What’s the difference between a good sauvignon blanc and a great one? Around $25 a bottle, apparently. If you want to learn more, a New Zealand wine cruise can help -- whether you have a deep interest in viticulture or just enjoy the occasional (OK, regular) glass.

Azamara’ 16-night Australia & NZ voyage is not a loosely themed cruise; it’s an intensive, immersive experience with a strong self-educational element. Suitable for both the novice and connoisseur, the itinerary explores top wine regions, from Marlborough in the south to Hawke’s Bay in the north, and all the stunning scenery in between.

1. The scenery can be enjoyed onboard, overland and overnight.

Australians travel long distances to cruise Alaska’s Inside Passage or Canada’s West Coast, but we often overlook what is in our own backyard. Trust us -- New Zealand is just as diverse and picturesque. After two days of sailing ‘across the ditch’, Azamara Quest delivered us into another world of jagged alpine peaks, capped with melting summer snow that feeds gigantic waterfalls cascading into the deep fjords below.

This place is Milford Sound. It’s incorrectly named as it is a true fjord and every bit as impressive as the mighty fjords of Norway or Alaska. Gently gliding into Fiordland National Park is like hitting the restart button for a regeneration of the soul. It’s breathtakingly beautiful, and fortunately nearly every NZ cruise visits at the start or end of the voyage (depending on the direction of the itinerary).

Azamara Quest in Milford Sound NZ (Photo: Tim Faircloth)

Azamara also offers an overland/overnight shore excursion from Milford Sound to the next port of Dunedin via Queenstown. If you’re up for a couple of long but incredibly rewarding days travelling by coach through even more sublime mountainous countryside, this add-on tour is an absolute must.

Azamara’s adventure, led by a knowledgeable guide, delivers guests into Queenstown mid-afternoon before boarding the restored Edwardian Steam Ship SS Earnslaw for the 40-minute journey across Lake Wakatipu to Walter Peak Station. With weatherboard homestead buildings and sheep roaming freely beside a pine-fringed lake against the dramatic mountain backdrop, Walter Peak encapsulates the essence of New Zealand.

Our hosts presented an entertaining sheep-shearing demonstration, among a few other quintessential farm experiences, before cooking a lamb barbecue with all the Kiwi trimmings. After a great night’s sleep in Queenstown and another day travelling across the South Island to Dunedin, we reunited with the ship.

Walter Peak NZ on an Azamara shore excursion (Photo: Tim Faircloth)

2. From Picton, picking wineries is the perfect start.

The cruise then tracked northward through lush coastal gems such as Akaroa before pulling into the small town of Picton. Tucked away at the end of the Marlborough Sounds on the northernmost tip of the South Island, the arrival into Picton is not to be missed. Our advice is to get an early night so you can be up on deck at least two hours before docking. Then enjoy a leisurely alfresco breakfast in the Windows Cafe for the scenic sail-in through misty hills and islands on pond-like waters, only broken by pods of orca (if you’re lucky to spot the many whales in the area).

Picton is where the wine odyssey gets interesting. A little planning is recommended, especially if you have specific wineries in mind. It’s possible to hire a car for around NZ$150 (plus fuel) for the day or take one of Azamara’s excursions to let someone else do the driving. One of Azamara’s tours stops at three cellar doors for back-to-back wine-tasting (up to 12 samples), while another option visits one well-known vineyard with lunch included.

Cloudy Bay winery at Marlborough New Zealand (Photo: Tim Faircloth)

3. Cloudy Bay winery is worth the drive to Marlborough.

From Picton, an easy half-hour drive over the hills reaches the Marlborough Valley, home to all the major labels that literally put NZ sauvignon blanc on the wine world map.

The epicentre of the Marlborough is the town of Blenhiem, known for boasting more sunshine than anywhere else in the country. Stop at the iCentre, pick up a cellar door map and spend the rest of the day exploring the surrounding countryside where seemingly every available section of land is planted with symmetrical rows of pinot, chardonnay and, of course, sauvignon vines.

Driving these back roads past all the cellar doors is like walking down the whites isle at your local Dan Murphy’s back home. Well-known brands like Brancott Estate, Whither Hills, Giesen, Forrest Estate and the iconic Cloudy Bay are all within a 15-minute radius.

Cloudy Bay was our chosen destination -- not just to sample their award-winning whites, but also to experience the estate’s grounds surrounded by acres of precious grapes and overlooked by the same mountain range that adorns the Cloudy Bay bottle label.

Most restaurants generally match a wine to complement a dish; however, here in the vineyards this practice is reversed and the kitchen is challenged to create dishes that complement the wine. At Cloudy Bay, that’s oysters -- and not just any old oyster, but Marlborough Oysters plucked that morning from the same pure waters you cruised in on.

In the open alfresco kitchen, Jack’s Raw Bar, the oysters are freshly shucked before your eyes and simply plated up on a bed of crushed ice. You can then sit back at a table in their outdoor ‘wine lounge’, or relax in a bean bag on the lawn, or even swing in a hanging wicker egg chair.

The minerality and ripeness of Cloudy Bay’s 2018 Sauvignon Blanc is indeed perfectly reflected in the sweet and subtly salty oysters, together with a twist of lemon to marry the citrus elements of the wine.

Cloudy Bay winery at Marlborough New Zealand (Photo: Tim Faircloth)

4. Continue the fun from white wine to White Night.

Back onboard, the crew of Azamara Quest prepared to host the line’s signature White Night event (held on every cruise), which was ideal after our day of imbibing in the Marlborough.

At this alfresco extravaganza, all the poolside deckchairs are replaced with white dining tables and festive flags overhead. Everyone wears white clothing and sits under the setting sun while devouring flame-grilled meats, seafood and fresh salads, all cooked and served on the pool deck, before the band kicks off one heck of a dance party. It’s the best night of the trip.

Waiter with tequila at White Party on Azamara (Photo: Tim Faircloth)

5. Beginners will learn a lot about wine in a week.

By this mid-point of the cruise, we were learning more about wine and starting to recognise the mysterious aromatic elements extolled by impeccably dressed sommeliers. We were noticing the flavours of green apples, peach and grapefruit with hints of flower petals, lime sherbet and salt. This sudden progress in our wine appreciation journey may have been aided by the surroundings of the countryside where the grapes are grown. Perhaps one sense aids the other.

The more wine we tasted, the more we decided that great wine doesn't necessarily mean expensive or inapproachable; it means approachable, fun, and maybe something a little different. Or sometimes it’s simply something familiar like a glass of crisp ‘sav blanc’ that pleases your palate, regardless of labels or price.

6. Hawke’s Bay offers a different style of white.

With the South Island’s two main wine regions of Central Otago and the Marlborough Valley explored and tasted, Azamara Quest set course for the art deco port of Napier on the North Island. The good news for wine lovers is that 30 minutes’ drive from Napier is Hawke’s Bay, another cherished district on the NZ wine trail.

Different in landscape to the verdant Marlborough, Hawke’s Bay is rugged and dry, with an almost French Provincial feel. Here the vines have to work much harder to bed down through sand and clay, seeking out vital nutrients. The result is a lovely sauvignon blanc with pop and sizzle.

Hawke's Bay winery with sheep near Napier port, NZ (Photo: Tim Faircloth)

Once again the senses are in complete overload when arriving at the region’s finest offering, Craggy Range Estate. This is a gorgeous winery which deserves a few hours to absorb the manicured grounds and taste your way through the samples, followed by lunch with a glass of your favourite.

NZ$10 per person is incredible value to try half a dozen premium varieties in such opulent surroundings. For an extra NZ$50, your taste buds can be further indulged with a local cheese and charcuterie board. Sitting back on the comfy outdoor lounges overlooking vines, lakes and Te Mata Peak on a warm New Zealand summer’s day is pretty close to perfection. In fact, it was so good that we almost missed the ship’s departure back in Napier, making it with only a few minutes to spare.

7. The food is simpler and lighter than found on other cruise ships.

The culinary aspect of this food and wine cruise, and every Azamara sailing, is exceptional. While some cuisine-focused brands tend to serve lots of rich dishes, Azamara Quest’s Chef Colin prefers simpler, lighter fare, focusing on freshness and inspired by the produce of the region.

Food and Beverage Manager, Fabio, explained how Chef Colin continually pushes the budget by purchasing locally sourced produce. He also insists his team only cooks in small batches or to order, rather than the usual ship’s galley methods of making hundreds of meals at once.

To go more gourmet, reserve the ‘Chef’s Table’ (extra cost) for six intricate dishes worthy of any Michelin-starred restaurant on land.

Food on Azamara Quest (Photo: Tim Faircloth)

8. NZ is ripe and ready to enjoy now.

When you strip it all back, it doesn't matter which wine comes from where; it’s what makes you happy. Ultimately, good winemaking is all about great weather, soil, grapes and people, all of which New Zealand has in barrel loads. So don't postpone that NZ cruise. Alaska and the Med can wait, but New Zealand is ripe and ready to enjoy right now.

Azamara’s Summer 2019/2020 intensive New Zealand program is now available for booking.

Azamara Quest in Milford Sound NZ (Photo: Tim Faircloth)