Jesse Mulligan on the best of Marlborough’s food and wine

It rained when I visited Marlborough, and everybody said sorry.

“It’s okay!” I said. “I’m from Auckland, I’m used to it.” But I couldn’t cheer them up. They wanted me to see sunny Blenheim at its best, and the cold drizzle was ruining the vibe.

One place you don’t notice the drizzle is in the bush, and although you perhaps think of vines, ahead of native trees, when you picture this part of the world, Marlborough has loads of options for short morning walks to make you feel virtuous ahead of wine tasting.

Pelorus Bridge is one collection of tracks leading to waterfalls, giant kahikatea and postcard pictures. The bridge itself is a grand structure, perched high above the icy blue Pelorus River. It’s also one of the country’s most accessible Hobbit filming locations – look over the side of the bridge and picture dwarves floating by in barrels.

Picton has made some big moves in the predator-free space over the past few years and, if you want to see the results, consider a water taxi to Kaipupu Point, just around the “corner” from the township, and part of a fenced peninsula where if you’re lucky you’ll see some of the little blue penguins nesting along the track, as we did.

I was officially visiting as a judge in the region’s annual Burleigh Pie Matching competition, where the region’s wineries each choose a glass of their own wine to drink with one of the famous bakery’s many varieties. I sampled 47 pies with 47 wines, spitting the latter but not the former, and in consultation with other judges eventually chose the best match: a very spicy Jamaican lamb pie with a glass of sweet riesling from family-owned Astrolabe vineyard. Burleigh has a shop that’s worth seeking out if you want to create your own combo – their pork belly seems to be everybody’s favourite.

Blenheim has some wonderful places to eat, including Harvest at the very fancy Marlborough Lodge, a restaurant newly open to non-residents while the country’s borders are closed. The chef, Toby Stuart, is fresh from London, where he worked for some of that city’s most celebrated restaurateurs, and now he’s creating for New Zealanders food that is unlike anything I’ve tried here, using loads of charcoal grilling and bountiful local produce. Visit before the secret gets out.

Wither Hills winery restaurant is where the locals will take you if they’re showing the region off, and though the meals have always been wonderful there, a new chef has taken the kitchen to the next level. The beef short rib is incredible or, for something lighter, try their version of a caprese salad, matched with the winery’s own barrel-fermented sauvignon blanc. If you’re lucky enough to have more than a weekend here, Arbour restaurant is worth looking up.

One great advantage Marlborough has over other wine regions is a centralised “library” of local vintages at The Wine Station, a dedicated tasting centre, which happens to be next to the railway line from Picton. It has one of New Zealand’s few temperature-controlled wine pouring machines so you can, with a simple card transaction, hop from winery to winery sampling as many as you like – the perfect way to taste a whole district in less than an hour.

Lesser known perhaps than Marlborough’s wine producers are its seafood producers – the people feeding New Zealand and the world with greenshell mussels, premium salmon and clams. You’re probably most likely to come across them in restaurants, but if you spot a tour of one of their farms and have the time, it’s worth taking the opportunity to get out on to the water.

And alongside these traditional suppliers are the people doing clever, unexpected things with food and drink. Scoop cookies make huge, perfectly cooked biscuits – or Scookies – that will keep you going for hours in the bush or available as a treat served with icecream in their shop (they also deliver to Auckland). Roots Gin is a fantastic local distiller, the dream business of a young Kiwi who made his name in the London spirits trade and has set up a small gin-making factory with his young family – the business is small enough that he still calls on the community for help from time to time, most memorably foraging for gorse flowers or peeling tonnes of grapefruit while imbibing suitable refreshments.

These are just some of the lovable local treats I discovered after two days in the area – I was lucky to time my trip with Feast Marlborough, a town-square event showcasing the region’s culinary superstars. But you’ll discover your own favourites – far from counting against it, Marlborough’s relative youth as a domestic tourism destination means there is still plenty for you to chance upon ahead of the thronging crowds.


For details on where to stay: visit Marlborough Lodge

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