The lunch comprises visits to four vineyards around Martinborough, with wine tastings, an entree-sized meal and entertainment at each. Everyone meets in the Martinborough Square for a 10.30am departure, and we are handed a glass of bubbly and mingle for a little while before picking a bus to hop on. There are four buses and each starts at a different vineyard, so that our huge crowd isn't too unmanageable - 45 per bus.
Our first stop was Croft, where we were given wine glasses immediately after we hopped off the bus, and while we mingled Croft staff circulated, filling these up. May Croft welcomes us, and she and husband Peter tell us about the wines as we try their sauvignon blanc, chardonnay, pinot gris and pinot noir. The pinot gris was the clear favourite at our table, and when we get to charge our glasses to accompany our meal that's everyone's pick. I must say at this point that I am not a big drinker and though I do try all the wines I may not have finished all of them. ;-)
Our first meal is prawn cocktail, which seems an appropriate starter course. It is quite delicious, with a great variety of flavours and textures. The avocado is beautiful, wonderfully tangy with lemon, and the salad has crisp fennel lending flavour and crunch.
Chef Des Britten came out to talk to us about the food - apparently the mayonnaise is flavoured with a large helping of brandy, and the secret to delicious prawns (and they were delicious) is to brine them first - just soak in salt water with a bit of sugar for a couple of hours before cooking.
It seems like we're not been there for all that long before it's time to hop back on our bus - next stop Julicher.
Julicher was definitely a favourite last year (the 2008 pinot noir was quite something), and are renowned for their generous pouring, as well as having a band with a dance floor, so are a popular last stop. They also have lovely table settings and super cool "chandeliers" made from wine bottles.
The lovely Sue Darling welcomes us warmly and we are invited to try their wines - which are nice, though the pinot noir is not quite so good at the 2008 vintage we so enjoyed last time. And I do like the names they've given to their wine vats:
(Mr Cake, being the true Simpsons fan of the Cake family I think appreciated them more than I, but it is pretty cool to name them. There were also vats named Marge, Bart, Lisa and Moe)
Our meal at Julicher was tuna, served with tapenade (made from Julicher's own olives), and served on a salad of lovely fresh vegetables. This was the let-down dish of the day for me - the tuna was quite dry, with barely a hint of pink. The vegetables were well cooked - very fresh - but as they were chilled and with the tuna the only hot element on the plate it cooled down quickly. The tapenade was nice enough but didn't really seem to suit the dish well - so overall I wasn't a huge fan. The folk at Julicher are great hosts, though, and even though we were only on vineyard number two most of our busload got up and had a dance before being sent on our merry way.
Stop three was Coney, where the irreverent and marvellous Tim Coney was wonderfully entertaining. He reminds me a great deal of John Cleese, in both humour and stature, and manages to impart a great deal of information about the wine without it becoming the least bit boring. Each of the Coney wines has a musical name (Pizzicato Pinot Noir; Ragtime Reisling) and a little poem on the back of the bottle.
Coney is the only one of the four vineyards on our itinerary with its own restaurant - the others set up tables in sheds or marquees, which means each stop is quite unique.
Our meal was accompanied by a special Coney rendition of "Mamma Mia," with somewhat adapted lyrics, including "my my, have we got botrytis" among others. It really is quite special to be serenaded by the winemakers as you eat and drink!
After another stint on the bus we were delivered to Te Hera, where winemaker John Douglas ushered us into our dining area. Another lively host, and more wonderful wine. I really enjoyed their pinot noir - in fact it was my favourite of the day, although I willingly admit it was getting difficult to really taste the wine by this point - the tastebuds can only take so much!
The food on offer at Te Hera was a game terrine of pork, venison and duck, served with a lentil vinaigrette and pickled cherries. This was a nice dish but by this point I wouldn't have been the only one craving carbs. ;-) There were bread rolls on the table which went down a treat... And as for the terrine, well, it was nicely spiced (a hint of chilli), though I am not the hugest fan of terrine so perhaps didn't appreciate it as well as I might have. I was also a little disappointed at the prevalence of cold food - I understand that it is vastly easier to prepare food for 45 if it can be pre-plated, but I quite like hot stuff so that made me a little sad.
The last vineyard of the day also provides petit fours and tea and coffee - the coffee was very welcome for many of us by then! The petit fours were a meringue with a raspberry, a blueberry, and a little piece of Turkish delight (yummy!); a very dark chocolate ganache truffle (decadent; a good balance for the sweet meringue); and a chewy almond biscuit (delicious, gone in a trice).
This also came with a quiz, with wine-centred questions. This was a good bit of riotous fun (especially as a couple of people were perhaps a little more rowdy and disagreeing than normal ;-) ) and I copped a little bit of mocking from John when I got the second question wrong, thus removing myself from the competition - I had mentioned I write a blog to check it was okay I took photos, and apparently that means I should be more knowledgable about New Zealand's biggest wine export markets. ;-) Ah well, I am a little more knowledgable now!
All in all it was a marvellous day - and at $140 per person for four dishes, transport, entertainment and pretty much as much wine as you can drink it's great value (if this is the sort of thing you're into). Because your group is limited to the number of people who can sit on one bus it's a very friendly thing, and you end up chatting to most of the others on your bus. It's an annual thing so there will be another one next year, I presume, so keep your eyes peeled - I believe it always sells out, so you have to be in quick. Thanks to Mr Cake's parents for the wonderful Christmas pressie!
The four hosting vineyards were: Coney, Croft, Julicher and Te Hera