New Zealand's largest wine-producing region, Marlborough, sits on the picturesque northeast corner of the country's South Island. If you fly here you'll arrive in Blenheim, the focal point of all wine-related adventures.
I recently spent a day touring Marlborough's wineries by bike. This is a popular activity and an alternative to the ubiquitous winery tour-by-van operations throughout New Zealand. Still, the idea of wine and bikes had images of scraped knees and broken sunglasses (or worse) dancing in my head.
The Tour Begins
The owners of Wine Tours by Bike assured me that everything would be ok, but before they sent me off—head fully helmeted—they pointed to the emergency number on the bike. They also helped me (and other clients) tailor the route and wineries to my interests and tastes. In about five hours I would hit six wineries—both large and small—that emphasized the region's most common wines: sauvignon blanc, chardonnay, pinot gris, reisling, gewürztraminer, and pinot noir.
The self-guided tour turned out to be a wonderful way to experience the region for a relative novice (like me) as well as for experts (like the wine writer following a similar route). The folks at each winery were knowledgeable, enthusiastic, and willing to answer any and all questions.
Being out on the bicycle was a nice change from to the van tours. Going at my own pace, I really got a chance to take in the scenery. Riding right along the edge of vineyards, I got up-close and personal with the vines, took in the mountains in the distance, and startled the occasional herd of sheep.
Without the time to thoroughly take in the region's natural beauty, this at least gave me a sample of the famed scenery. Most of the wineries that Wine Tours by Bike recommends are no more than a 15 minutes ride from one another. Typically they're about five to ten minutes apart.
Two wineries into the tour, I began to feel a little wobbly, but luckily it was time for lunch at Highfield Estate. Situated at the top of a hill, the winery's main building includes a Tuscan style tower that looks out onto the Wairau Valley. After one more tasting, a lunch emphasizing locally produced food shored me up for the afternoon's work, which brought me to some of the more boutique wineries, where it's not unheard of to find owners or their family members working the cellar.
By winery number four I found myself having to go slowly and focus carefully on the road—in addition to battling the wine, biking, like driving, happens on the left side of the road in New Zealand. It was definitely time to take small sips and use the spit bucket. Not only does getting over the self-consciousness of spitting out wine and dumping everything but the first sip decrease your chances of tumbling off that bike, it makes you look like a pro.
The tour offers the chance to see the region, get an education about wine, and even fit in a little exercise without breaking the bank. At NZ$40 for 4 hours or NZ$55 for 8 hours on the bike and free tastings (you'll rarely encounter a tasting fee), the day was a bargain. Lunch isn't included, but Highfield has both small and large plate options so even a nice lunch out won't add too much to the tab. If you don't mind carrying it, you can pack a lunch to take along.
Other Things to Do in Marlborough
While wine is a main draw to Marlborough, I wanted to end my day sampling a few of its other charms. The evening brought me to Havelock, the Greenshell mussels capital of the world and the Slip Inn, where I sampled the locally fished (as in right outside the door) Greenshell mussels. And while at the bottom of the world it's important to remember to look up. The unspoiled acres at Jefferswood Eco-Friendly B&B are a perfect place to take in the unbelievably clear night sky, and Sandra, the owner, is happy to point out the Southern Cross and Venus to fellow amateur astronomers.
If wine's not your thing there's still plenty to see in Marlborough. Its small towns are perfect hubs for communing with nature: hike through forest or stroll along the beaches along the Queen Charlotte Track starting in Picton; yacht Waikawa Bay; sail pristine Pelorus Sound on the mail boat that departs from Havelock; or dolphin-watch in Queen Charlotte Sound.
Oh, and in case you're wondering, my knees and sunglasses survived the day just fine...