May 2010

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It’s not easy to get to the Bay of Many Coves Resort in Queen Charlotte Sound. It’s not accessible by road. So what you have to do is take a water taxi from Picton along Queen Charlotte Sound, passing by any number of sail boats, kayakers, a barge or two (one I passed was carrying a fresh load of salmon—about 50 tons worth according to the young water taxi skipper), and, if you’re lucky, maybe several pods of dolphins, until you come around a bend, the boat slows, and there before you, nestled among a thick native forest, are a dozen small buildings peaking out from the trees. This is the resort, which was built in 2003.

As it happened, I managed to catch the very last water taxi at 6 yesterday evening and by the time I arrived at the resort and checked in, the sun had set and it was surprisingly dark out with the only lights at the resort coming from the little orange path lights spaced alongside the hill.

Before dinner at the resort’s Foredeck Restaurant, with a stunning view overlooking the Sound, I pulled up a chair at the bar and asked the bartender, an attractive young woman with bright streaks of red in her otherwise black hair, if they had a house cocktail.

“That would be our Marlboroughpolitan,” she said. “Sort of our take on the standard Cosmopolitan.”

I didn’t even ask her what was in it—I just ordered it. It was a fascinating drink. I didn’t get the connection to a Cosmopolitan. To me, it tasted more like a margarita martini, if that’s possible. I sat there as the moon rose over the Sound, throwing a shimmering silver blanket over the water, trying to break down the ingredients. As I’ve said before, I don’t have the greatest palate. There was gin in it, for sure, and citrus elements—Cointreau, I was guessing since it was based on a Cosmopolitan. But there was something else I just couldn’t put my finger on so I asked the bartender what the secret ingredient was.

She smiled. “Sparkling white grape juice from the Marlborough vineyards. That’s why we call it a Marlboroughpolitan.”

The other secret ingredient, in my mind, is that they use South Premium gin, a lovely libation from Geoff Ross of 42 Below fame, both of which are made in New Zealand. Here’s the story behind South Premium gin: In 2001, Geoff Ross, who founded 42 Below, swooned up to a swanky bar in London in his Voyage shirt and Rogan jeans and ordered a vodka martini. Stirred. The fresh bartender looked at him under a pert fringe and said, “Everyone’s drinking gin martinis, darrrrrrrhling. Are you from the Antipodes?”

Geoff returned to New Zealand with his Antipodean accent and embarked on a mission to create the world’s freshest, most pert gin. He wanted something young, with a twist that had roots established firmly in New Zealand. Two years later, he opened the first bottle of South, and it’s now one of the premium gins in the world.

So, you could make your Marlboroughpolitan with some other gin—but I wouldn’t.


2 shots South Premium gin

1 shot Cointreau

Tiny squeeze of lime

Add ingredients to a shaker half filled with crushed ice, shake well, pour into a martini glass and top with sparkling white grape juice (or, if you prefer, as I do, with sparkling wine). Garnish with a lemon twist.

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It’s mussel pizza day

The perfect lunch--a big bowl of green-shell mussels. Photo by David Lansing.

It’s Thursday and you know what that means: It’s Pizza Day at the Slip Inn Café in Havelock. And since Havelock is the self-proclaimed green-shell mussel capital of the world and the Slip Inn serves the tasty little bivalves every way imaginable, it will come as no surprise to you that the most interesting item on the menu on Pizza Day is “Havelock’s Own Mussel Pizza,” made with fresh mussels, sun-dried tomatoes, feta cheese, and red onions.


If you were with us yesterday than you’ll know that I spent an entire afternoon aboard David Morgan’s charter boat, Odyssey, tied up at a mussel farm in the Marlborough Sound eating bowl after bowl of steamed green mussels cooked to perfection by David’s lovely wife, Faye. What I didn’t tell you is that I then had more mussels for dinner.

So what did I want for lunch today? More green mussels, of course.

I can just hear Sonia saying, “Oh, dear, David. Don’t you think you might be on mussels?”

Never. You can’t have too many oysters or mussels.

Still, I wasn’t sure if I was really up for the mussel pizza. Not because it didn’t sound good—it did—but because there were just so many other tempting choices on the menu. Such as the beer-battered mussels with chips. Or mussels grilled with bacon and melted cheese (called the Kilpatrick). Then there were mussels with sweet chili sauce, mussels with cranberry and camembert, mussels in green curry—so many choices.

In the end, I was a purist: Mussels steamed with white wine and garlic with a little lemon. Perfect. But maybe I’ll try that mussel pizza for dinner.

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Craving green lips

David Morgan, a glass of wine, and a bowl of mussels in the Marlborough Sounds. Photo by David Lansing.

If I was god, one of the first things I’d do is move the champagne wine region to Île de Ré, a tiny island off the west coast of France known for producing some of the tastiest oysters in Europe, because it just seems silly to keep these two culinary love birds apart.

Like Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin or, to get back to food comparisons, beer and peanuts, they’re pretty good on their own but the pleasure is exponentially better when they’re together.

Which is why one of the things I really like about Marlborough is that not only do they produce some of New Zealand’s finest Sauvignon Blanc, but the wine country fronts Marlborough Sound which just happens to be the greenshell mussel capital of the world.

In my mind, the aromatic Sauvignon Blancs of the region and the plump, chewy greenshell mussels are a perfect match. Not everyone feels that way, of course. A certain someone I know who is open-minded in every other way has detested the chewy little things ever since they were first introduced to the U.S. as green-lipped mussels. Now that I think of it, maybe that’s why she disliked them. The green lips thing. Women can be sensitive about food that way.

This morning I woke up with a craving for Sauvignon Blanc and greenshell mussels (I’ve awakened with stranger cravings, believe me). So when David Morgan came to pick me up this morning to continue our wine tour of the region, I told him I wanted mussels and Sauvignon Blanc for lunch. Really fresh mussels. On the water.

“Not a problem,” said David.

Why can’t everyone be so agreeable?

See, David is the perfect wine guide because he is also a licensed charter boat captain. So this afternoon we boarded his boat, Odyssea, at the Havelock marina and went for a little cruise out in the Marlborough Sounds to the greenshell mussel farms just off the heavily wooded shores lining St. Omer Bay. After we tied up, David popped open a chilled bottle of Cloudy Bay while his mate, Faye, steamed us up a pot of the local greenshells.

Out on the water, those long white clouds floating overhead, we wolfed down the mussels—food always tastes better when you’re on the water. But there was a bit more of Sauvignon left so Faye put on another pot of mussels to steam. Which soon necessitated opening another bottle of wine. And so it went. All afternoon long. Until it was nap time.

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Dave McDonald pours some vino for cyclists at Bladen Wines. Photo by David Lansing.

The cellar door (tasting room) at Cloudy Bay Vineyards is very sleek and very elegant. It would fit in nicely in Napa or Sonoma. But I think they’re rather the exception in Marlborough. Most of the wineries I visited were tiny, their tasting rooms not much larger than an Airstream trailer. Like Bladen Wines, over on Conders Bend Road, which prides itself on being one of the smallest and friendliest tasting rooms in Marlborough.

The Bladen Estate tasting room looks like a converted one-car garage shaded by grape vines growing on lattice work over a brick patio with pink and white petunias bursting over the edges of pots. Standing behind the counter when I arrived was what looked like a middle-aged surfer wearing a slightly-threadbare rust-colored T-shirt and faded red shorts. This was the owner of Bladen Wines, Dave McDonald.

I made some comment about it being a little slow at the winery and Dave smiled and said that was fine with him; it meant he could drink his own wine in peace. “Actually,” he said, “we’re not usually open this time of year. But some cyclists called me up this morning and said they’d like to pop by so I said I’d open up.”

Sure enough, not five minutes later, four young cyclists rode up to the tasting room, dismounted, and came inside. They looked more like hikers than cyclists to me, dressed in woolen ski caps and rain jackets (we are, after all, on the cusp of winter here and it was a chilly day).

Dave poured us all a glass of Gewürztraminer, the wine they’re most famous for. I know a lot of people have a hard time with Gewürzt. They’re crazy. This was yummy. Full-bodied, off-dry, with a little cinnamon and cloves thing going on.

I asked one of the cyclists, a kid who looked like he was still in college (he was) what the deal was with biking around to wineries. He shrugged and with a big affable grin said, “We don’t like to drink and drive.” Plus, he said, you’re less likely to get hammered cycling around to the tasting rooms. “It’s too hard riding a bike drunk.”

The kids sampled the Pinot Noir, which was nice, but maybe not as nice as the Gewürzt, thanked Dave, and then got back on their bikes. I finished my wine and then headed out as well. When I arrived at Framingham Wines a few minutes later, the cyclists were already there, lounging about, sipping on some nice Pinot Gris. They greeted me as if we were old college chums. Affable people, these Kiwis.

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The tasting room at Cloudy Bay. Photo by David Lansing.

My favorite wines, like my favorite people, come with a bit of individuality and lot of personality. Like Sauvignon Blanc, a vibrant, herbaceous grape, the most distinctive vinification of which comes from the Marlborough region in the north-eastern corner of New Zealand’s South Island. The winery that really put Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc on the map is Cloudy Bay Vineyards.

Situated in a grove of eucalyptus gum trees, Cloudy Bay is ringed by hills on three sides, like a horseshoe, with the northeast opening facing Queen Charlotte Sound, source of cool maritime breezes. I spent the afternoon yesterday with winemaker Kevin Judd, who pretty much created the Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc profile—creamy, intense aroma, and very herbaceous—when he made Oyster Bay’s first vintage in 1985.

Kevin gave me a good pour of his pale-straw colored wine, we both sipped, and then he said, “Taste the gooseberry?”

I’m sure I would have if I had any idea what gooseberry tasted like. Back home we have raspberries and blackberries and strawberries and even Persian berries, but no gooseberries.

Not wanting to be disagreeable, I smiled and nodded.

Here’s the difference between me and someone like Kevin Judd: I can pick one or two aromas in most wines and he can probably pick out 20 or 30. Including gooseberry.

I’m sitting there with the winemaker of one of the most highly regarded Sauvignon Blancs in New Zealand and, as I swirl my wine around and take big sniffs, he’s looking intensely at me, waiting for me to confirm the gooseberry essence of his wine as well as the myriad other aromas that are, no doubt, there, if only I could pick them out. So the question is do I just keep my mouth shut or go ahead and say something that will make me sound like a complete idiot.

What the hell.

“I’m getting fresh mango and maybe a little fennel,” I say. “Like sniffing a tropical fruit salsa flavored with Pastis?”

Kevin smiles and nods but says nothing.

Oh well. Time to move on to the next winery, I think.

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