Tuesday, 9 April 2013

New Zealand: The South Island and Marlborough

Auckland was in glorious sunshine as I entered the alarmingly tiny 15-seat plane for my trip down the South Island town of Blenheim and to my harvest post for the next 5 weeks.

It was a glorious flight down the North Island over the stunning countryside including Mount Tarinaki. We crossed the Cook Strait and flew over the Marlborough Sounds, before descending into the Wairau River Valley and the town of Blenheim. 

Well, it was glorious until we came into land. It was blowing a gale and I was sitting one seat behind the pilot with a perfect view straight out the cockpit window. There was no runway in sight until about five seconds before we touched down … or should I say thumped and bounced down!

The airport is tiny and it’s a ‘get your own bag from the hold’ kind of deal here. I couldn’t help notice about 30 very old war planes parked up next to the runway; Blenheim’s Dads Army perhaps? I later learnt that the film director Peter Jackson has a collection of Great War aircraft and has helped to set up the Omaka Aviation Heritage Centre. Every Easter there is a big air display of these magnificent flying machines.  Sounds great, however I was later to find out my little cottage, home for the next five weeks, is basically at the end of the runway of a normally very quiet airport!

The scenery is just stunning. The horseshoe-shaped mountains of the Wither Hills to the south and the Richmond Range to the North wrap around the green vineyard valley, through which the Waipara River runs eastwards to the infamous Cloudy Bay and the South Pacific Ocean.  From the valley floor, vineyards form the endless southerly and westerly view until the hills rise to the peaks of the Kaikoora Ranges and the Southern Alps

Marlborough can lay claim to starting the modern New Zealand wine industry in the late 1970s, producing mainly Sauvignon Blanc which proved that New Zealand could actually produce quality table wine.  The Marlborough wine region now represents 62% of total vineyard area in the country with the leading varietals being Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.  The Marlborough region is unique and the contrast between hot sunny days and cool nights extend the ripening period of their vines  that produce the well know fruit characters in the Sauvignon Blanc or as they shorten in Kiwi language to “Saaaaaaaaaaaaaaaav”.  The Antipodeans always shorten things but I did argue that although they have shortened it only three letters, when pronounced it is in fact longer than saying Sauvignon Blanc!

Blenheim is the capital and a small but busy working town and not really set up to attract the tourists in a great numbers.  Blenheim is actually named after the 1704 Battle of Blenheim, where troops led by John Churchill, 1st Duke of Marlborough defeated a combined French and Bavarian force.

However, all the talk in Marlborough is wine; especially so this year as it is promising to be potentially the greatest harvest ever seen and picking will start tomorrow! Normally you arrive too late, or end up sitting around for three weeks waiting, but this time I got spot on.
I am working at Matua, situated right next door to Cloudy Bay Winery and actually the first people to plant Sauvignon Blanc in the region. The winery is very innovative and I will be joining the young winemaking team of Chris, Geg, Duncan and Spring, where I will be responsible for the Pinot Noir winemaking.

 It’s a fairly big set up and we expect to crush 25000ton of fruit; 3500 tons of that will be Pinot Noir.  The winery is big and well-organised to take this volume, but harvest time is never simple and the problem this year is that everything will be picked at the same time and in a very short period (in most cases whites generally come first followed by the reds). So the next four weeks are sure to fun and games! Bonne vendanges!

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