Guardians of the vineyards
Did you know there are fewer New Zealand falcons left than kiwi? Can you tell the difference between a falcon and a harrier hawk?
It's unexpected knowledge to emerge with from a vineyard tour. And I still know almost nothing about wine, but I could tell you how to hand-feed said falcon bits of raw rabbit without flinching (a few lunchtime glasses helps).
The link between wine and falcons is that while there are also nets, elaborate bird-scarers and a man with a quad bike and a rifle, the falcons are just as adept at getting rid of the starlings that feast on the 330 hectares of grape vines at Brancott Estate vineyard, sitting on the plain between the Wither Hills and the Richmond Ranges just outside Blenheim.
Oh, and Brancott helps fund the activities of Diana Dobson, the effervescent one-woman whirlwind operating the Marlborough Falcon Trust. While Dobson's base isn't open for casual visits, she's often up at the vineyard and regular tours can incorporate a bit of falcon time (there's an aviary under construction behind the main visitor centre).
The trust houses 14 falcons, most unable to live wild because they have been captive-bred, or have significant injuries. The programme has recently released two chicks into the world; the success of this is measured in the fact that one recently consumed all the doves living on a neighbouring farmer's property.
Dobson tries a bit of "blind dating" to pair them: 5-year-old, one-winged Rocky was depressed, she says, but just yesterday was put with Anzac and is already feeding her.
But it's her star pupil, 2-year-old Fern (who is also usually the one on display at the vineyard) that we get to meet and feed.
But feeding a falcon, as I said, is best prepared for with some wine. Up at the Brancott Estate visitor centre, they have some new mountain bikes parked outside to take on a 5.5-kilometre route through the vines, one of several tours offered which culminate in wine-tasting and falconry.
Brancott's national viticulture manager, Mike Insley, is our guide today, although his expertise is chiefly wasted on me. He explains how they've grafted European vines on to American rootstock which can resist a particular form of aphid, why grapes facing east taste different to those facing west, and how they can measure the sugar percentage, or "brix", and know exactly when to harvest.
This all seems rather scientific, not quite the artisan artistry I had expected, but Insley says: "We can't leave it to chance. We get one opportunity a year to get it right." This seems a perfect location for growing wine, but when Frank Yukich began buying up land here in 1973, it was Marlborough's first vineyard. Standing between the vines, Insley smiles: "It took an American to tell us."
After chewing on grapes of the various varietals, we do get to see something a bit more romantic, when we are handed a pair of box-fresh gardening gloves and secateurs and invited to have a crack with the hand-picking crew.
While almost all the grapes are machine harvested, about 2000 tonnes are still picked by hand. Seasonal workers from Vanuatu spend four months a year here, paid 95 cents a vine which, thanks to their breakneck pace, earns them about $20 an hour; not a huge amount for genuinely hard graft but we're told that most manage to take about half their earnings back home where it translates to a sizeable sum.
I reckon I'm racing along pretty well, but quite soon the Vanuatans are lapping me. My plastic tub of grapes is worth about five bottles, they reckon.
So I've earned my lunch. The visitor centre, a three-year-old, eco-friendly Fearon Hay-designed building, squats low on a ridge, big windows offering a panorama across a pale-blue sky full of low, white cotton-wool clouds and ranks of vines rippling like corrugated cardboard across the valley.
These vines, the first Yukich planted, were put in using a shotgun sight to ensure their arrow-straightness. The gun is on display, alongside the spade used by the Queen to plant a vine on a ceremonial visit here.
They attract about 2000 visitors a week, about 80 per cent of them from overseas; as if to prove it, a busload of very loud Americans (beyond the Graham Greene novel, was there ever a quiet one?) appear for lunch. This doesn't spoil things. A big sprawling platter of smoked salmon and hams and bread and so forth comes first, then a slab of fresh pan-fried fish, cheese, grapes, lots of wine.
We're drinking wine matched by the chief winemaker, Patrick Materman. A late-story confession now: when I said I didn't know anything about wine, I wasn't joking. I can tell you that it all tasted very good. The job of Materman, a suave, extremely personable chap who's been here more than two decades, seems to also include a lot of PR and marketing, and travel to Europe and the US, but you get the sense his favourite bit is being on site, looking after the wine.
After lunch, we encircle a bespoke circular steel table, a sink in the middle for tipping out wine and spittoons (yes spittoons - I can't help but think of Paul Giamatti carrying on like a complete pork chop in Sideways).
Then a bottle comes out of a wine that costs $80, the Chosen Rows Sauvignon Blanc 2010 vintage. They only made 3000 individually-numbered bottles, they chose the hand-harvested grapes specifically, thinned to one bunch a vine. This sounds great. Yet the spittoons emerge again. Even for a beer drinker, this seems sacrilegious.
I don't know much about wine, but I know enough to know I don't like spittoons much. My advice would be a few weeks of pre-visit abstinence, give yourself a good run up, and spurn the spittoon.
All the stuff we did can be experienced, in one form or other, on the various combined wine-tasting/falcon-gawping/bike-riding tours at Brancott, ranging from $18 to $40.
Oh, and there are only 6000 NZ falcons left; and they are smaller, eat different food and fix their gaze in different spots to a harrier hawk.
- Steve Kilgallon was a guest of Brancott Estate
Sunday Star Times