Soothing Surrounds And A Decent Drop (Or Two)

11 April 2015
Read Time: 3.0 mins

It was 35 years ago that winemakers started buying up land around the North Island town of Martinborough convinced they could produce some impressive reds.

They were right. It turned out the area's generous sunshine, chilly nights and soils were ideal for growing pinot noir grapes.

The Wairarapa, with Martinborough at its heart, has transformed from a forgotten place of piercing green pastures, hidden away in the southeastern corner of the island, to an oenophile's playground in recent years.

 Martinborough is the star of the show

Nowadays over one million visitors a year drive the 80km trip up and over the untamed Rimutaka ranges from Wellington - or take the comfy train from the capital - to fill their weekend bags, car boots and stomachs with a selection of the region's hand-crafted wines.

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The Glass Is On A Shoelace Round Your Neck

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The first of the five villages in the Wairarapa that I come to after snaking along State Highway 2 from Wellington is the drive-through-town of Featherston.

(The other villages are: Masterton, the biggest settlement; full-of-cute-shops Greytown; arty Carterton; and of course the star attraction, Martinborough).

I'm here for three days, having planned my Wellington and beyond trip around the Wairarapa Wines Harvest Festival, which is held every March on the grassy banks of the brown trout-filled Ruamahunga River.

 Learning to drink from a glass on a shoelace

Day one I'll spend sniffing and swilling at boutique wineries and the next at the festival, practising drinking from a glass attached to a shoelace hanging around my neck.

The Wairarapa's action packed celebratory calendar also includes festivals for bikes, hot air balloons and the arts, which makes you wonder how they get any wine bottled.

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A Golden Mile Of Vineyards

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The biggest event of them all, attended by 10,000 ticket holders, is the annual Toast Martinborough in November. I base myself in a cottage in the centre of Martinborough, which is in walking or cycling distance to more than 20 wineries.

On the main street I find renting a bike is as straight forward as finding a local wine that has won a handful of awards and trophies.

 The Thomsons ... Scottish expats

The weather couldn't be better: marshmallow clouds bobbing across a denim sky.

In no time I've grabbed a wine-trail map from the local visitor bureau, ditched the car and started to pedal, which has the obvious advantage of allowing me to sample to my heart's content.

My first stop is Ata Rangi, located on Martinborough's golden mile of vineyards on Puruatanga Road. To miss this winery would be like touring the Barossa Valley in South Australia and skipping Penfolds. Run by Clive Paton, his wife Phyll and his sister Ali, Ata Rangi is one of the founding four Martinborough wineries.


Find out about the Island of Wine. Waiheke: Auckland’s Island Of Wine

While you're in Wellington ... Best Coffee Spots in Wellington


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Moving On With A Bottle In The Bag

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At the leafy cellar door I try a luscious riesling, a rose that tastes as fresh as a crunchy watermelon, a young pinot noir called "Crimson" and finally a rock-star of a red: the pinot noir 2012, which costs about $65 a pop.

It's easy to see why this was poured for Prince William and Kate when they dined with the New Zealand prime minister. With a bottle in my bag, it's time to move on.

Yikes, slightly sozzled already.

 The other inhabitants of Borthwick Estate

The other wineries I tick off are: Poppies, which pours a stunning rose; Palliser Estate, where I ooh and aah over everything I taste; and the highly regarded Martinborough Vineyard.

But Wairarapa wine isn't all about Martinborough's golden mile. At the festival on Saturday I sample a dozen wines from the neighbouring Gladstone and Masterton sub-regions. My favourites are the pinot noir and reisling from Borthwick Estate and the entire line-up from Urlar, run by Scottish expats, the Thomson family.

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What Would The 1840s Sheep Drovers Think?

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And then its time to try the region's fancy food: risotto balls at the funky Middle Eastern tapas restaurant Bar Salute in Greytown; lamb cutlet pies in flaky pastry from The Clareville Bakery near Carterton; lime chilli chocolate from Schoc Chocolates, housed in a cottage in Greytown; and soft garlic cheese at C'est Cheese in Featherston.

Back at the hotel I wonder what the farmers who drove the first flock of sheep around the coastline to the Wairarapa in the 1840s would think of the elegant wineries, the Wellingtonians driving swish cars and all the fresh goat cheese platters?

How surprised those graziers would be to hear that the Wairarapa is said to have some of the best pinot noir outside of Burgundy.

But there's so much more to this beautiful place than a decent drop. Visitors also come here to see wild New Zealand: the mountains, the pristine forest, the striking coastline and the entertaining Cape Palliser sea lions.

And that's how I'll spend my Sunday: heading seawards.

So the eating and drinking comes to an end; if I continue consuming like this for more than two days I'll tempt gout. The next day the portable sat-nav goes on the dashboard and the car has a sip of petrol.

Next stop: the ocean.
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Leah Van Der Mark

Leah Van Der Mark is a travel writer specialising in adventurous family travel. She's written for Flight Centre, Luxury Travel magazine, Irish Independent and Ireland's Outsider.