Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Marlborough wine country

Once again I find myself sitting outside in the morning to write a post about the last few days. I am surrounded by birds in the trees, feeding on bugs in the Pohutukawa, eucalyptus and beech trees on the edge of the property. We have been staying at the A1 Ward Motel in Ward, a tiny community on state highway 1 about fifty km south of Blenheim in the Marlborough region. This motel has proven to be a nice surprise....well maintained and equipped (yahoo! An oven!) and spacious. It's too bad the trees in the central area died as they would have provided lovely shade. 

As we travel these roads, we remark on the similarities and differences with what we know in Canada, but also the contrast between regions here. We started out in the sub-tropical northern end of the North Island, and now we're in the north-east part of the South Island. We drove over more tortuous narrow and winding roads to get here from Nelson (think of the Kicking Horse Pass east of Golden, BC and make that narrower without many passing lanes...and add a few cyclists grimly trying to stick to the painted line on the edge with less than a foot of paved shoulder...) we arrived in Havelock and turned onto the Queen Charlotte Scenic Drive ("not suitable for long vehicles") and continued on a road that was probably the original track, just widened a bit and paved, much like the west side of Okanagan Lake or the Duffy Lake Road. With some relief we took a break at the beginning of the Queen Charlotte Track, a four or five day walk that winds up and down a ridge in the Marlborough Sound. We just walked the first 4 km to Davies Bay (and of course Lloyd had to have his picture taken, but that's still on his camera, yet to be downloaded). It was a lovely walk, almost completely shaded by big lush trees with peek-a-boo views of the sound. 

We left this lush forest to arrive in very dry country. "Hey", said Lloyd, "did we just drive over the ridge into Kamloops?"

This was the beginning of the Marlborough wine region. Just like in the Okanagan, the first settlers grazed animals on the native grasses (mostly sheep) then they switched to fruit--apples and cherries--and then about 40 years ago started growing grapes. Water is a challenge but the growers have deep artesian wells. There are still sheep, cattle and horses on the range lands but the forage looks very sparse. This area didn't get its usual winter rains this year and it's drier than usual.

We visited three wineries on our own on Monday, spending a good hour or more at the first, Yealands Family Wines, where their motto is "Think boldly, tread lightly, and never say it can't be done". Sustainability inspires every decision, and they were the first winery in the world to be certified carbon zero. They plant nitrogen-fixers every few rows and plow that in every year, then plant these legumes between the next rows.

Miniature sheep ("baby doll") keep the weeds down...they're too short to reach the vines, although we did see some clever ones up on the supports at the end of the rows having a nibble!

They've established several wetlands to encourage wildlife...ducks that eat more pests...

We then joined a tour ("Na Clachan") yesterday afternoon visiting several more wineries. About three-quarters of the vines are Sauvignon Blanc, Marlborough's signature grape so we tasted a lot of that. Helen, our very informative guide, used to be a contract grower for one of the wineries and showed us how the vines are pruned.

There is also a salt works here. In spite of all these hills, I couldn't get up high enough for an overall view! The pink colour is from an algae bloom.

After breakfast we travel south, not too far, to Kaikoura where we hope to do some whale watching. On the way, we plan to do a three hour walk through Sawcut Gorge, apparently about 1.5 metres wide in places. More about that in the next post!

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