It’s a windy day as I leave New Zealand’s North Island for the South Island, heading west from Wellington to Picton. Strong gusts keep passengers off the exterior decks of the Interislander Ferry as the ship swiftly sails through the Cook Strait. But as the ferry enters the Marlborough Sounds, the winds calm, the sounds of birds surround us and the verdant forested hills are a lodestone for every passenger’s camera.
Although home to less than 5000 people, the town of Picton is the major transportation hub for the northern edge of the South Island. A half hour down the road is the town of Blenheim, the centre of all things wine in the Marlborough region and home to Wither Hills Vineyards.
This striking, modern cellar door and restaurant sits in the midst of the fertile Wairau Valley, birthplace of New Zealand’s Sauvignon Blanc. Wither Hills Head Chef Ross Harrison, recently returned to the region where he was born, along with his team of chefs has relaunched the Wither Hills restaurant with a focus on seasonal and locally sourced ingredients. His inspiration – using the vintages in the menu, like the award-winning Wither Hills Pinot Noir Rosé, the Early Light Pinot Gris, or Early Light Sauvignon Blanc.
Lunch begins with a creamy and earthy mushroom risotto, which pairs well with the Wither Hills Sauvignon Blanc. The next course is seared venison sourced from nearby Mountain River, accompanied with roasted baby vegetables and a glass of Taylor River Pinot Noir. And the sweet finale: a silky lime cheesecake served with blanc de blanc ice cream and Wairau Valley Riesling.
On the way to my hotel, rolling hills, farms and vineyards stretch out in every direction. The Wairau Valley (Maori for many waters) became known in the wine world in the 1980s, thanks to Sauvignon Blanc and now also for Pinot Gris, Rosé, Riesling and Pinot Noir. As the largest wine region in New Zealand, Marlborough’s 20,000 hectares benefit from ancient glacial soil, endless sunshine and multiple river systems.
Dinner at Arbour is an easy decision. With the Just Feed Me option, patrons can choose three, four or five courses and leave the decision making to the kitchen. Chef Bradley Hornby and his wife/partner Liz Buttimore welcome guests to an elegant dining room, or in warmer months to the garden, offering a menu that is definitely within the 100-mile edict. Featuring ingredients from Marlborough, each dish is as beautiful as it is tasty, reflecting the bounty of the area’s numerous purveyors and producers. Some highlights from the a la carte offerings include cured Ora King Salmon with black garlic and pickled pumpkin; fresh mozzarella with butternut caponata and pine nuts; and Wild venison, celeriac, pickled cabbage and carmelized alliums.
Marlborough’s tasty charms can easily be found on land as well as on water. Marlborough Tour Company guides me through the next morning’s tasting of varietals at some of the most popular cellar doors, such as Wairau River and Allan Scott. My guide Matty also gives me a glimpse of his family farm, featuring grape vines and orchards of avocados, walnuts and apples.
The afternoon is spent exploring a small part of the 4000-square-kilometre Sounds with the Seafood Odyssea Cruise. We’re shown the areas that produce Regal salmon, Cloudy Bay clams and Greenshell mussels as we taste and indulge in more chilled Sauvignon Blanc. And to help walk off the fresh seawater feast, we dock at the Whenanui Reserve, for a 20-minute hike up the hill to view Shakespeare Bay from above.
Back in Picton a water taxi is my ride back to laid-back Lochmara Lodge. The sun is setting as I pass a group of Blue penguins focused on fishing for their dinner. I arrive at the rustic accommodation, welcomed to sit by the fire. To close a day of endless eating, I order the duck confit with Chinese pancakes in my room and, with a glass of Pinot Noir, revel in the quiet surrounds on my balcony. The lodge is only accessible by water; the soundtrack is the gentle sound of wind through the tree leaves, my evening entertainment looking at the stars as the moon rises in the sky.
The next few days are spent discovering the quiet beauty of the area with short hikes to explore the nearby hills and learning about wildlife at the lodge’s Wildlife Recovery Centre, partly housed in a former glass-bottom tour boat. Permanently moored, the Underwater Observatory gives guests the ability to see the Sounds below the surface: stingrays, anemones and abundant schools of fish. Each night I am welcomed back to the lodge, happy to chat with guests and staff about my day. Within the cosy Lochmara Café, I enjoy tasting more Marlborough wines and seafood — like the daily Lochmara ceviche, and the Kutai Tasting Platter — local mussels made three ways.
Despite its global reputation, the Marlborough Sounds wine region is without pretension. That’s one of the reasons that Hans Herzog came here to establish his winery. The Swiss winemaker felt restricted by the rules of his homeland and in his patch in Marlborough he has a multitude of certified organic varietals, including the classic Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Pinot Gris and Pinot Noir, as well as lesser known Viognier, Arneis, Montepulciano and Tempranillo. The Cellar Door and Restaurant embody Old World elegance but embrace the modern technology of the Coravin Wine System, which allows tasting from bottles without pulling the cork.
My last meal in Marlborough is in the Hans Herzog garden, overlooking the vineyards, savouring slow-cooked lamb shank and freshly baked bread. I raise my glass, making a wish to return to this welcoming South Island wine region.