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Green lips, Savies, Salt and Murals

Our Webmaster works from Blenheim Office Park at Long Hanborough, Oxfordshire; but this was another sort of Blenheim. It is the centre for the world famous wine growing area of Marlborough at the northern corner of New Zealand’s South Island. The mission was to visit and officially appoint Cairnbrae Wines as a supplier to the barony. And the task was deceptively straightforward. Cairnbrae after all was, we were informed, situated on Jackson’s Road, known as the Golden Mile of the Marlborough Region. Modest next door neighbours are Cloudy Bay and Montana.

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Many but not all may know that Marlborough is famous for its Sauvignon Blanc known to the local Kiwis as Savies. It is also proudly producing a goodly output of Riesling and Pinot Gris, and was long famed for its Chardonnay.

At the Cellar Door we were privileged to meet with almost the whole team. John McPhail, clearly a Scottish family, was Vineyard Manager and deeply worried by the recent frost that had nipped some 20% of his vines… an almost unheard of event in the area.

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Tending if not actually labouring in the vineyard was, for him, a considerable change from deer farming. But the then owners in whose home he now had digs on the estate, Murray and Daphne Brown seemingly knew green fingers when they saw them. But after 20 years or more they had just a year ago sold on their vineyard to Sacred Hill at Hawkes Bay, where Duncan Elliott the Marketing Manager had been responsible for making our arrangements.

Heidi and Chris Gibbs are in charge of the Cairnbrae Vineyard Restaurant and provided not only a detailed briefing on what grand parties can be held there but also an excellent antipasto with New Zealand cheeses, gravid-lax and cold meats. No venison though! Bridget was responsible for the extended tastings and the T shirt and waiter’s friend sales.

There can be no doubt whatever that the Scottish settler originated, appropriately named vineyard we have now officially appointed from New Zealand is in very good hands. The hospitality provided can readily act as a benchmark for ourselves at The Gothenburg in due course.

Marlborough had three other fascinating finds. First amongst equals was that Lake Grassmere is the production centre for most of the salt used in New Zealand. Its pans are major salt crystallising ponds rather than the tanks used traditionally at Prestonpans. Grassmere salt has the great added distinction of turning pink/mauve as it dries because of the proliferation in the increasingly strong brine of the local pink brine shrimp. The picture below tells it all.

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Our flight into Blenheim by Air New Zealand Beechcraft had swept across some fish farms which enquiry showed to be for mussels. Havelock in Marlborough is the self styled Green Lip Mussel capital of New Zealand. For those unfamiliar with such mussels they are larger than the more familiar black shells, and indeed have very distinctive green lips. One more coincidence with our own Scottish beaches and of course nearby Musselburgh. the town even has a Clansman Pub.

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The final fascination was found in two murals casually painted in Blenheim itself, which tell of its early origins as a farming community and livestock area. The modest success of those early days of settlement by sentimentalists for their homeland Marlborough and Blenheim has of course been totally eclipsed by the world wide reputation of today’s vineyards. They thrive on stony ground where frost is (usually) unheard of.

In total the visit to new Blenheim had become a four dimensional day. And our only thought when we flew down from Auckland had been to check out the fine vineyard ...

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Published Date: December 10th 2002

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