Chardonnay Tasting in the Tiny Wine Village of Martinborough, New Zealand

I’m here in Martinborough, New Zealand, a tiny village in the North Island’s Wairarapa wine region. The cool nights and warm summer days provide an ideal climate for grape growing. Primarily known for its Pinot Noir, Martinborough also produces some outstanding chardonnays.

Martinborough’s Wine Bank

We stopped into the Wine Bank off of Memorial Square for chardonnay tasting and discovered some delightful local products. The Wine Bank offers guests a choice of purchasing a small taste, a half glass or a full glass of wine from its state-of-the-art, self-service “wine bank.” The five chardonnays on tap include Nga Waka Home Block Chardonnay 2017, Te Kairanga “John Martin” Chardonnay 2017, the Martinborough Vineyard “Home Block” Chardonnay 2016, Dry River Wines Chardonnay 2017 and the Escarpment “Kupe” Chardonnay 2013.

A view of the self-service wine dispensers in Martinborough's Wine Bank
Guests can purchase a sip, half glass or full glass of wine from the Wine Bank in Martinborough New Zealand

Five Chardonnays

Rich and complex with an aromatic nose, the Nga Waka was barrel fermented in French oak, and the light toast comes through.

The Te Kairanga is vibrant and complex with a hint of butter. It took a few minutes for this one to open up, but once it did, the Te Kairanga ended up my favorite chardonnay from this round of tasting.

The Martinborough Vineyard chardonnay displays stone fruit in the nose, layers of soft pear and vanilla in the flavor, and a creamy mouthfeel. The Martinborough came in second.

Martinborough and Te Kairanga chardonnay
Tasting Martinborough and TK Chardonnays

The Dry River wasn’t as aromatic as the others but the wine is elegant and polished. I taste layers of stone fruit.

The nose in the Escarpment is “tight,” but the flavor shows restrained fruits with a slightly spicy finish. I’m tasting lemon and tangy pineapple.

The Wine Bank is a great way to taste multiple local chardonnays in one setting. A resident sommelier is available to answer questions, make suggestions, or provide you with tasting notes. Food is also available for purchase. Seating is comfortable and you can easily spend a relaxing afternoon here.

Explore More of Martinborough

But this was just a sampling of all that this wonderful region has to offer. If you make it to Martinborough, a tiny wine village, you’ll find plenty to taste nearby. Most wineries are close enough to walk or bike to. Rent a bike, hit the road and explore! I hope you’ll find Martinborough as delightful as I did!

Sonoma County Wine Region – Keller Estate

Last on our tour through Sonoma County and the search for exceptional wine tasting experiences was Keller Estate. Located in the southern part of Sonoma County off Lakeville Highway, this Petaluma Gap winery is open by appointment only (although a quick phone call ahead usually gets you in right away, 707.765.2117). When you arrive, expect to be seated, not ushered up to a crowded winetasting counter. The feel here is luxurious and the pace of wine tasting is leisurely. Knowledgeable wine servers share information about the winery and serve popcorn popped in the winery’s estate produced olive oil, with a side of olive oil for dipping. While this might seem like an unusual pairing for wine tasting, the olive oil is quite delicious and the popcorn and olive oil flavors don’t detract from the wines.

Our first visit to Keller was exactly this kind of experience. 90 minutes tasting four wines in the tasting room, overlooking the vineyards and learning about the chardonnays, pinots and the Rotie being poured that day. But our return visit was so amazingly over the top and indulgent that I would happily repeat the experience. Called their Serenity and Wine Brunch, this is a three course, gourmet feast paired with estate wines. For $65 per person or $50 for club members, this is an excellent way to sample the Keller wines.

Brunch is served on the Vineyard Terrace with sweeping views of the vineyards, olive groves and Mt. Tamalpais. Seating is family style at a long, elegantly set table. Be prepared to get to know your table mates as the wine is poured. And, servings are generous! We started with a crisp, dry rose, worked our way through three different chardonnays, sampled a couple of pinot noirs, the Rotie and ended with a sparkling wine.

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We even received a special treat at the end. With temperatures hovering around 100 degrees that weekend, Brian, our host, had set up the wine cave earlier in case we needed to sit inside. While we did enjoy most of our meal on the vineyard terrace, Brian kindly invited us back to the cave to cap off the afternoon with dessert and sparkling wine. We parted ways with our new found friends, purchased some favorite wines, then set off on the road wondering how we were ever going to just be able to walk into an ordinary wine tasting room again and belly up to that crowded bar!

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So there, dear readers, is the last of our Sonoma County exceptional wine tasting experiences. It was fun. It was indulgent. It gave us unique and up close opportunities to learn more about Sonoma County wines and sharpen our wine tasting skills. Impress your friends or impress your date. Guaranteed that any one of these five experiences will do the trick!

Sonoma County Wine Region – Rodney Strong

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Rodney Strong is a striking and dramatic winery. Upon arrival you might quickly draw the conclusion that this is one of those wineries owned by a giant corporation charging $20 per tasting and drawing throngs of wine lovers to its tasting room. But it’s not; in fact Rodney Strong is family owned and proud of it. The winery makes great wine but a visit there provides so much more. During the summer time, the winery sponsors concerts in its outdoor amphitheater and wine and food pairings on the terrace. It was the latter that brought us back to Rodney Strong for another exceptional wine tasting experience.

On this particular trip to Sonoma, we were seeking “exceptional” wine tasting experiences. We first got the idea when we visited Rodney Strong last fall. By exceptional, I mean we are seeking either a beautiful setting, or a leisurely seated wine tasting experience, or a gourmet food and wine pairing, or an otherwise unique and special wine tasting experience.

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For $55.00 per person, the winery offers a leisurely paced food pairing of small, gourmet bites with five different wines. Seated at an umbrella shaded table overlooking the expansive picnic grounds and vineyards, we were offered an envelope with cards describing the menu of soon-to-come food delights and winemakers notes for each of the wines. The food was prepared by Chef Tara Wachtel and served by Greg, a long-time employee, former home winemaker, jazz pianist, and general expert of our favorite drink, wine.

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Rodney Strong did not disappoint. Nearly two hours, six courses, and five wines later (plus a few extra tastings), we were feeling thoroughly relaxed and very satisfied. We walked away with a greater knowledge and appreciation for the wines that are produced in Sonoma County and thoroughly impressed with the Rodney Strong staff that made us feel like special friends just visiting for lunch.

Call ahead and reserve a time for your own exceptional wine tasting experience. You’ll find it hard to go back to the old process of standing in a crowded wine tasting room, elbowing your way to the wine counter.