Although we had already celebrated my birthday in Wellington at The Botanist, my actual birthday fell whilst we were in Marlborough. This area is well-known for being New Zealand’s largest wine region, thanks to having the highest number of sunny days in the whole country. Producing 77% of the country’s wine, it is home to the well-loved Sauvignon Blanc which makes up 85% of the wine produced here.
We were staying near Blenheim, in a small place called Renwick which is nestled amongst over 20 wineries. We wanted to do a wine tour but realised if we hired a couple of bikes and visited the wineries offering free tastings, we could do it A LOT cheaper ourselves. We spent a total of $18 for the day, which was just the bike hire. Most wine tasting tours range from $85-150!
I thought I’d write a list of all the wineries we visited, what we thought of them, and which wines are vegan friendly. Hopefully this will make it easier for anyone planning a visit to the sunny Marlborough wine region. The great thing about New Zealand wine is that, by law, they have to label all bottles to clearly state whether animal products have been used. Many wines are made through a filtering process that commonly involves using egg whites or fish which renders them unsuitable for vegans, and even vegetarians in some cases.
We actually drove to the first two as they were a little bit further away – just over 5 minutes by car but still totally doable by bike. We only drove as we wanted to save a bit of time as we ended up having a slower start to our morning than we’d originally planned! We eventually left around midday and our total bike ride was only 8km, with no more than 10 minutes between each place – most were much closer together. All wineries open at 10.30 and close at 4.30pm.
Here’s what we did on our self guided bike tour of Marlborough wine – I’ll list the wineries we visited below, in the order we visited them:
Villa Maria was the perfect first stop for our self-guided wine tour, and actually ended up being our favourite, even after we’d visited the seven others. On entering, we were greeted with a huge smile and welcomed over to the tasting bar. The lady was so friendly, helpful and informative – we learnt a lot about wine and the processes used to create certain flavours or colours. For example, did you know that a fungus (Botrytis) is sometimes used to dehydrate the grapes as they grow, so the levels of sugar are more concentrated, resulting in a sweeter wine. Cool, huh?!
We tried a lot wines here – eight in total. A Merlot, Syrah, Pinot Noir (reds), two Sauvignon Blancs, a Pinot Gris (also known as Pinot Grigio), a Gewürztraminer and a Semillion dessert wine (whites).
Both the Sauvignon Blancs are vegan friendly, which was lucky as the Sauvignon from the Graham region ended up being our favourite! Although we liked the Sauvignon and it was a reasonable price at $29.99, Gary isn’t much of a white wine drinker. We were on the hunt for a red we both liked, so we didn’t end up purchasing anything here. This wasn’t a problem and we were even sent on our way with an annotated map with suggestions of which other wineries we might like!
Tastings from $10
Next up on our tour was the well-known Brancott Estate vineyards. To reach the reception area, we drove for a couple of minutes off the main road, down a country road lined with hundreds of grape vines, which were just starting to show their Autumn colours. At the end, there’s a car park where a free minibus shuttle awaits to drive you up the hill. It’s a very shot ride, which drops you outside the restaurant and wine tasting bar. We came here specifically for the view as we’d heard it was one of the best in the area. From the restaurant and balcony, you can see for miles – we had such a clear day we could actually see the North Island in the distance. You can also see nothing but vineyards in every direction – a pretty cool sight!
You need to pay for tastings here, which start from $10 and depend on what you want to try. The restaurant also serves up a bunch of meat and cheese platters (sadly nothing vegan friendly!) which you can enjoy with spectacular views.
I can’t comment on the wine here as we decided not to try any. Gary was driving, so it would have been just me drinking and with another six wineries lined up, I was in no rush to drink more wine! We heard lots of good things about the place whilst in the region though.
The only wine on offer here is bubbles – and it’s completely free! We were offered three different bottles – Cuvee No.1 ($36), No.1 Assemble ($32) and their No.1 Rose ($45). The lady here was very knowledgeable and answered the few questions we had about the process of wine making. She informed us that the winemaker here was also the owner, which meant he had a lot more control over the quality of the finished products. We both preferred the Cuvee No.1 the best but not enough to purchase a bottle – we ended up preferring the fizzy we tried at Nautilus. All the wines here are made using a process called disgorgement, an there are no animal products used whatsoever so all the wines are 100% vegan!
We were first greeted at Huia by a bunch of very friendly pet chickens which were congregating in the bushes outside the entrance. This definitely set the right vibe to Huia before we even walked in; their wines are all organic and vegan/ vegetarian friendly which is great! We were told they used a more refined filtering system which means the wine doesn’t need to go through any further processing using traditional fining ingredients, such as egg whites.We tried the dry Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Gris, Gewürztraminer (all $30) and a Pinot Noir which was a little more – I think $42. Being organic and vegan friendly, I really wanted to support the business by purchasing a bottle. However, the only red we tried was the Pinot Noir which was lovely – very easy drinking – but not hearty enough for Gary!
Giesen is another popular winery and is usually busy with tasters from open till close. After a couple of minutes wait, we were taken over to one of their three tasting areas and handed a four page wine list to have a look at. You can try any of the wines on the first three pages for free, which includes six different Sauvignon Blancs, a rose, a bubbly, Pinot Gris, two Riesling, two Chardonnay, a Gewürztraminer, two Pinot Noir, two Merlot and a Pomme de Gris, a blend of Pinot Gris and apple cider.
You can still try wines on the back page, but a tasting fee will apply. This includes the more expensive, mostly single vineyard wines at $45-69. Single vineyard simply means the grapes have all come from the one vineyard, rather than from multiple vineyards. This means the flavour is much more singular and concentrated as it hasn’t been diluted by combining characters from multiple vineyards. It means there is usually much less of the grape, therefore less wine and a higher price tag!
I was kind of done with drinking wine by this point, so we opted to try the vegan friendly Sauvignon Blanc ($16) which we didn’t particularly like, the Merlot ($16) and the Pinot Noir ($24).
To honour their name, Nautilus has a cool set up with shell decorations throughout their small tasting area. The guy behind the bar was very friendly and very helpful – he informed us that all their wines are low sulphur and vegan friendly! Bonus points. He made a great effort to engage with us, despite being rushed off his feet with a tour group that walked in the same time as us, which we really appreciated.
There were five or six wines on offer to try for free. We tried the Marlborough Brut sparkling which was very nice. We also tried two Pinot Noirs – the Southern Valley and Four Barriques. Sadly we fell in love with the most expensive!! The Four Barriques was our favourite red of the trip, but we couldn’t really afford the $85 price tag…
Wairau River was buzzing with people when we arrived late afternoon, so we took a few minutes to explore their restaurant and garden whilst we waited. You can order the standard cheese/ meat platters here but they also offer a list of main meals which can be enjoyed inside or outside – nothing vegan aside from chips. Their seating areas outside were covered in vines, with views of the vineyards in the distance. A lovely spot to sit and enjoy a chilled glass of Pinot Gris in the sunshine!
The ladies here were very attentive and made us feel very welcome, letting us know when we arrived that someone would be with us soon. We could have tried around eight wines here but again, were quite sick of wine tasting by now! So just tried the Pinot Gris ($20), Pinot Noir ($25) and Reserve Pinot Noir ($40), all of which were vegan friendly.
FREE (three wines) || $7 (six wines)
Our last stop on our wine tour was Forrest, which has a lovely open outdoor seating area as you walk in. They were extremely busy when we arrived at 3.30pm and were dealing with a large tour group as well as walk-in tasters. It’s free to try any three wines off their list of around ten, or you can pay $7 for a tray of six glasses which you can take outside and enjoy with a packet of vegan friendly ‘Proper Crisps’ made locally in Nelson, or a number of different cheese/ meat platters.
The ladies here were very apologetic about not being able to serve us immediately, which was lovely, even though we were quite happy to wait. They knew a lot about their wines and were very personable – when we commented that one of the wines was so sweet it ‘tasted like a dessert wine’, we were ordered to try a mouthful of their dessert wine as the lady laughed and said ‘now THIS is a dessert wine!!’.
We really liked their famous and rather unusual sparkling red wine which was delicious. They also have two very friendly and rather chubby dogs who enjoy relaxing with the customers outside and helping them finish their cheese boards!
Other wineries worth visiting in that area, which we didn’t have time to go to: –
- Spy Valley Wines
I hope this article will be useful for anyone planning a wine tour in the Marlborough region – I’d definitely recommend basing yourself in Renwick as you’ll be so close to all the vineyards. It’s so easy to hire a bike and cycle around – wine maps can be found everywhere to help you plan your route. You’ll save a lot of money and probably have a better time being able to stay in each place as long as you wish.