Wine tasting in the Wairarapa

Martinborough's come a long way since its first Pinot Noir plantings

Photo: Tranzit Tours

It’s a Sunday morning,  the sun is sparkling on Wellington Harbour, there’s no wind and Wellington could not look prettier, seen from the train as it snakes its way up the coast. We’re on the way to Martinborough –specifically, a handful of Martinborough vineyards, for the day.

From Wellington, it’s an hour by train to Featherston, and from there, a 20km bus trip to Martinborough in the southern Wairarapa. Those 79km between the capital and Martinborough separate two vastly different climates. Who could have predicted the success Martinborough has enjoyed as a wine region? Hot summers, long, dry autumns, and free-draining soils thanks to its location on an ancient riverbed all combine to provide ideal conditions for growing Pinot Noir, the variety for which the region is best known.

Its Pinot Noir is often compared to Burgundy, which has a similar climate and soil. Wellington doctors Neil McCallum and Derek Milne saw the similarity back in the late 70s and founded Dry River Wines and Martinborough Vineyard, respectively – Dry River named after the riverbed on which the vineyards are planted.

Our last train stop is Featherston, where we’re collected by the Wairarapa Gourmet Wine Escapes coach and driven to Martinborough in the south Wairarapa.

Martinborough is an exquisite little town of well-preserved colonial buildings and an extraordinary number of vineyards. Its population is just 1300, padded out in the weekends by numerous Wellington-based home owners – and by another 10,000 during the annual Toast Festival in November.

Our first stop is at Te Kairanga, one of Martinborough’s older vineyards. In fact you couldn’t really’ call any Martinborough vineyard old: its vineyards only date back to the 1970s. In fact, the first vines were planted there in the late 19th century but it took nearly another century for winemaking to take off here. The majority of the 30-plus wineries here are boutique, family-owned businesses, with small yields producing exceptional-quality wine.

The difference in climate between the Wairarapa and Wellington, only one-and-a-half-hour’s drive away, is striking. Temperatures regularly hit the mid-30s up here and 40-degree days aren’t unheard of. Wellington harbour may have been sparkling in the sunlight this morning, but you don’t get days as hot as that in the capital.

There are picnic areas in the garden at Te Kairanga, but we sit at a table outside the main building, The Cottage, built from totara in the 1880s by Martinborough’s founder, Irish immigrant John Martin.

Martin designed the town centre in the shape of the Union Jack and named streets after places he’d visited on a tour of Europe and America in 1875.

We sample a Terroir Select Gewürztraminer (made from grapes grown elsewhere), and from the Estate Range, the Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling and Pinot Noir. Then two from the Runholder Range: the Pinot Noir and Syrah, and the Casarina Reserve Chardonnay.

From Te Kairanga, we’re taken to the Village Café for an excellent lunch of antipasto and Caesar salad, accompanied by a glass of rosé.

Then we’re off to the smallest of the four wineries on our tour, Muirlea Rise. Owner and wine maker Shawn Brown’s father Willie established the vineyard nearly 25 years ago. Shawn gives us a fascinating insight into the business of growing grapes and producing wine and bottling wine and dealing with the weather and birds. I would say give this man his own TV show right now, but that would take him away from what he does so well: produce some of the finest Pinot Noir I’ve ever tasted. We’re also treated to a Muirlea red blend, Justa Red, a lovely fortified wine, Apres, and to the only mention we hear all day of Martinborough’s mystery grape, sometimes referred to as the ‘Mad Vine’, which is the basis for Apres.

Originally mistaken as Syrah, the mystery vine is unique to Martinborough and its origins remain unknown – or at least secret; there are various rumours as to when it was planted here and by whom, but no one is saying.

The first grapes at Schubert Wines were planted in 1988 by German immigrants Kai Schubert and Marion Deimling, who looked all over the world for ideal conditions for growing Pinot Noir before they settled on Martinborough. They’ve since won a swag of awards, particularly for their Pinot Noir, which we sample at the cellar door, along with a rose, a sauvignon blanc, and a dolce. Schubert exports most of its wines, to around 30 other countries. So they’ve come full circle, bringing their passion for wine across the globe to Martinborough, selling overseas, and winning awards all round the world.

Our last visit is to Murdoch James Estate, established in 1986 with plantings of Syrah and Pinot Noir. It’s a popular wedding venue, a little out of town, with expansive grounds and – thankfully – a nice, cool room where we lounge on couches to taste the wines (it’s late afternoon by now, and the sun is beating down). We start with Riesling, a Pinot Gris and the Trafalgar – a blend of Sauvignon and Riesling, then move on to the reds – a Saleyards Syrah, The McIntyre, a fortified red, and another memorable Pinot Noir.

And that’s it for the wine tastings, but before we leave town, we stop at Ingredient for a platter of fine local cheeses, then stock up at the Wine Centre, which sells wine from most of the wineries here, and delivers around the country and overseas.

More info

Wairarapa Gourmet Wine Escapes
For $182 per person, the tour includes return train tickets from Wellington, the bus tour from Featherston, tastings at four vineyards, lunch in Martinborough, and a cheese platter. On weekdays, the train leaves Wellington at 8.25am and returns at 5.20pm; on weekends it departs Wellington at 9.55am and returns at 6.30pm.

Schubert Wines
Schubert Wines

Murdoch James
Murdoch James