There is something very special about New Zealand. Many wine lovers may put that down to the copious amounts of delicious Sauvignon Blanc that reaches UK shores every week.

Yes, this is a travel story about wine tasting in New Zealand’s scenic Marlborough region, and how a sunny day and lots of wine contributing me feeding a group of river eels at sundown.

Outside Wither Hills vineyard, Marlborough, New Zealand

The problem with New Zealand is that no words can describe – and no pictures can portray – how spectacular the sunrises and sunsets are on the East and West coasts respectively. At around 6:40am on this particular Tuesday, I awoke to yet another.

Sunrise over Cloudy Bay, Marlborough, New Zealand
Sunrise over Cloudy Bay, New Zealand

That sunrise over Cloudy Bay set the tone for what was to be an incredible day exploring the vineyards of the famous Marlborough region, in the North East corner of the South Island.

You can choose to cycle round the wine region, but after trying something similar in South Africa and ending up in a ditch, I thought a chauffeured group driving tour was the best option. It was a scorcher of a day, which made the air conditioning in the van another big factor in my choice.

With a wine region map under my arm and a notebook in the other hand, we arrived at our first vineyard – Lawsons.

Lawsons winery, Marlborough, New Zealand

First up, we tried a refreshing Sauvignon Blanc, quickly followed by a Pinot Gris. Both were light on the palette, and a perfect accompaniment to the sunny day that was developing outside. Onto the Gewurztraminer, a Chardonnay, and finishing with a Pinot Noir, my personal favourite.

5 wines down. A quick check of the watch…10:34am. The rate this was going, I could have knocked back 45 wines by 4pm.

Back on bus, we checked the map for the next stop – Drylands.

We seemed to be the first to arrive at each winery. It’s like Marlborough hadn’t woken up, and we were out exploring on our own. Even the lady who ran the Drylands winery was waiting with glasses of crisp Sauvignon Blanc at the door – impressive!

Drylands winery, Marlborough, New Zealand
Drylands winery, New Zealand

Another round of Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Gris, Chardonnay, Riesling, then topped off with a Pinot Noir. All delicious. Ten wines down, and four more cellar doors to visit.

Back on the bus, I was back looking at the map, which glistening in the morning sun.

Marlborough wine trail map - New Zealand

Next stop, Wither Hills.

I recognised that name.

Before I visited New Zealand, my favourite Sauvignon Blanc was from the Villa Maria winery. But I recognised the Wither Hills name too. Rightly so, as Villa Maria was about to lose its crown…

The Wither Hills winery in Marlborough is stunning. A lovely outlook, couches and bean bags in the front garden yard to just lounge, taste wine, have lunch or just sit and tell stories.

View from Wither Hills winery, Marlborough, New Zealand


The perfect place to wine taste, and relax - Wither Hills, New Zealand
This was as amazing as it looked!

The wine line up was almost identical to the Drylands winery, but that didn’t matter because the Sauvignon Blanc knocked my socks off. Fresh, fruity, and utterly delicious, I found myself slowing down the tasting group because I was taking so long. The other wines were good – great in fact – but the Sauvignon Blanc got my vote over all the others so far. It was no surprise that it picked up two trophies at the 2012 Air New Zealand Wine Awards for their Sauvignon Blanc.

As well as enjoying the wines, we were also learnt a lot about the background of the vineyards, and also the maintenance of the vines. Some vineyards have also started sprinkling broken glass at the bottom of the vines so that the lower shoots and leaves get more reflected sunlight, giving a bigger crop. I made a note not to venture too far in my flip flops.

We sat down for a lunch platter at Giesen winery. We sat outside on a terrace, by a stream and overlooking the nearby mountains. It was an idyllic setting, and made the day even more enjoyable.

Yet another round of five delicious wines, and we were back on the (booze-smelling) bus, en route to Spy Valley.

We learnt the area was called Spy Valley because it is home to New Zealand’s Government Communications and Security Bureau (GCSB), who have been drawn into several spying scandals in 2012, including megaupload’s Kim Dotcom, and more recently the US spying saga.

Whilst the satellite dishes grab the limelight, Spy Valley winery quietly gets on with its business, producing some amazing Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Noir, and a lovely Riesling.

View from Spy Valley winery, Marlborough, New Zealand
View towards Mount Riley from Spy Valley vineyard – Marlborough
Grape vine row post, Marlborough, New Zealand

One of the other great things about Blenheim and the Marlborough region is that not all the wineries are big producers. There are many local wineries that don’t export, are family run, and intend to remain that way. Our next stop was one of the most well known, family-run vineyards in the region.

The Blayden winery is run by husband and wife, son and daughter. In fact the Bladen name refers to the owners children – Blair and Deni – who were toddlers when the vineyard was developed. Awarded the ‘Cellar Door of the Year in 2008‘, Bladen is probably the smallest, but most welcoming winery in the Marlborough region. It almost feels like home. Lots of history, the same owners who hand planted the first vines, and all the family members take it in turn to present the wine tasting. It was a lovely place to finish the tour.

But we weren’t quite finished.

Nestled on one of the main roads on the way home was….a chocolate factory. Yes, a factory, full of freshly made chocolate. LET ME IN.

The handmade chocolates from Makana were irresistible, a lovely sweetener for the palette, and a perfect way to end the day.

Now, for those that were counting, from 10am to 4pm, I’d visited 6 wineries and had five or six wines in each. I’m not one for spitting out and wasting wine, so after thirty or so wines you won’t be surprised to hear I was sat for a good thirty minutes feeding river eels some crackers when I got back to base. Good job I chose not to cycle around the Marlborough wine trail after all!

Here’s a fuzzy photo as proof (don’t they remind you of tiny versions of the creatures from Tremors?!).

Feeding the not-so-pretty eels!

My vineyard tour around Marlborough was booked with Bubbly Grape wine tours. The tour was very factual and fun, so I couldn’t recommend them enough if you’re ever in Marlborough and fancy visiting a few wineries, without driving or cycling 🙂

4 replies
  1. Taylor Hearts Travel
    Taylor Hearts Travel says:

    This post is making me thirsty! I've been around the world, but am yet to visit New Zealand. Your mention of the sunrises and sunsets (and of course the wine!) definitely appeals. I loved the winery tours I did in Italy recently, so I'm sure this would be great fun. Thanks for sharing!

  2. Simon Heyes
    Simon Heyes says:

    Thanks Char! I've got a separate post coming on the sunsets and sunrises in New Zealand. They are incredible. Winery tours in Italy and California are next on my to-do list! 🙂

    • Simon Heyes
      Simon Heyes says:

      Hi Mike, apologies for the slow reply, only just seen your comment for some reason. Yes, the winery that put broken glass at the bottom of the vines was Lawson’s Dry Hills Winery, in Blenheim.


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