Wine in the vines
Flying into Blenheim – above a breathtaking bird’s eye spectacle of the Marlborough Sounds – the approach from the sea heralds another magical sight that draws gasps for a different reason. While prepared for the patchwork of vineyards below, the reality of its sheer extent is astonishing. Welcome to the home of Sauvignon Blanc, folks.
Host to the annual Marlborough Wine and Food Festival each February, Blenheim has good cause to celebrate. This was New Zealand’s first wine festival and remains the country’s longest running such carnival. It’s a significant crown to hold and, as the festival’s birthplace, Brancott Estate can rightfully claim the biggest jewel. Sauvignon Blanc was first planted at this vineyard in 1975. A brave move by all accounts, considering the region was sheep country. Locals scoffed at the mere thought of grapes; citing climate as the reason why such a venture wouldn’t work.
Disregarding conventional wisdom, however, Montana Wines – as Brancott was then known – ploughed on and planted vines in Marlborough on a grand scale; including the little known variety of Sauvignon Blanc. The decision to launch into unknown territory turned out to be one of the most momentous ever taken in New Zealand’s wine industry, according to CEO of New Zealand winegrowers Philip Gregan.
The first vintage was released in 1979 and within 10 years, Brancott’s Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc won the Marquis de Goulaine trophy for best Sauvignon Blanc at the International Wine and Spirits Competition in London. It placed New Zealand on the international stage and arguably spearheaded New Zealand’s global reputation in the wine industry.
From small seedlings, a giant industry was born. Marlborough boasts the lion’s share of this country’s wine production: 75 percent of New Zealand’s total production and 85 percent being the region’s flagship Sauvignon Blanc. Marlborough’s wine exports total around $1.1 billion out of a total of nearly $1.4 billion.
What’s good for business must also be good for the district. Marlborough’s festival lures people in droves – from all walks of life and all corners of the world. Ex-pats come home for it; combining the big day out with extended visits to family and friends. Being near some of the most exquisite parts of the country, excursions to the Marlborough Sounds and Abel Tasman National Park are magnets for overseas tourists.
The festival is a grand place to start. Not every vineyard in the region is represented. But more than 50 certainly whet the appetite. From opening time at 10.00am to closing at 6pm; it would be a brave person who might tackle every booth. Any past issues over crowd behaviour have long been dealt with– tickets now limited to 8000 and organisers ensuring nothing gets out of hand. Child-free and restricted to people 18 and over, security is tight and volunteers bearing back-packs of water stroll the venue all day long – pumping free water into glasses and bottles – their distinctive flagpoles signalling a friendly approach.
Food is brilliant; fashion in the vines infectious; and the music first class. Cookery classes attract an envied line-up of celebrity chefs who come to town to impart their knowledge and share the festivities. Told by our shuttle expert that the rain has never once dampened this day; the carnival deserves its reputation. It’s a smoothly-oiled machine.
The journey continues. Videos, fashion and recipes on the festival’s web site keep the momentum going and whet the thirst. Next year’s date is already set – February 11, 2017 – early bird discounts on sale around September ensuring visitors will plan their annual spree and stay nurtured in the build up to another summer of fun in the vines of Blenheim.
A vineyard stay: Copper Beech Villa
What to watch:
Where it began: