My wife Bronagh and I had been travelling around the south island of New Zealand by campervan, and having driven every day of the previous week we decided to spend a few days in Blenheim to experience the Marlborough vineyards. On our first day there we met James McDonald at, of all places, a beer festival and he agreed to show us around Hunter’s winery and even cooked us a fantastic dinner that night! Having spent quite a bit of time working at Vineyards in Bordeaux James really appreciates food and wine matching and the BBQ pork and seafood fritters we had were out of this world, probably the best cuisine we experienced on our whole trip!
The following day we set off to Hunter’s winery which was a 10 minute drive from our campsite. We made our way through the masses of vineyards which spread as far as the eye could see from the dark, fertile ground of the Wetland mountains on the north, to the bright sand-dune like Dryland mountains to the south. We arrived at Hunter’s and walked from the car park through the fantastic gardens, past the restaurant and quaint artist in resident gallery to the reception/cellar door. There, we were warmly greeted by Helen who has been working at the winery for over 15 years and hosts the cellar door tastings, providing a refreshing glass of wine to any passing thirsty tourist! While she went off to find James, Bronagh and I had a look around the gift shop. Of course it had all the usual beautiful branded T-shirts and baseball caps that some wineries had, but the walls were adorned with certificates, newspaper cuttings and photographs ranging from the early days of the winery, to those who represent Hunter’s all over the world, including one of a Mr Kevin McAlindon! There were many pictures of the late Ernie Hunter receiving the top award at the Sunday Times Wine Festival in London in 1986. Winning this award came as such a surprise to Ernie that he had not dressed for the occasion, and had to accept the award wearing a rugby jersey, while his European counterparts whom he had beaten were all dressed in Tuxedos!
James then brought us for a quick tour of the winery. We walked around some of the vines as James gave us a brief overview of the viticulture process. We even got to try some Gewurztraminer grapes straight off the vine, which it must be noted are a world away from the brilliantly aromatic and lush wine that they produce! He then took us around the vinification part of the winery where we saw the grape presses and fermentation tanks. Whilst we were there the last of the 2012 vintage of Sauvignon Blanc was being bottled and we were able to try the filtered and unfiltered versions straight from the tank, as fresh as it comes! We also met Jane Hunter, Peter McDonald and even Gary Duke, the winemaker whose name is printed on every bottle of Hunter’s wine.
Suitably refreshed, James then took us through to the bottling plant where we could see the Sauvignon Blanc getting bottled, labelled and capped within a matter of seconds, a mesmerising process. This section of the winery also had pallets of Hunter’s wines bottled and ready for shipping, and reminded me a lot of the DWS warehouse at Christmas time!!! Having reached the end of the production line we then returned to the gift shop where we met up with Helen along with some other wine tourists for a cellar door tasting of the impressive Hunter’s range.
Both Bronagh and I had a spent a great morning at Hunter’s and we are very grateful to James for taking the time to show us around. Having seen the popularity of Hunter’s wines in Direct Wine Shipments it was a great opportunity to see behind the scenes and has made me appreciate the work that goes into all the wines they make. I was also very proud of the fact that Ernie Hunter, originally from Belfast is still remembered with such fondness, not just at Hunter’s but at all the wineries in the area. No matter what independent tour we went on, which cellar door we stopped at or what literature we read whilst in Marlborough, everyone still cites Ernie Hunter winning Gold at the Sunday Times Wine Fair in 1986 as a pivotal moment for wine making in the region. It also must be noted that his Irish roots are always referred to in Marlborough. He is not known as Ernie Hunter, but rather the Irishman Ernie Hunter, or Ernie Hunter from Belfast!