The Friday Fermentable: New Zealand's Marlborough Country, by Erleichda

For new readers, The Friday Fermentable is our fun end-of-week feature devoted to the fruits of biochemical processes: wine and beer. I am fortunate to have a senior and more well-traveled colleague, Erleichda, who shares with us his wine escapades as accompanied by his beloved Sweetpea. Everytime Erleichda posts, I put another pin on my world map of places I need to visit. The New Zealand Marlborough Valley is no exception. In fact, annotating his post with the winery websites showed me the incredibly beautiful country in which these wines were tasted. Enjoy!

Another Wine Experience: New Zealand's Marlborough Country
by Erleichda

i-b7608f4e870119dc7b01e0654ca31fb4-Marlborough Sounds Wines.jpgNear the beginning of our adventure thru the South Island of New Zealand (NZ), while we were still rather new to the experience of in depth NZ wine tasting, our travels brought us to the Marlborough area outside of Blenheim.

We had tried our first Marlborough 2005 Riesling from the Alan Scott vineyard ($ ?) while dining at the Old Convent in Kaikoura. My notes remind me that it was a medium dry experience with a lime essence plus perhaps melon, and others at the table felt it had aromas of orange peel. I recall it being pleasant but not exceptional.

Forrest Estate Winery
We were on our way towards Nelson and points West when our request to experience a Marlborough winery before traveling another kilometer brought us to the Forrest Estate winery. Here Christina poured for us and explained the history of winemaking in the area. Not yet 20 years old, the Forrest Estate winery (not Christina) is a particularly pleasant, park-like venue for sampling wines and having a picnic (which we did). Their 2005 Sauvignon Blanc ($13, approximate US pricing equivalent) was a quaffable, easy to drink affair. It was not nearly as acidic tasting as many of the sauvignon blancs of the South Island, yet had the characteristic tropical fruits (passion fruit, pineapple, mango) one expects with even some tastes of darker berries and a hint of herbs. The 2002 Riesling ($13) had 1.4% residual sugar (RS) to balance the acidity and notes of orange-like flavors accompanied this tasting. The Forrest Estate 2004 Gewurztraminer ($19) was delicious. It also had a bit of sweetness (1.2% RS), but seemed less acidic and this made it so soft and easy to drink along with the spicy flavors (ginger). Turning to their red wines, we first tasted the "Vineyard Selection" 2002 Pinot Noir ($23) which was light, but typical of many NZ pinot noirs we were to sample. It had red fruit flavors and was easy on the palate. The 2003 Merlot/Malbec offering ($13) was an affordable, easy drinking offering with a particularly reasonable price. The last red sampled was their 2002 "Newton Forrest Cornerstone" ($27) was an almost equal mix of cabernet sauvignon, merlot, and malbec grapes, concocted in both French and American oak. It was mouth filling and had flavors of black fruits and something else unidentified to go along with the tannic backbone. I would have to have this one with other red wines to better judge its worthiness. But I know for certain that I liked the aromatic whites of this winery. Forrest Estate wines are available in the US.

Isabel Estate Vineyard
After lunch we moved on to the Isabel Estate winery and began with a tasting of two sauvignon blancs. The 2005 Sauvignon Blanc ($16) was a vibrant mouth full of the expected pineapple and passion fruit flavors, a bit of grassiness, and sufficient acidity coupled with fullness (I hear that comes from the malo-lactic acid fermentation, i.e., contributes "texture"). The 2006 Sauvignon Blanc (not yet released) was a fruit forward wine with the usual tropical fruit flavors but also melon. The 2005 Dry Riesling ($?) was lemony and had distinct mineral notes--sort of an Alsatian style riesling but lacking the petrol nose.

I particularly liked the Isabel Estate 2005 Pinot Gris ($?). It was a complex, fruity (peach or pear, maybe both) offering that was halfway between Alsatian style and lighter Italian versions of the grape variety. The 2004 Pinot Noir ($25) was a berry-nosed easy-to-drink wine matured in French oak; pleasant but not extraordinary. Some of the Isabel wines are available in the States.

Huia Winery
Sweetpea and I returned to the Marlborough region about one week later. We decided on a brief outing from our homestay residence (Antares Lodge) on mountain bikes supplied gratis from our wonderful hosts, Jane & Ray. The Huia Winery tasting room was managed by a pleasant hostess, Jana. She explained that the local Huia (Ho-Yah) bird is notable for having the female possessed of a much longer beak than the male. I find tidbits like this make wine tasting experiences all the more memorable. The 2001 Brut Sparkling Wine ($25), a mixture of chardonnay and pinot noir with about 0.8% RS, was a pleasant initiation to the line-up awaiting us. The 2006 Huia Sauvignon Blanc ($15) was a reasonably priced wine bursting with pineapple and passion fruit so typical of NZ wines of this grape variety, with a bit more herbaceous quality than most. Their 2005 Gewurztraminer ($17) was a bit flat to my taste buds, and not quite as good as the 2004 Riesling ($16) which was dry with floral and citrus notes, coupled with toast and yeasty nuances; but neither wine really made it for me. The best white wine I had at Huia was there 2006 Pinot Gris ($19) with its wonderful fruit (pear, melon, peach -something delicious) coupled nicely with the tannins that came from seeing some French oak. The 2004 Pinot Noir ($25) was typical of so many NZ pinots, mild barnyard and fruit on the nose, and a decent cherry flavored tasting experience balanced with tannins extracted after seeing 10 months in oak; it too was pleasant but not exceptional.

Herzog Winery
Before calling it a day, we stopped off at the Herzog Winery. For a $7 tasting fee per person, highest by far of any winery visited (many tastings were free), one has the privilege of tasting a handful of Herzog offerings. Their 2005 Chardonnay ($25) was an oak- forward affair with a nice balance of acidity, fruit, and a touch of vanilla to provide a mouth-filling concoction. I also liked their Pinot Gris ($25), which was soft, dry and rich of flavor. Similarly, the 2005 Viognier ($25) was effused with soft-fruit (peach) flavors, and an other indescribable nuance (honey and musk were suggested, but I'm not sure). Not inexpensive, by any means, but all these white wines were well crafted. The flagship red is a blend of merlot, cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc and malbec, called "Spirit of Marlborough", of which we tried the 2000 ($34). It was a nice tasting experience, with dark fruit, tannic backbone, and a spicy nose, but didn't overwhelm me. Herzog's Pinot Noir ($29) was a dark fruit laden, elegant wine, with hints of spice to accompany the mild barnyard nose.

But, my favorite wine tasted in NZ, and the only one I thought of carrying home, and regret not doing so, was the Herzog 2004 Montepulciano ($35). This wine, like the others just mentioned, had dark fruit flavors (blackberries, plums) with a moderate tannic backbone (two years in French barrels) and a marvelous nose. The flavor was intense and the overall tasting experience sublime. This is the sort of wine one searches to find. The Herzog winery also has a superb (and expensive) restaurant on the premises. Our meals that same night were excellent (but the chocolate spicy sauce accompanying the beef fillets was just a touch too salty), as were the service and ambience. The 2004 Herzog Montepulciano went very well with the beef fillet and assorted cheeses, as did earlier glasses of viognier and pinot gris accompany well the smoked salmon mousse with fennel and asparagus salad, and the carrot and ginger soup with coriander. The Herzog wines are expensive but worth trying. The efforts of Hans Herzog, who we spotted tending his vines early the next morning, certainly is evident. The restaurant qualifies as a special occasion place, but avoid ordering the bottled water, which at $8 is well over-the-top. And you would have thought that having made dinner reservations the tasting bar might have forgiven the tasting fee, but alas this courtesy was not forthcoming. In the US, try reaching East Coast Oenophilia Inc (in Hillsborough, NC) at They distribute Huia wines and eventually are slated to handle the Herzog offerings.

Matua Valley Winery
The next day found Sweetpea and I once again helmeted and bicycling along the vineyards of Marlborough. The well known Matua Valley Winery was our first "port of call". The tasting room and environs here were particularly pleasant, and the great blues/jazz playing from the speakers (BB King, Billie Holiday, Keb Mo) provided a nice back-drop to the morning's activities. We were told to try their 2006 "Paretai" (which means river bank) Sauvignon Blanc ($18) and it was an intensely fruit-driven (lemon, pineapple) example of a NZ sauvignon blanc with what I called in my notes, a soft (very tolerable and/or well received) acidity. I think however, I preferred their "Shingle Peak Reserve" 2006 Sauvignon Blanc ($15) with its tropical fruit flavors (passion fruit and pineapple), perfumey nose and soft creamy feel on the palate with a touch of minerality. The 2004 "Judd" Chardonnay ($18) had a hint of oak on the nose, and the fruit flavor was mixed with notes of toast and vanilla. Also worthy of note for its good value was the 2006 "Shingle Peak Reserve" Pinot Gris ($15). Harvested from two different locations, with some grapes fermented in French oak, the others in stainless steel, the wine had an interesting combination of acidity, spicy fruitiness (melon came to mind) and mild oaky flavors (0.5% RS). We tried their "Innovator Bullrush" 2003 Syrah ($18) and found it to have a tannic backbone with green peppers and prune flavors; ok, but it didn't make my "favorites list". The 2004 Pinot Noir ($18) was done in quintessential NZ style: light, fruity and with a decent structure (good balance of acidity and tannins). Matua Valley wines are readily available in the US.

Highfield Estate Winery
On we bicycled to the Highfield Estate Winery. A very pretty property with a restaurant on the premises. It was too early for lunch so we just had Leon of the Tasting Bar pour for us. The essence of fresh baked bread came thru on the bubbles with their 2002 "Elystree Cuvee Brut" ($25), made of 50% chardonnay and 50% pinot noir, and there was great acidity to accompany the notes of toast and citrus on the palate. In contrast, petrol or kerosene notes were to be found on the nose of their 2002 Riesling ($17), with very austere flavoring of citrus and minerals when tasted. The typical NZ sauvignon blanc was exemplified by their 2005 offering ($17), with tropical fruit (mangoes, passion fruit, melon) flavors accompanying a mineral finish. Unexpectedly, I liked their chardonnay of all the whites tried. The 2004 Chardonnay ($18) was classic, with mild oak (from both French and American wood), nuttiness, butterscotch, vanilla plus some mild fruit flavors. They also did a nice job producing the 2004 Pinot Noir ($26), which had no typical barnyard odor that I could detect, but was nicely balanced with a generous fruit layer and a hint of spice. It was a little fuller or heavier than many of the NZ pinot noirs I had thus far tasted, and as such was a pleasant surprise. The North Coast Wine Group in California handles distribution of the Highfield Estate wines in the US, or you can search the web at

Fromm Winery
Several clients in the tasting rooms had advised us to try the wines at Fromm Winery. Since it wasn't too far away we bicycled over to see what the fuss was about. We began with their "La Strada" 2004 Gewurztraminer ($21 at the winery), which at 0.1% RS and a pH of 3.8, yielded a dry wine to go along with a 14.5% alcohol content. It had a spicy ginger essence on the nose, with fruit and floral flavorings accompanied by a slight oily feel on the tongue. The "La Strada" 2004 Dry Riesling ($28 retail in US) was a dry, crisp (pH 2.9), citrusy mouth full. But we really came to taste their red wines. The only pinot noir available that day, of the three Fromm sells, was the "La Strada" 2003 ($56 retail in US). It had fruit (I thought cherries, Sweetpea said plum or blackberries) on the nose and a light to medium level of tannins as support of this ok example of the variety. For a slightly better value, I preferred their "La Strada" Merlot/Malbec (plus some cabernet franc) offering ($19 at the winery) with its dark fruit and leathery flavorings plus strong tannic backbone-- intense but not too heavy (baked or jammy).

Cellier le Brun
For lunch we decided to try a winery known best for their methode traditionnelle wines (aka bubbly), Cellier Le Brun. Our pourer from Highfield Estates, Leon, had worked here previously and also recommended their attached restaurant. Champagnes and other effervescent wine products are something I appreciate but have a difficult time describing and differentiating. The Le Brun bubbly wines are not, to my knowledge, distributed in the US, so my review of them will perhaps be of interest only to those down under with access to them. The "Terrace Road Classic" non-vintage (NV) offering ($14) was fairly dry (0.9% RS), fruity, crisp and clean, made from pinot noir, chardonnay and a small amount of pinot meunier, the same mixture one might find in Epernay. It was a pleasant but not exceptional wine. The "Brut NV" ($20), with 0.6% RS, had an essence of apple on the nose, whereas "Le Brun Tache" ($20), also 0.6% RS, had a taste of candy cane and more yeast on the nose. A 1998 "Blanc de Blanc" ($27) made from 100% chardonnay (0.9% RS) was toasty and yeasty and quite dry, but not exceptional. My favorite of these methode traditionnelle wines was a 1997 "Platinum" ($27) made from half pinot noir and half chardonnay. The small bubbles spread quickly thru the mouth and this dry wine (0.5% RS) released a toasted nuts flavor. We were ready for lunch.

Bladen Winery
Despite post-lunch sleepiness seeping in, one or two more stops on the bicycle ride home seemed in order. We had heard good things about a small, unpretentious winery by the name of Bladen. Named after their children, Blair and Denny, this family affair winery was a most pleasant place to visit. The 2006 Bladen Sauvignon Blanc ($13) was a classic NZ example of this variety with it strong tropical fruit (passion fruit) lingering flavor plus good acidity. The 2006 Pinot Gris ($18) was softer (less acidic) than the previous wine, and had pear and nut flavors with a hint of spice. The 2005 Riesling ($13) was a good value wine, with a citrus nose and fruit flavors to go with an off-dry (1.2% RS) style. The last white tasted was the 2005 Gewurztraminer ($15) which had a bit of oily finish, lower acidity and/or a touch more sweetness (1.2% RS) to accompany the aromatic spicy notes (ginger, lychee nuts). The Bladen 2004 Pinot Noir ($19) had a cherry nose, sufficient tannins (15 months in oak) to support the fruit and overall was a nicely crafted, typical NZ, lighter style pinot noir. Lastly, the 2004 Merlot/Malbec mixture (roughly 50% each) was a mouth-filling wine with plum and dark berry flavors shaped nicely with soft tannins. Overall, Bladen wines were worthwhile tasting and perhaps the best value of any vineyard visited.

Our final stop was the Village Cellar Door, where the wines of eleven boutique wineries may be experienced. Sweetpea was off perusing the goods in a nearby craft shop and I knew my tasting minutes were numbered. Therefore, I quickly decided upon two wines, the first a 2006 Naked Vine Pinot Gris ($15). This was an Alsatian-style dry offering with flavors of pear and melon and citrus. A nice example. The last wine was a 2004 Pinot Noir from Staete Landt ($23). It was dry with black cherry flavors, had minimal barnyard on the nose, and had soft tannins despite 14 months in oak.

It was evident that one would need to have a tasting dedicated to one grape variety and line up a score of NZ examples if one hoped to differentiate between wineries and vintages. I cannot with any certainty decide which was my favorite of the several white wines; there were that many good examples of each variety. The NZ pinot noirs are different than those in France and California, and deserve to be judged on their own merit as NZ pinot noirs. I may have preferred the pinot noirs that were heavier and earthy, but that doesn't mean the NZ examples of this variety should be dismissed. And yes, the Herzog winery produces expensive wines, but their Montepulciano was a wonderful experience.

Does anyone want to share their New Zealand favorites?

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Thanks for posting the links to the places we visited!! The photos brings back some very good memories of some beautiful places.