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May 23, 2017

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New Zealand: South Island Touring
by Andrea Frost
Magazine Issue: AUS/NZ Issue Four

New School Sabbatical

It was an educational trip, a sabbatical of sorts, to discover a few top wineries, from three top regions in New Zealand's South Island. And in between tastings and lessons, there was a bit of extra-curricular fun.

We flew into the South Island in an aeroplane that was little more than conduit pipe with wings. And with two blokes inside who, when upright, stood north of 6'2", it felt like we'd hijacked a plane from the set of Noddy. Flying across Cook Strait, the body of water separating the two islands, you get a great perspective on New Zealand's terrain - jagged mountains arcing out of the ocean, rivers darting and weaving between them like the knotted varicose veins that snake across your aunty's legs, and clouds that hang low enough to touch. Cold, green, windy and piercingly clear. All this morphing to form one of the most beautiful chunks of land to spring out the South Pacific Ocean.

THIS IS MARLBOROUGH COUNTRY

Marlborough is NZ's largest wine growing region. It's most famous for its sauvignon blanc, which is the most planted grape variety followed by chardonnay, pinot noir and riesling. In terms of success, Marlborough's like Drew Barrymore - very successful at a very young age. Unlike the lovely Drew however, Marlborough has managed to stay squeaky clean during its rise to success. It took little more than 20 years for the area to develop into a highly sought after, and now very expensive, wine region. Considering that existing vineyards in parts of Europe are up to 700 years old, this really is a flash in the pan.

There's around 65 wineries in the region, of which Seresin Estate is one. Established in 1992, it's the namesake winery of Michael Seresin - well-known cinematographer responsible for such films as Midnight Express and Angela's Ashes. How exciting - famous film makers and wine all at once. Of course Mr Namesake was off being glamorous shooting a new film somewhere so we got the next best thing.

We were greeted at the airport by Brian Bicknall - the general manager and chief winemaker at Seresin Estate. Brian's a cherry-cheeked, stocky bloke whose never far from a joke and who's wealth of knowledge, skill and enthusiasm for the area is wrapped up in a sense of humour dryer than the finest fino sherry.

On the drive from Blenheim airport, Brian did his best to cram Marlborough's 30-year history of viticulture into a few short minutes; slowing down past the new plantings, pointing out the former boundaries of the region depicting the huge growth in the area - what was once considered unsafe to plant on is now fine with a couple of wind machines and fog alarms; and sweeping his arm across all the foreign investment in the area, most of which comes from France. We just sat back and looked and listened as Marlborough The Wine Region began to take shape.

Interesting yes, but this trip was as much about pretending to be on holiday as it was an educational wine venture, so it was straight to our pad to neck a couple of bottles of fizz with our new friends.

That night we hit downtown Blenheim, the capital city of Marlborough if you like. Dinner was at the brasserie of Hotel d'Urville. Lively local food which was, of course, accompanied by an endless choice of glorious local wines. It's an interesting spot. The hotel, brasserie and wine bar are built into an old bank. Some of the rooms are accessible only after getting past the iron slabs that were the original vault doors - bit like a chastity belt for your bedroom.

We kicked on at the curiously named Navajo pub and spent the rest of the night revelling in the joys of travel - where minor changes make a routine outing fun again; mastering new pool rules, discovering which of the local beers were good, staying clear of some of the Maori chicks, (said Ed from Roberto's restaurant "I swim every day to get shoulders that big") and watched a few optimistic drunks take on the bouncers who stood roughly the size of a two-bedroom unit.

Blenheim, like most towns that service a wine region, is one that reminds even the most glamorous wine region in the world, that they are essentially in the country, and that despite the photos in the brochure, the country is not always about polo neck jumpers, Range Rovers, horse rides and a glass of pinot on the balcony of your B&B. It means that when you hit the pub at night, you've got locals who know no value of wine except that it provides more jobs in the area and who couldn't give a fiddlers about the fashionable side of wine. 'Cause let's face it, wine is fashionable. Especially in this area.

TALK TO THE HAND...SERESIN ESTATE

A tour 'round the Seresin stable gives you a sense of just how seriously these guys take the winemaking business. But more in that philosophical, earnest, dare I say it, spiritual kinda way. And I guess that's bound to happen when you're driven into it because of a passion you have for wine, not for money. Michael Seresin uses the dosh he makes from the film industry to fund the Seresin project. The hand symbol appearing on the labels, a print of Michael's, is a symbol of "the individual and of creative endeavour ... it represents our philosophy to blend tradition with technology."

Seresin fruit is all estate grown, is totally organic, hand picked and hand sorted. The organic side of the wines is not trumpeted, it's just the way they are. Michael's also committed to the sustainable viticulture program, a sign of respect to the environment and long-term commitment to the project.

Brian and sidekick winemaker Gordon Ritchie walked us through the immaculate winery (I've seen dirtier operating theatres) and a few just as immaculate samples of their pinot and sauvignon blanc. Not long in barrel and often foggy as a pond, these wines showed signs of great fruit and structure. Time son, time.

Plans for expansion of the winery at this stage are the development of 160 acres (100 percent of the current vineyard size) of bald, wind-stripped, average farmland that's about to go under vine. A new cellar door is also on the drawing board. As well as wine, they've produced two vintages of extra virgin olive oil from their groves, although only the lucky sods in NZ have been privileged enough to suck this off a piece of bread as they haven't produced enough to export just yet. Or so they say.

FISH AND CHICKS IN THE HAVELOCK

"Andrea?" Brian's voice boomed on the other side of my door. It was early, dim and foggy outside. "Yes" I responded in a whisper that smelt like port, "Get your arse up." We were going snapper fishing in the Havelock Sounds.

We drove the 40 clicks to the popular port which serves as the launching pad for boat trips to other parts of the Marlborough Sounds. The Sounds are so visually spectacular they force a dull mind to life. Knowing they were formed when water flowed into the mountain ranges after the ice ages and hearing tales of Maori tribes battling within them only make them more bewildering. There are so many bays and inlets in the sounds that it seems everyone gets a go at naming a place. As you leave Picton Harbour, Shakespeare Bay is on your left, while Bob's Bay is to your right.

The scene at Havelock Port was something out of a John West commercial - the water was as still as glass, the fog hung around the tops of the mountains and lifted from the sea like steam from a simmering broth; the chill of the morning razzed up our dispositions and the fresh air did for our breaths what the toothpaste couldn't.

Not counting Dave's midget throwback, it was Brian who pulled in the first snapper. "Come on Aussies", he stirred, "This is how you catch fish." So come on we did. Adam bought in the next one, much bigger and more impressive as was Gordo's again. Everything changed - the clouds burnt away, the grey sea turned aqua, hangovers dispersed and the boat turned into a festival. Then my rod arced like Moby Dick was having a nibble. A few long, hard, well assisted minutes later, I hauled a 20 pound snapper on deck. Damn it felt good.

There's not a whole lot to the town itself aside from eating mounds of the green shelled mussels it's famous for. Don't get me wrong, there's every reason in the world to come here - views, boats, mussels and fishing. Well four, but they're all worth it.

We had lunch at a cafe restaurant in the main street of Havelock called Mussel Boys. No guesses what they sell by the bucket load. When I showed our waiting lunch party the fish, people oo-ed and ahh-ed like they used to when you were a kid showing off a crap painting. Fishing rocks like that. I felt like a warrior, a gladiator, the breadwinner. Walking past a table of middle aged fishing types (I could tell from the pile of fishing magazines at their feet) they asked, "Are you the girl who caught the big fish?".

"Matter of fact I am."
"That's amazing for your first time."
"Thank-you very much."
"You know it'll never happen again."
Cheers.

That day I learnt what it meant to fish - man against beast, Aussies versus Kiwis, the real meaning of size and most importantly, I learnt that to some people, catching a big fish is just as important as saving a small child from a burning fire.

NEUFORF...IT AIN'T KANSAS BUT IT SURE COMES CLOSE

We shared, prepared, cooked and ate the fish with Tim and Judy Finn of Neudorf wines. It tasted more like chicken than fish only with much less taste. Too old to be good, they told me. This was a crying shame in such company as the Finns', whose generosity, charm and warmth made you want to give right back and rocking up with a fish the size of a toddler, I thought, would've made the grade. Guess the fish had the last laugh.

The Finns' winery is in a tiny hamlet that was established in 1842 by German settlers. After the wars, many of the original German names for the region were changed. Tim and Judy planted the first vines in 1978, which gives them pioneer status for both the region and the country. They now grow and make chardonnay, pinot noir, riesling and sauvignon blanc and are also part of the sustainable viticulture scheme for NZ which encourages dry-grown vines and the absence of insecticides as part of the program.

That morning we'd driven the 75 gob-smacking kilometres from Havelock to Nelson, a truly spectacular drive that cuts through the Wakamarina Valley and past the small town of Pinedale, through the Pelorus Bridge Reserve and Rai Valley.

Then we arrived at Neudorf where a quick breeze around the winery, cellar door and property made little Anne's Green Gables look like Harlem. I wanted them to adopt me.

While we wandered and tasted, the conversation wafted around winemakers and their personalities and the human effect on the vineyard. This really was a nice spot to reflect.

Morning saw an enjoyable tasting of some '99 and '00 Neudorf wines which, like the man who made them, showed sophistication, restraint and style. The reserve pinot was described by a friend of Tim's as "a cricket pitch in summer". Thinking. "You know, leather, grass, gentle tannins and slightly warm." Strangely, we did. More tastings of sauvignon blanc, riesling, chardonnay and it was time to move on. I held back tears as I waved goodbye and hoped we could be pen friends.

COASTAL PACIFIC...THE FAST TRACK TO WAIPARA

The next leg of the journey was covered on the Coastal Pacific train. Loading ourselves on at Picton at the top of the South Island, we tucked in for four rollicking hours of caboose-style fun. Bucking and weaving along the coast the train passes through tunnels, over river mouths, across salt planes, past seal colonies, all the while with the Pacific Ocean just over there. With a few snug beers and a deck of cards for entertainment, we were convinced that train travel was the only way to fly.

Then came our stop, Waipara. We stumbled off looking more like the local Under 19's footy team landing at Denpasar Airport for the end of season debauchery. Ed Donaldson, young marketing gun from the family-owned Pegasus Bay winery, smiled and looked pleased to see us. But then, he is in marketing.

The property is another that looks like it's lifted off the face of jigsaw puzzle. One side is protected by the bald, gentle humps of a mountain range which also protects the vines from the cooling breezes off the ocean. The winery, cellar door and Vineyard restaurant are all part of the one monster building that has so many floors you can almost touch the stars at night.

Sitting down to dinner that night with the Donaldsons gives you a real understanding of family affair. Spearheading the clan is Ivan, the dad, or husband, depending on who you talk to. A neurologist by profession, Ivan has been growing grapes since the early '70s. As I've explained earlier on, in NZ, this is the stuff of pioneers. Christine, mum, wife, business manager and big opera fan, is responsible for the operatic theme to the labelling of the premium wines as well as the opera events that kick off in the property's natural ampitheatre.

Then there's Ed, the winery's marketing gun who kindly picked us up from the station earlier on. Ed's also a trained chef and so supervises the Vineyard restaurant. Older brother Matt, and his partner Lynette Hudson, are the winemakers and viticulturists. These two studied in both Australia and New Zealand and for the last seven years have done two vintages a year, using the down time here to take up winemaking positions at wineries throughout Europe's vintage period. Passionate young things.

Don't know if it's the family atmosphere, the crackerjack wine, the young guns in charge or the fact the place is filled with a bunch of kids who look like they've just stepped off their snowboards to work in the winery, Pegasus Bay is an environment where you feel comfortable with wine. You can relate to it easily. They do that to you.

HIGH FLYERS

After a finger lickin' night devouring homemade food and wine from the Donaldson posse, I was standing on the lawn, being barked at by a mad Austrian ballooning instructor. This bloke had a personality that, at 5:30 in the morning, having just finished tastings and a skate boarding session in the winery a few hours earlier, made one want to embrace violence. A constant barrage of instructions and hardcore safety drills does not make a man new friends.

Despite the drills and the implication that hot air ballooning is as dangerous as walking barefoot around King's Cross, the ride was gentle and effortless. Surprisingly, there's little adrenalin rush in ballooning. Our take-off was seamless; no jolts, no skids, just gentle lifting and floating until our immediate view of the world busted open to include mountain ranges, ocean views and the entire wine region. It was truly beautiful.

Then certain wind patterns forced us to land. In Deliverance country. "That's the weirdest house I've ever been into" whispered the driver of the pick-up vehicle after asking permission to land. As he said that, what looked like a version of the Waltons who'd been living under high voltage power lines drove in on the truck. They kindly helped us pack up, we smiled and left.

Some of us were asleep when Ed Donaldson offloaded us at Christchurch airport - like weary kids heading home from camp. We were of few words and little conversation, just the odd elbow and a string of dribble that hung from our mouths as we slept.

We dragged ourselves and some poxy duty free gifts onto the plane for the haul home. It was an insignificant end to a spectacular adventure. Or rather, it was just a lull. You see, secretly, I couldn't wait to get home. But not so much for my own bed or a decent night's sleep, but to put everything I learnt about the South Island, it's characters and the wines they make, into practice. I wanted to try the wines with my food and find them in a bottle shop and tell my friends what I knew.

And naturally, there were a few keen fisherman I had something to tell.

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