Over the hills and (not so) far away from Wellington, New Zealand’s lush Wairarapa wine region bottles-up perfect pinot noir, with foodie culture to match.
Wairarapa is the sprawling tract of land northeast of Wellington, just a one-hour drive over the craggy, mist-shrouded Remutaka Range. The unhurried lifestyle here is a real gear-shift down from Wellington’s urban buzz — but it’s the local vineyards and attendant foodie haunts that have turned the region into Wellington’s favourite naughty-weekender.
Photogenic Martinborough is the hub of the action.
Laid out in the shape of a Union Jack around a leafy square, the town is laced with gorgeous heritage architecture and surrounded by a patchwork of pastures and pinstripe grapevines. It’s possible to walk between the big-ticket wineries here, but the classic Martinborough sight is of pelotons of cheery cyclists becoming increasingly wobbly as their wine-tasting afternoon progresses. Nearby Greytown and Clareville offer some excellent cafes and bakeries, while the wineries around Gladstone and Masterton are also on the up (… and don’t miss the Gladstone Inn!).
Interestingly, the Wairarapa wine industry was nearly crushed in infancy. The first vines were planted here in 1883, but in 1908 the prohibition movement put a cap on that corker of an idea. It wasn’t until the late 1970s that winemaking took off again. A few commercial vineyards soon sprang up, the number since ballooning to around 30 across the region. Pinot noir is Wairarapa’s raison d’etre, but sauvignon blanc also does well here, as do aromatics and syrah.
The Wairarapa’s well-oiled cellar doors swing open for tastings. Most wineries charge a tasting fee (usually waived if you buy a bottle), although some will let you taste for free. Some have a cafe or restaurant; others will rustle up a picnic platter to enjoy outside.
Start your Wairarapa foodie tour in Martinborough, with a visit to the first vineyard to plant pinot noir here — an event that transpired way back in 1980. The founders conducted a detailed survey across New Zealand to determine the best place to grow pinot noir vines, seeking to match the climate of Burgundy in France, the home of perfect pinot — warm days, cool nights, low rainfall and free-draining soils.
The Wairarapa wine industry was born, and Martinborough Vineyard is now a local legend with a sterling international reputation.
The cellar door is on-site at Te Kairanga vineyard.
Te Kairanga Cellar Door, 89 Martins Rd, Martinborough; (06) 306-9122; www.martinboroughvineyard.co.nz; open 11am-4pm daily.
Sure, Martinborough does a fine line in stylish, upmarket cellar doors, but there’s also room here for a little quirkiness and offbeat humour.
Welcome to Coney Wines! Fingers crossed that your tasting host will be the inimitable Tim Coney (older brother of NZ cricketing legend Jeremy) — an affable character who makes a mighty shiraz and may randomly burst into song. It’s also home to the excellent Trio Cafe; bookings recommended.
A107 Dry River Rd, Martinborough; (06) 306-8345; www.coneywines.co.nz; open Friday-Sunday (Dec-Mar), 11am-4pm; Saturday & Sunday only (Oct, Nov and Apr-Jul), 11am-4pm.
Mesita Wine Bar
Hankering for another vino and the last cellar door has closed for the evening? Make a beeline for Mesita, a tiny side-street wine bar in central Martinborough (follow the vintage rock from the main street).
Inside are excellent wines — mostly locals with some far-flung stars — plus craft beers, killer cocktails and Mexican-inspired nibbles.
Four-pinot tasting flights are a good way to sample the vineyards that got away.
14c Ohio St, Martinborough; (06) 306-8475; www.mesita.net; open Monday, Thursday & Friday, 4pm-late, Saturday & Sunday, from 2pm.
It’s hard to go anywhere in New Zealand these days and not find a craft brewery bubbling away in the corner. Martinborough is no exception — and if you’re more into pilsner than pinot, this little side-street brewer is the place for you. Actually, the vibe here is more complementary than contra when it comes to Martinborough’s wineries: the beer here is awesome (try the Black Nectar oatmeal stout), but no-one is under any illusions as to why the Wairarapa is on the foodie tourism map! Sip a tasting paddle or a pint on the sunny terrace out the front. Tours by arrangement.
10 Ohio St, Martinborough; (06) 306-6249; www.martinboroughbeer.com; open Monday & Tuesday, 2pm-7pm; Thursday-Sunday, 11am-8pm.
Food Forest Organics
In recent years this picturesque slice of New Zealand’s rural heartland has gained an unlikely Hollywood connection, with blockbuster movie directors Sir Peter Jackson and James Cameron both putting down Wairarapa roots. The ecofriendly sentiments in Cameron’s Avatar series aren’t an aberration: Cameron is a committed vegan, and this health-food store in photogenic Greytown, 18km north of Martinborough, features organic products from the Cameron Family Farms (www.cameronfamilyfarms nz): fresh Wairarapa produce, honey, candles, moisturisers …
Call in for a not-chicken pie, a salad bowl or some borscht for lunch. There’s also apartment accommodation upstairs if you feel like a snooze.
101 Main St, Greytown; (06) 304-9790; www.foodforestorganics.co.nz; open Wednesday-Sunday, 9.30am-4.30pm.
On the highway just north of Carterton, around 8km north of Greytown, this outstanding little bakery-cafe is a Wairarapa institution, famous for sourdough bread, lamb-cutlet pies, steak sandwiches and lavash-style crackers. If you’re looking to shake off the remnants of yesterday’s cellar-door pursuits, look no further. There’s also garden seating, a kids’ play zone, regular live music and an ocean-sized car park (a huge car park being the primary indicator of a bad pub or a good cafe). Shovel into some Basque eggs and tune-in to the local conversation: fields, vines, fields with vines in them … I could go on forever.
3340 SH2, Clareville; (06) 379-5333; www.theclarevillebakery.co.nz; open Monday-Saturday 7.30am-4pm.
Gladstone, 15km east of Clareville, is less a town, more a state of mind.
There’s actually very little here except a handful of vineyards, some sheep-filled paddocks, a few fences and this classic old timber pub — actually a replacement for the original 1871 boozer, which burned down in 1934.
These days it’s a haven for thirsty locals, back-road bikers, Sunday drivers and lazy afternoon sippers, who hog the tables in the glorious garden bar by the river.
There’s plenty of craft beer on tap, plus bodacious steaks and pizzas.
A Wairarapa foodie
571 Gladstone Rd, Gladstone; (06) 372-7866; www.gladstoneinn.co.nz; open Tuesday-Sunday, 11am-late.
Wairarapa Farmers’ Market
Drive 16km north of Gladstone and wind up your foodie tour in Masterton, Wairarapa’s biggest town and service hub. It’s a far cry from Martinborough’s gourmet offerings — Masterton is more business than boutique — but there’s a great little cinema here (www.thescreeningroom.co.nz) plus the region’s best farmers’ market. Near the Waipoua River, this effervescent mart fills the trestle tables to overflowing every Saturday morning, rain or shine. Bring your hunger, and an appreciation for buskers of varying repute.
4 Queen St, Masterton; (06) 377-1107; www.waifarmersmarket.org.nz; open Saturday 9am-1pm.