When it comes to beauty and affordability, Marlborough rises above the rest.
Whether you’re a serious wine collector or a casual quaffer, New Zealand is a great country in which to wine taste.
We produce wine down almost the entire length of the country, from Northland to Central Otago, and planning a winery tour, or even just stopping off at a few cellar doors on your travels, gives you the opportunity to experience in a glass exactly how varied our terroirs really are (plus, of course, to try a nice tipple).
Before you start swilling, it’s worth knowing the basics of what to do and what to expect. Here’s a handy Q&A with two cellar door managers to make your tasting as smooth as an aged pinot noir.
When should I go?
To get the best possible experience, said Bobby Clark, sales and marketing manager at Millton in Gisborne, avoid peak times like weekends and public holidays.
“You’re far more likely to get a brief tasting with less conversation and interaction when there’s a queue out the door and your host is having to give multiple tastings at once.”
Different times of year offer different pros and cons.
Late summer is a great chance to see heaving vines and busy winery pre-harvest, though tours are probably out, while the quiet of winter means more time devoted to you, but some cellar doors are closed.
Spring through summer is traditionally the busiest time for wineries, but if you can handle the throngs there are often fun events happening during these months.
As for the time of day, earlier is better, said Clark, as it’s when your palate is most sensitive; before lunch is ideal.
Elgee Leung, customer experience manager at Framingham Wines in Marlborough, recommended no more than three to four a day.
“Allowing sufficient time in each cellar door very much enhances the tasting experience,” he said.
There’s more to vineyards than just wine, too. Many have picturesque grounds to explore or cellars to tour; at Framingham, you can spend time in the courtyard, examining the paving stones that are engraved with quotes from pop and rock songs.
Do I need to book, or can I just turn up?
Wineries prefer bookings, as it helps staff set up and prepare.
A word of caution if you prefer a flexible timetable: some vineyards supply tastings by appointment only, so do your research to avoid disappointment.
“If you’re travelling in a large group and the winery doesn’t require a booking, it’s still good to phone as far ahead as possible to let them know you’re coming,” Clark advised.
To spit or to drink?
In the context of wine, there’s nothing rude about spitting.
“It doesn’t indicate you don’t enjoy the wine, as many people often think,” said Clark.
As Leung pointed out, all wine professionals spit during tastings – at a trade fair, they might taste hundreds in a day.
“The sensational experience is completed on the nose and palate, and visually as well, but not in the stomach,” he explained. “Especially if you’re driving, [spitting is] just the responsible thing to do.”
But you can’t spit just anywhere. As you enter, identify the spittoon (they come in various shapes, though many vineyards just use empty wine buckets) so you know where to eject your wine when the time comes.
You might want to put in a bit of practice too, Clark advised: “Nobody wants to find themselves with red wine splashed down their front for the rest of the day.”
What wine should I taste?
Go for quality over quantity, said Clark.
“If I’m visiting a region I want to know what that region has to offer… In most cases I think sticking to one varietal is not going to give you the full picture.”
Leung stressed communication with your host: explain your preferences, ask for recommendations. Look out for themed tastings or unusual flights.
It’s important to know your limits, Clark added: “Palate fatigue is definitely a thing.”
Can I ask for more?
For Leung, it’s an emphatic yes.
“We want to help you find what you like among our ranges.”
At Millton, Clark said there was no issue with customers revisiting a wine or two – but don’t get too cheeky with it. “If you want to retaste the whole flight, that might be asking a bit much.”
Do I have to buy anything?
You are under no obligation to do so.
Some vineyards charge tasting fees, often with a rebate if a certain value of bottles is purchased, but even if you’re tasting for free you don’t have to buy anything.
Do I need to know anything about wine before I go tasting?
Nope. This, after all, is a chance to learn.
“Wine is supposed to be enjoyable,” said Clark.
“Find what you like and find what you don’t like, and at the end of it you will have only learned something new, which can only be a good thing.”
The author was a guest of Wine Marlborough and Destination Marlborough.