A recent trip to New Zealand led me to the tiny wine town of Martinborough. Let’s not confuse this with Marlborough, the more famous wine region on the north end of the South Island. No, Martinborough is a tiny, picturesque town in the Wairarapa wine region – on the southeast corner of the North Island – and it accounts for only 1 percent of New Zealand’s wine, producing primarily pinot noir and sauvignon blanc. For comparison, consider that the more famous Marlborough region comprises 146 wineries while Wairarapa comprises only 62 (re: www.nzwine.com).
This particular tour I was on included Martinborough’s first winery, the aptly named Martinborough Vineyard. Only 31 years old, the vineyard claimed international attention when it won the Bouchard Finlayson Trophy for best pinot noir in the world at the International Wine and Spirit Challenge in 1997. Winemaker Paul Mason explains that the climate in Martinborough is remarkably similar to Burgundy, France, which also specializes in pinot noir. Martinborough Vineyard only grows 120 acres of grapes, 75 percent of which are pinot noir. (while not certified organic, bonus points to the winery for its organic practices!)
My tour was fortunate to taste two pinot noirs at Martinborough, produced from its youngest and oldest vines. The 2010 Te Tera vintage, from the winery’s newest vines, tasted of sharp tannins and evident alcohol while the 2009 (from the vineyard’s oldest vines) was noticeably more mellow. The 2009 was aged in oak for 12 months which lent a honey scent and savory, mineral flavor to the wine. The 2009 was by far my favorite… and of course costs about twice as much as the 2010 ($70 NZD vs. $32 NZD).
Another winner for me during this tasting was the 2009 chardonnay, from some of the original vines planted at the winery. This chardonnay has a slight butter aroma that belied the heavy buttery taste. But don’t be scared off by the butter; the wine was richly balanced with toast and honey.
Martinborough Vineyards exports about 50 percent of its wine and is distributed nearly worldwide. Don’t worry, my American and Canadian readers, you can find in North America, but it may take some searching.
If you happen to be fortunate enough to travel to New Zealand, take time to stroll through the tiny town of Martinborough. Note the layout of the town square – designed after the Union Jack! (check it out) You can take the train – the Tranz Metro – from Wellington to Martinborough, and get off at Featherston (about an hour-long ride). The all-day excursion ticket to Wairarapa is only $20 NZD and can be purchased at the Wellington station, and there is bus service from the Featherston train station to the town center of Martinborough. I saw several wine-tasters bicycling to wineries, and that would be my top recommendation for hitting the various wineries in town.
Another option is a private tour. Zest Food Tours led the group I was with, and in full disclosure, the tour was built into the price of the conference I attended, so this was a hosted excursion. However, they did a fantastic job! If you want to see the region like a local but with the expertise of a professional, book a tour. They can pick you up from the train station or from your hotel if you’re staying locally, and the tours are for two to four people (if you hate big group tours like I do, this is a huge bonus point!).
Martinborough may not have the name recognition of Marlborough, but it produces some seriously great wine and has earned a solid reputation for its boutique wineries and hand-crafted wines. The countryside is positively idyllic, and is an unexpectedly wonderful way to get away from the bustle of Wellington for a day and explore one of the world’s up-and-coming wine regions.
NOTE: This trip was part of the Society of American Travel Writers National Convention, so many activities such as this wine-tasting tour were included in the registration fee for the convention. I consider it a hosted trip, and I hope my readers do too.