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Ultimate Marlborough road trip

Home to New Zealand’s pioneering 1973 Sauvignon Blanc plantings, this region at the top of South Island is well worth a stop for its breathtaking scenery alone. Take a journey through Marlborough’s valleys, full of well-known and hospitable wineries.

Marlborough’s problem is one of transition: for people visiting New Zealand, even for many nationals, it is a place you go past if you’re going somewhere else. Its location – a 30-minute drive south of Picton (the main port of entry to the South Island via the Cook Strait car ferry from Wellington) – means people are either trying to make it north to the ferry or continuing south to Christchurch, Otago or even west to Nelson and the West Coast region.

That’s a shame because Marlborough has everything to offer if you just stop and take a bit more time. Its main centre Blenheim is a functional town but set in beautiful part of New Zealand. And the mountains and hills feel close, especially the dramatic Richmond Range to the north.

Indeed, as Auntsfield winemaker Luc Cowley pointed out, you can always orient yourself in the Wairau Valley, Marlborough’s main wine-growing area: the blue mountains (the Richmond Ranges) lie to the north and the green mountains lie to the south. These latter are more a shade of brown in summer, hence their name: the Wither Hills.

The Marlborough Sounds, too – a collection of ancient valleys flooded with Pacific ocean waters along a 1,500km stretch of coastline – is a stone’s throw away. While many patrons of the car ferry admire its beauty as they pass through the parade of pristine, almost uninhabited bays and coves before hopping in their vehicle and driving on, it is a very good reason to hang around.

Diversity in abundance

There is much else on offer in Marlborough – and that is true of the wines, too. The region has considerably more to recommend it than the Sauvignon Blanc upon which it made its reputation. What’s more, most cellar doors are focused in a relatively small and easily navigable area around Blenheim and Renwick 8km to its west, with the region’s airport lying in between.

In this road trip, we’ve allocated two days to the Wairau Valley so visitors can really get an idea of how diverse the sub-region and its wines can be. Further information can be found on the wine tourism map at marlboroughwinenz.com, while the more energetic traveller can take advantage of local bicycle routes.

We’ve grouped our three-day itinerary so it can easily be rearranged. For instance, those travelling down from North Island could arrive in Picton and head straight to the Marlborough Sounds before returning to Picton the next morning and heading south to Blenheim. Both days 1 and 2 finish around Renwick, which allows travellers to take the 1.5-hour drive along State Highway 6 (SH6) further west to Nelson.

If you only have two days available, start with the day 2 itinerary then do day 1’s suggested trip in reverse (ie, drive out to Renwick and head up SH6 before turning east onto Rapaura Road). Fit in the wineries you want before continuing on Rapaura Road to meet SH1 and continue your journey south.

Day one: Wairau Valley from Blenheim

Nautilus Estate’s main entrance and cellar door on Rapaura Road, Renwick

Nautilus Estate’s main entrance and cellar door on Rapaura Road, Renwick

Grab a breakfast coffee and toastie from Sammies on Scott Street. A Kimcheese (kimchi and cheese – add a pork and fennel sausage pattie if you want) is a monumental start to anyone’s day. From there, it’s a short drive just out of town to Lawson’s Dry Hills – a pioneer of sustainable practices in Marlborough and producer of fine aromatic white wines. From here, a variation on our itinerary would be a 15-minute drive down State Highway One (SH1) to Seddon and the Awatere Valley. This sub-region is slightly cooler than the main Wairau Valley and contains many newer – and sizeable – vineyard plantings, which deliver some truly exciting wines. One of the few cellar doors here is Yealands.

But our main route heads north on SH1 for 15 minutes, crossing the Wairau river to stop off the roundabout at Tuamarina to visit the memorial to the Wairau Affray of 1843 and a glimpse of the country’s often violent colonial past.

From Tuamarina, head back the way you came and turn right onto Rapaura Road at Spring Creek where a number of wineries have their cellar doors. We suggest the pan-regional Saint Clair and idiosyncratic Rock Ferry on the way to a tasting and lunch at Cloudy Bay on Jacksons Road. One of Marlborough’s flagship brands, owned by French luxury goods giant LVMH, its cellar door will impress even the most corporate-cynical.

From Cloudy Bay, get back onto Rapaura Road and head west (and then south) to Renwick. There are many wineries on this stretch, so how many you have time for will depend on how long that lunch was.

The proudly organic Te Whare Ra is one of Marlborough’s must-visit wineries and Framingham has a well-deserved reputation for its Rieslings. Hans Herzog produces a range of unexpected varieties and wines, while Huia is an unsung gem. Bubbles fans can stop in at No1 Family Estate, while Nautilus provides a glimpse into day 2 as some of its fruit (in particular its Pinot Noir) is sourced from the Southern Valleys sub-region. And the excellent Fromm is near the airport on your 11-minute drive back to Blenheim.

Day two: Southern Valleys from Blenheim

Winemaker Jules Taylor under bird netting at The Wrekin vineyard in Brancott Valley.

Winemaker Jules Taylor under bird netting at The Wrekin vineyard in Brancott Valley. Credit: Lisa Duncan Photography

Fuel up for the day at Burleigh Gourmet Pies, a Marlborough landmark on the southwestern edge of Blenheim town – try the signature pork belly pie. Then, just a few hundred metres west along New Renwick Road is the turn-off for the Omaka Aviation Heritage Centre (see ‘address book’, below), which includes Sir Peter Jackson’s impressive collection of World War I aircraft.

Back on New Renwick Road and the turn-off south to Auntsfield marks the first stop on our Southern Valleys wine tour where wind-blown loess has settled in the valleys and provided the clay so essential to its Pinot Noir.

Brancott Valley is the next one along and, although there are no major cellar doors, a number of producers source fruit from here, and Dog Point sits at the base of the ridge that separates Brancott Valley from Omaka Valley. At the head of the Brancott Valley lie two vineyards with stellar reputations: Clayvin, now part of Giesen, and The Wrekin. The latter’s excellent organic fruit is used by numerous brands and highlighted on their wine labels, from one-man-band outfits to the more established Jules Taylor Wines.

Back onto the New Renwick Road again and continuing onto Dog Point Road, Omaka Valley is the next one along, and here you’ll find the must-visit Greywacke – make sure you book an appointment-only, no-charge tasting in advance (weekdays 11am or 2pm) by emailing through the website.

Drive back up towards Renwick to take the SH63 west a short distance before ducking down to the more expansive Waihopai Valley. Once home to the New Zealand government’s not-so-secret satellite listening facility (the huge white domes have since been dismantled, although the facility is still in operation), it also houses Spy Valley Wines and Churton – both well worth a visit, although Churton is by appointment only.

Finally, call in at nearby Clos Henri, which is owned by the Bourgeois family from Sancerre in the Loire, before heading back to Blenheim.

Day three: Picton, Nelson, Marlborough Sounds

Bay of Many Coves Resort

Bay of Many Coves Resort

Time to head into the locals’ playground: the stunning Marlborough Sounds. Drive up to Picton with a quick stop at Johanneshof cellar door on the way. Once in town, park the car, check the ferry timetable and stop in at Toastie for a snack while you wait. There is a range of truly breathtaking resorts and lodges throughout the Sounds, each of which offers a variety of activities, but Punga Cove, Bay of Many Coves Resort and Furneaux Lodge are among those recommended.

The more adventurous early-riser might want to combine this leg with a spot of guided kayaking or a stint on the Queen Charlotte Track, a 71km-long walking and biking track running from Anakiwa, at the head of Queen Charlotte Sound in the south (about 30 minutes’ drive from Picton) to Meretoto/Ship Cove in the north of the Sounds. A local operator such as Wilderness Guides should steer you in the right direction.

Once you’ve chosen your activity, board the ferry, or bike, walk or paddle your way to your chosen destination. Then, whether you’ve hiked, paddled, snorkeled, sailed or cycled – or merely strolled the jetty – it’s time to sit back and relax with a glass of Marlborough wine.

An illustrated map of Marlborough

Credit: Maggie Nelson

How to get there

If you already have your own vehicle, Cook Strait ferries run between Wellington and Picton, the journey time being around 3.5 hours; otherwise it’s a 300km (4-4.5 hour) scenic drive from Christchurch. Otherwise, hire a car after arriving into Marlborough Airport Blenheim: Air New Zealand flies from Auckland and Wellington, and Sounds Air runs limited services from Christchurch, Wellington and Paraparaumu.

Your Marlborough address book

Marlborough Wine & Food Festival

Marlborough Wine & Food Festival. Credit: Richard Briggs


14th Lane
Ideally located in central Blenheim. Formerly The Builder’s Arms, the views aren’t great and it boasts no restaurant or bar, but the rooms more than compensate.

Furneaux Lodge
Tucked all the way up in the stunning Marlborough Sounds, just over the hill from Captain Cook’s favourite NZ anchorage, this place is as magical in the rain as it is in the sun.

Hotel d’Urville
Full of character, both inside and out, the rear bar flows into an outside area which doesn’t quite match the inside vibe but is surprisingly comfortable on summer evenings.

Restaurants & cafés

The fine-dining Marlborough experience on everyone’s lips, winemakers included. Named NZ’s Best Regional Restaurant in 2022 by Cuisine, it also has a coveted ‘two hats’ rating from the food and drink lifestyle publication.

Frank’s Oyster Bar and Eatery
Another restaurant that comes recommended by local winemakers, you’ll find this one in central Blenheim.

The Store
In Kekerengu, a 50-minute drive south of Blenheim on SH1, its sweeping vistas across a wild coastline make it well worth the stop on the way to Christchurch.

Things to do

The summer months of January, February and March respectively feature the Picton Maritime Festival, the Marlborough Wine & Food Festival and the Havelock Mussel and Seafood Festival.

Marlborough Farmers Market
Held on Sundays at Blenheim’s A&P showgrounds, this is a great way to enjoy a range of regional produce with a minimum of travel.

Omaka Aviation Heritage Centre
A must-visit for historic aircraft enthusiasts, or for an extra-special occasion, this renowned aviation museum at Blenheim offers the chance to book a flight on a fully restored World War II-era Avro Anson – a package starting at NZ$990 (£475) per person including a 25-minute flight. Or a 20-minute flight in a Boeing Stearman biplane, costing NZ$395 (£189) for one or two people.

Love NZ Sauvignon?

See our January 2024 issue (on sale from Wednesday 3 January 2024) for an extensive panel tasting of more than 200 current-release New Zealand Sauvignon Blancs, with notes and scores by judges Roger Jones, Freddy Bulmer and Cat Lomax.

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