but to call the wine industry in Marlborough in any way boutique would be a complete misnomer once you’ve encountered this kind of operation. We sat in slightly bewildered awe as swollen trucks dumped tonne upon tonne of grapes into hungry hoppers. Then we were slowly guided by Aaron through the entire process as it was crushed, pulped, fermented and hit the holding tanks. Getting a chance to try one of NZ’s most popular export wines (no guessing) as a rather tart grape juice.

Apparently this one facility produces up to 15% of all of the wine in NZ… and can store millions of litres of wine in it’s tanks. I was torn between being fascinated and being disturbed by the scale of it all, but Aaron is no nonsense kind of guy and did his best to keep things real whilst showing us around, something I have a lot of respect for. Wine can be a very glamour focused industry, so seeing the scale of this was a great way to put things in perspective next time you hit the bottle shops.

After checking out the red wine area, where apparently you can quite easily die if you stick your head too far into a vat of fermenting grapes (note to self: too much C02 == bad), it was time to hand back our fluorescent safety vests and head back into town. Aaron very kindly gave me a bottle of his 2008 Tall Story Sauvignon Blanc, that went down a treat upon my return to Australia.

So the next day was all about Marlborough. We started the day completely by accident at CPR (Coffee Premium Roasters). My keen coffee sensing skills must have been on overdrive because we just happened to walk into this place and then noticed a roaster out the back. A quick chat to the girl managing and turns out we were in Blenheims only boutique coffee roaster, who also happen to hold coffee appreciation classes and tasting sessions. Score.
A quick test of the coffee via a flat white and an espresso proved that indeed they did know their stuff.

A breakfast of champions at a nearby restaurant fueled us for the day ahead and it was off to the vineyards. We sampled wines from Lawsons Dry Hills, Cloudy Bay, Fromm, Huia, Allan Scott, and Nautilus. Beer from Moa kept Jon’s palate refreshed and I almost started contemplating getting into some myself as the gooseberryesque Sauvignon Blanc that the region is famous for began to take it’s toll. Crisp, herbaceous, and refreshing in it’s best incarnations, bitingly acidic and grassy in it’s worst. I can see why it’s a contentious little varietal at the moment.

I did however get right into a lot of the Gewurztraminer of the area. It’s a lovely aromatic varietal traditionally grown in the Alsace region of France, and produces some delightful wines. Everyone in NZ seems to be very specific on letting you know the level of residual sugar in their white wines, so you can be quite certain as to the level of apparent sweetness before trying anything. Something I think makes a lot of sense when it comes to comparing wines of the same variety made in different styles.

I tended to prefer the off dry, spicy Gewurz such as that from Huia and Lawsons Dry Hills. Both of which I bought, and added to a small but growing collection.

Soon though it was time to keep on moving. We bid farewell to Blenheim and surrounds and headed on towards Nelson, passing through Havelock, supposedly the home of the NZ green lipped mussel. It being near lunchtime and with only cheese and crackers from various wineries in our bellies so far, we decided we’d better stop and sample the local delicacy. So it was off to The Mussel Pot we went.

I probably should have guessed it wasn’t going to be great from the gaudy tourist look of the place on the way in, but we figured we’d try it anyway. I ordered a pot of mussels with a thai style sauce (lemongrass, coconut milk, chilli), and Jon ordered something that had blue cheese in it. The flavours of the sauces aside, the mussels are just not good. NZ green lipped mussels are huge, chewy, horrible things, that spoiled any hope of my falling in love with them. Especially when I found a tiny crab living inside one… A basket of stale bread and a packet of butter didn’t go any futher towards sweetening the deal wither. Lets just say that this day the magic of NZ did not quite live up to what we were hoping.

So back into the car we headed, and other stunning drive from Havelock to Nelson up and down and around hills and mountains and lakes. I had never been through this part of NZ as a child, and so it was all quite amazing to see. The only problem being that New Zealand was beginning to become too beautiful. We’d stop at the top of a hill, take photos and gaze out across the distance, then drive around the corner and over another hill, and want to do the same thing all over again. Quickly becoming fairly blaise about the wonder of nature all around us as it blurred past us at 120km/hr.

We stopped briefly in Nelson, which itself is a very boutique little city. It’s becoming built up quite a bit, but still retains an edgy facade of coolness. With more local coffee roasters and enough decent sounding pubs and restaurants to keep the relatively discerning locals and tourists happy. But instead of lingering we decided it would be best to keep on driving down towards the west coast. Ending up for the night in Murchison, and old gold mining town that’s now a hub for whitewater rafters. Sadly nothing particularly adventurous was open when we arrived though, and the best we could do for dinner that night was a roast dinner at the local pub. Oh to have brought my camera with me, as a veritable feast of microwaved meats and formerly crisp vegetables was presented with a spattering of gravy. Memories of boarding school came flooding back with the stewed peaches and ice cream for dessert, and we left satisfied if not entirely fulfilled.

We had a nice example of kiwi hospitality as the lady motel owner handed us the keys without taking down any of our details or asking for any money, and a bottle of Nautilus Pinot Noir provided a very relaxing end to a full day.

Salmon mousse 'amuse'The best thing about this restaurant was the wine I brought myself*Lamb Rack with mash and dolmadesThe worlds most tasteless salmonThe whirly bit makes the grapes go somewhereFamous NZ Sauvignon Blanc in grape juice formBubbly goodnessMarlborough Sauvignon Blanc25,000 kg per loadCaution: Person In PressThe vats... they twinklea journey into the nightThe best stuff happens at nightAaron of Fiasco WinesA vat of pinot noirCPR: Coffee Premium RoastersCPR: Coffee Premium RoastersEspresso from CPR BlenheimBreakfast at Raupo : BlenheimThe best days start with a well poached egg.Cloudy Bay vinesChampagne fancierThe rowsHuia : Late Picked ReislingMoa NoirHuia : Marlborough Pinot NoirHuia : The lineupIf she didnt hate me then, she will nowlunchtime anticipationbread baskets & pNZ Green Lip MusselsThe best thing about the musselsAnatomy of a musselOk, so we still ate them.*Nautilus: Marlborough Pinot NoirFromm : Marlborough La Strada Pinot NoirMotel refinement

Land of the long white cloud – I

Fields of dandelions

Aotearoa, New Zealand, Home.

It’s been a long time since I’ve been back to the land that bore me. I would love to say 20 years to the day I left, but I have neither the organisational skills, nor the flair for melodrama to manufacture something quite so grandiose. Still, I left when i was 9 years old and came back for only the second time when I was 29, so there’s got to be some poetic license in there somewhere.

The occasion this time around (not that there needed to be one of course) was my grandmothers 80th birthday. She is my sole surviving grandparent and matriarch to an ever expanding (except on my behalf) army of grand and great grand children. Having had 9 children of her own, she tends to take things a little easier these days, though she’s no less feisty than I remember as a small child, trying to raid her cupboards for girl guide biscuits, making forts in her hedges, and generally causing mischief.

Before I reached the party, and as a way of reacquainting myself the country, I decided it’d be a good idea to hire a car and drive around. Reminiscing at former holiday spots, revisiting the scenes of near tragedies, seeking out wine regions and food haunts, and generally soaking up as much as New Zealand was willing to give. With my travel companion and apprentice wine sampler Jon as co-pilot, we did perhaps the fastest circumnavigation of the South Island possible in a Toyota Corolla. Which went a little something like this:

Day 1: Dinner in Christchurch at Le Cafe. We tried to get into “Cook’n with Gas”, which despite the name and the giant gas flame burner out the front of the restaurant, did look quite nice and had good reviews. Instead we ended up at Le Cafe, not my first pick, but a cute waitress and a glass of wine will do wonders to your expectations. The food was actually not bad, pork and fennel meatballs fueled our appetites and a slow cooked beef shin finished the job. I could have done without the 3 whole chillies chopped up and strewn through my ‘hot and sour’ salad, but all in all the meal was good. Added novelty when the lights were turned off for earth hour and we all got candles on our tables. Not the first or last time Jon and I would get confused for a romantic couple.

Moa BeerLe Cafe, ChristchurchFennel and Pork Meatballsslow cooked beef shin with hot and sour salad and riceDoneEarth Hour in ChristchurchA man of distinctionEveryone looks more poignant during Earth HourOutside Le CafeEarth Hour fire twirler

Big points go to the barista who looked like he knew his stuff, and convinced me it was worth trying a coffee. They were using Burtons (who are one of New Zealand’s main green bean importers, but also roast), and it was actually quite good. Latte art going out on every cup I could see and my espresso was very tasty, pulled as a short double with . All I could hope is that it was a sign of things to come.

Day 2: The starts slowly. A warm bed and a cold morning will do that to you. But soon we’re on the road and heading from Christchurch to Blenheim. A quick chat and a look at the road map says we’ll be heading through Waipara, one of New Zealand’s newest wine regions.

The main idea of the whole trip was to reacquaint myself with the country I grew up in, yet know so little about in a modern context. New Zealand is seen by the rest of the world as a wonderland of organic produce and down to earth producers so I aimed to find as many of them as possible.

Passing through Waipara Jon and I stopped off at Pegaus Bay and Fiddlers Green.  Pegasus Bay is part of the Family of Twelve , basically a marketing initiative to group together some of the founding wineries that are still family owned.  The homestead looked like a French chateau of grandiose proportions and a dark musky room for tastings decorated with vintage Premier Cru wine bottles as lighting.  I found it instantly likeable and despite the lack of personal service because the tasting guy was run off his feet, we found plenty of the wines extremely palatable.   Trying mostly Riesling, Pinot Noir, Gewurztraminer, and a stunning Merlot Cabernet that was swiftly purchased.

After Waipara we headed north and towards the coast up to Kaikoura, snapping photos out of the window and generally being amazed at how even mundane little towns were full of wonderful things.

Kaikoura is a tiny fishing village in between Christchurch and Picton on the east coast of the south island… and home to a big crayfish industry. The Maori name ‘Kaikoura’ translates to ‘meal of crayfish’ (‘kai’ = food/meal, ‘koura’ = crayfish) . So you would have thought we’d try some wouldn’t you ?

That would have been the case except for when we arrived at the beach side shack selling crayfish they wanted about $60 each for a tiny one… which was sadly more cash than I was willing to part with whilst sitting on plastic chairs and drinking out of styrofoam cups.

Whitebait fritter sandwich

Whitebait fritters on the other hand, were much more affordable, and are another famous Kiwi dish of much repute. I can’t say I had a taste for them as a kid, but things have changed a lot since the last time I was here. This was delicious.

Pegasus Bay  Merlot CabernetA fairly expensive approach to finding lighting fixturesInside Pegasus BayPegasus Bay dining roomSomeones been raiding the cellar*Sunscreen for vinesStrike a poseContemplating the tidesKaikouraKaikouraWhitebait fritter sandwichShots from moving carsShots from moving cars

After a brief stop for photos and some reflection on the beauty of nature, it was back into the car for more high speed rural action. Fording river and valley and all that was in our path on the way to Blenheim, and the heart of Marlborough.