You don’t have to go too far back– a matter of 30 years or so – to find yourself contemplating a bleak period in our history.
Back then, wine was a sheila’s drink and the ladies in question were confronted with a choice that boiled down to, ‘Do I want white (Muller Thurgau, black tower or Wohnsiedler), or do I want red – and if so, with bubbles (Cold Duck) or without (imported Chianti)?’
The Marlborough region must blush to recall that the first grapes to be planted on a commercial footing there in 1973 were Muller Thurgau, a varietal that doesn’t need the process of drying to taste like raisins, and which produces a wine that savours on the palate like, well, a packet of raisins.
Since then, however, things have changed a bit. Quite a bit. With nearly 800ha in grapes, Marlborough is now New Zealand’s largest wine-growing region. There are over 40 vineyards in these parts and a list of local names reads like the line-up of labels on the bottles gracing the honours table at international wine festivals.
There’s Allan Scott, Vavasour, Grove Mill, Mount Riley and, of course, Cloudy Bay, whose sauvignon blanc has been of such consistent excellence that they have become the flagship of the formidable armada that sallies forth to titillate and tantalise the palates of the world.
Each Cloudy Bay sauvignon blanc is unmistakably a child of its times and climes, vivid, dry and fragrant as the evening of a Marlborough summer’s day.
There’s a pleasing complexity of flavours, with citrus and honey playing a kind of Test Match in the centre of your palate, a close-fought encounter where wine-making, ultimately, is the winner on the day.
For most, a visit to Cloudy Bay is the highlight of a star-studded wine tour. You can get about under your own steam (provided you keep an eye on your driver to make sure they’re using the spittoon), or you can join an organised tour. Because there are so many cellar doors in a comparatively confined area, it’s possible to cycle around many of them and you can also hire a pony and trap to get about in real style.
Blenheim, the centre of the district, has a decent line-up of cafés and restaurants serving local specialities, such as mussels or blue cod from the Sounds, or lamb from down the line in Canterbury.
Like a Cloudy Bay sav blanc, the finish to a mellow summer’s day is crisp in these parts, and the sight of the sunset over the mountains beyond the vineyards is the stuff goosebumps are made of.