Dec 21

Marlborough Country I

by in Drawing & Writing

At 10 in the morning, our lady hostel-owner gave us two bikes, a map, and enough “make sure to stop here!” advice to last well more than the 7 hours allotted.

Her advice was a re-hash of what her husband had told me the evening before. He’s the fourth Watson to run Watson’s Way Backpackers, and he (and she) have done a good job of it. The sofa and chairs in the communal room are arranged in a large oval, which doesn’t so much force conversation as gently nudge it forward. The local wine also helps, as well as the fact that most people have spent the day bicycling and just want to sit and be content. Mr. Watson caught me trying to make sense of a map of the town he’s always lived in, Renwick, New Zealand.

“Yep, it’s not too tough, then. We’ve got 25 wineries round here. They’re all within 5k.”

25 wineries in 3 miles? There was no way on earth that we could bicycle to 25 wineries and live to tell the tale. So after careful, excruciating deliberation, we picked our favorite 24 and set off.

At Cloudy Bay we ran into Mathilde, a 31-year-old Frenchwoman we’d met at our hostel the night before. She grew up in the region of Champagne, moved to Paris in her 20s, was tired of Paris now–but didn’t want to go back to Champagne, either.

“I am ready for quiet. Maybe in the south, I think. Better for the hears [ears].”

Our first tasting was a bubbly called Pelorus. When the server learned that a real Champagner might drink it, she covered her face in feigned shame. Mathilde laughed, and politely deigned to sip it. “It is good,” she said. “I like it.” Privately she gave it a Non. “Too much citrus. I like pear and apple. But that is just me. I do not know what is good.”

We thought it was fine, and felt the same about the Sauvignon Blanc, the region’s most famous grape. Next came Pinot Gris, also fine, and Riesling. One quaff was enough to know this wasn’t Riesling from Germany, and that it was, most likely, the same Riesling two British women had warned us about the evening before. “It smells exactly like fuel.” Indeed. Last was the Pinot Noir, which our server claimed to be a “soft, feminine grape,” at least in New Zealand. Um, that’s not what we tasted.

About two weeks ago, back in Napier (the Art Deco city on the sea), our hostel was right next door to The Wine Museum. It was purported to be a cheap man’s way of sampling what Hawke’s Bay, the north island’s grape basket, had to offer. But when we saw the price we wavered. 15 euros ($20 US)? For a museum?

In the end we paid up, went inside, and were led into a small, rectangular room. Inside was the complete, 54-scent kit of “Le Nez du Vin”, created by a Frenchman whom we can assume to be eccentric. Each metal stopper dips into a specific scent: blackberry, quince, red currant, musk, vanilla, coffee, toast. Like the jelly beans in Harry Potter, they also include bad scents–scents that mean a wine has turned (“horse”). All were to be lifted to the nostrils, inhaled, and hopefully remembered. At the end there was a blind 10-scent test.

This is probably old hat for serious wine drinkers, but for newbies it’s a revelation. It’s like that feeling in elementary school when you go from 16 Crayola crayons to 64. Above each of the scent stoppers are placards that say which wine a particular smell might be found in. When it came time for “smoke”, “leather”, “tobacco”, that kind of explanation became interesting. Smoke, leather and tobacco in wine? The answer is Pinot Noir. Or at least, Pinot Noir from the south Island’s wine region, Marlborough. And that’s exactly what we tasted, in a corkscrew turn of flavors, at Cloudy Bay.

The tasting continued at Allen Scott, with a Pinot Noir, a Sauvignon Blanc, and a third one. Mathilde loved the Pinot Noir, and so did we. We ordered a glass it with our lunch, which was delicious, but which also, at least for Antje and I, was cold. A car had crashed a few minutes earlier into a concrete electric pole about 100 yards (meters) down the road, toppling the pole and cutting all electricity to the restaurant. For this our waiter apologized at least five times, and later he comped half the meal. As for the accident, he said it didn’t look too good. “Don’t know how it could’ve happened. But yeah, the car’s pretty bad.” After a second’s thought he frowned more deeply. “Hope he wasn’t coming from here.”

Like America, New Zealand has very, very strict liquor laws. Signs are posted at every bar regarding the $10,000 fines for serving an intoxicated patron. You’d think that’d make the roads safe, but it doesn’t. Like America, everyone drives, and like America, bike lines are, at best, a sloppy afterthought. At worst, which is 99% of the time, they don’t exist.

Still, we were surprised to find that our 14k (8.5-mile) wine-tour bike route had neither bike-lane. There would be no hint of bike trail, not even a whiff, not even a thought. Nor would there be a shoulder. Amazingly, there’s almost always a wide strip of bumpy grass on either side of the road, fringing the street and the vineyards. It begs for a bike-lane. Without it, well, Marlborough is farm country, and huge trucks and double-semis whoosh by way, way too close, doing about 50MPH (85). The only thing that surprised me about the car accident–in a happy way–was that a biker hadn’t been involved.

Speaking of driving, Mathilde had to leave. She’d rented a car and had to drop it off 30 minutes north that day. She’d blown most of her travel budget in Australia–”Too much party”–and for the next 8-weeks was doing a work-stay at a nearby B & B. She was happy about it. It didn’t involve farming.

For us it was time for the winery we’d been looking forward to most of all: Hans Herzog. The most expensive in town, its tastings were still very reasonable. It also had Antje’s maiden name. We’d never said as much, but both imagined hauling a beautiful bottle emblazoned with the word “HERZOG” back home.

[to be continued....]


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