I started drinking wine as a teenager when I lived in the Loire Valley with a wonderful French family. My hosts had stopped producing their own wine only a couple of years before my arrival but there was still plenty in supply during my stay. I can picture the grape stomping tray in the garden shed and I recall wondering at the time about family members' foot hygiene. Our village was surrounded by rolling countryside with vineyard after vineyard - if only I'd had the inclination to learn about wine appreciation and wine-making back then.
There were some efforts to teach me wine appreciation during my stay in France. I recall being encouraged to swirl wine around in the glass to look for its 'skirt' - which seemed to me ridiculous, and an unnecessary delay in the drinking process!
Similar to French coffee, the home-made wine we drank was thick and strong. Ever since, pretty much any wine has seemed fancy by comparison. I have been far from discerning in my wine preferences.
Having reinvented myself as a tour operator, I am in the enviable position of taking people to the Wairarapa on wine-tasting tours. Some of these people are wine aficionados, but most are simply looking for an enjoyable day out.
Hearing passionate wine-makers speak about the complexities of their craft and the level of hard graft they put in has given me a new appreciation for wine, along with a sense of duty to do it service. In fact it's more than that - I'm curious to find out whether my senses have a hope of ever identifying "smoked game on the nose" or whether my taste buds can find "passionfruit and fresh lime aromas" in a wine.
Making up for lost years, I was recently coached on how to 'taste' wine. By un-glamourously swilling the liquid around like mouthwash, I was taught to release the wine's flavours. The next step involved opening my mouth and breathing air in over the top of the wine (DO try this at home! It'll save you embarrassment in public).
Above: The Cottage Cellar Door, Te Kairanga Wines, Martinborough
I was quite chuffed to learn that a French woman named Marie Zelie first planted vines and produced wine in the Wairarapa in the late 1800s, near my birthplace of Masterton. Marie's pinot noir was even tasted in Paris! I imagine that locally she would have trouble convincing anyone at the time to stop quaffing whisky or beer long enough to sample her wine. And to add insult to injury her vines were apparently ripped from the ground during the ensuing prohibition period.
It wasn't until almost a century later that wine-making came back to life in the Wairarapa, The first four main wineries to establish themselves did so around Martinborough in the 1980's. Dave Cull has produced an interesting book about the development of the wine industry in the area - suffice to say that there are now over 20 small wineries in and around Martinborough producing high-quality wines.
Below: Dining above the vines at the Vineyard Cafe, Margrain Vineyard, Martinborough
If you fancy getting a small group together for a fun day of wine-tasting - talk to Sue for an experience that is tailored for your group. Our fabulous new 12-seater minibus loves the run over the hill.
Quarrying at Owhiro Bay is thankfully well behind us and now days this spectacular piece of coastline is even graced with a landscaped visitor entrance and a designer information centre. If you are keen for a hike around the coast, it's a good idea to come here on a Sunday when the area is closed to vehicles. And if you visit between May and August you will be treated to the sight (and smell!) of a colony of fur seals hauled up on the rocks at Sinclair Head. They are definitely worth investigating - from a safe distance!
Speaking of marine life, Taputeranga marine reserve was introduced in 2008 and stretches from the old quarry at Owhiro Bay around to Princess Bay. The resurgence of sea life within this 854 hectare protected area is stunning. It's definitely worth getting amongst it with a mask and snorkel (and preferably a wet-suit - the water here is NEVER warm!). They say the sea floor around the island is now teeming with crayfish and that the crays are so at ease, they don't even bother hiding in the crevices anymore.
In my view the moods and spirit of the South Coast are captured well in artist Michael McCormack's paintings. Good on Michael for gifting the mural on the side of his studio gallery (pictured) to the people of Island Bay. It's a lovely feature.
Discover some of Sue's favourite spots with her on the Wellington South Coast Discovery Day Trip. Thursday 19 April 2018.
Sue is the Director and Chief Explorer at Welcome Tours. Sue blogs about new discoveries and the things that matter to Welcome Tours.