What a lovely idea, I thought when the email arrived from Wither Hills to fly me all the way from Auckland to Blenheim just for lunch! I’d love to, I said before I even realised why.
The reason was, of course, the opening of Wither Hills winery’s brand new, stylish and spacious restaurant and cellar door with stone floors and chunky wooden beams lining oak ceilings giving us the feeling we are nestled in a wine barrel.
Chef uses locally sourced ingredients as much as possible to craft a menu that slow-dances with the wine.
Wither Hills is named after the hills it sits on, but in the 20+ years since they’ve been here they have grown grapes in the famous Wairau Valley and surrounding regions with their single vineyard ranges – Raranagi (below), Taylor River and Ben Morven – winning golds for chardonnay.
Back in the restaurant, the hero of the menu is the wine and while chef Ross Harrison came out to say hi as he put down our fourth course, he was employed on the proviso that the Wither Hills restaurant was less about him becoming a star and more about making the wine the star. Not too many chefs interviewed were happy about that, but Ross was like, ABSOLUTELY. He uses locally sourced ingredients as much as possible to craft a menu that slow-dances with the wine.
After a tour through the other rooms that make up this newly refurbished space and much larger tasting area which sprawls outside onto a new stone tiled garden with tables and umbrellas and beanbags strewn on the lawn in summer, then a look downstairs at the cellar crowded with a gazillion barrels and set up with a long table for about 20 guests, we came back up to our little nook for lunch.
Starting with a rose that had none of that cloyingly sweet taste that lingers too long, this was crisp yet summery, we stood around the table set with four glasses for our four courses chit-chatting about the time when Wills and Kate snuck in for an off-the-record royal visit when they toured New Zealand in 2014.
Then it was lunch time! The menu wove through the palate beginning with three tiny Coromandel scallops (because since the Kaikoura earthquakes, Marlborough scallops are off the menu) on a swipe of lime aioli with confit potato and a shard of crispy proscuitto on each. It was matched with a delicious and mellow 2015 Rarangi Sauvignon Blanc.
We then had a salmon gravalax (raw, marinated salmon slices) with fennel salad and the hero was the 2015 Ben Morven Chardonnay.
The main course was a generous seared lamb fillet with grains and pinot jus matched with a 2014 Taylor River Pinot Noir and for those who had room we ended with a chocolate semi freddo and berry compote matched with a 2014 Legado Fortified Pinot Noir. Then I purchased a 2011 Taylor River Noble Pinot Gris – a lovely white sticky to have over summer with friends.
But more than just having a cleverly wine-matched lunch in an exquisite venue with the dry Wither Hills backdrop rolling behind us, we decided a team building, hilarious yet serious, pinot noir blending competition was in order.
Off we went to the lounge where board meetings and private functions take place, and where three pinots were set in front just named for the blocks they were grown on: Ben Morven, Taylor River and a Barrel Ferment. Then off we went with a test tube and beaker to blend our percentages, make our notes, try not to drink it all in our efforts to taste it, and create the perfect pinot noir to present to the judges (wine makers Sally Williams and Matt Large). Suffice to say, mine didn’t win, but I was quite happy with what I created and polished off my award-presenting glass – 70% barrel fermet, 10% Benmorven and 20% Taylor River as a consolation. Mind you, with base products as high quality as this, we could hardly go wrong!
Wither Hills is a five minute drive from Blenheim. The Cellar Door and Restaurant is open 7 days from 10:30am to 4:30pm. Bookings are available via telephone and www.witherhills.co.nz. Reservations are recommended, but not required and walk-ins will be warmly welcomed.
The venue will also be available for small functions, private dining, weddings and events