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Friday 24 January 2014

Martinborough: small town, huge reputation

Martinborough is a tiny New Zealand town with a very big reputation on the global wine stage. 
With a population of just 1300 permanent residents, Martinborough is situated in the southern Wairarapa region on the southern tip of the North Island and is hugely popular as a weekend getaway for residents of the capital of Wellington, which is just a one-hour drive away.

Martinborough has established itself as a European-style “wine village” producing some of the best pinot noir in the country - and some very decent chardonnays. Riesling and pinot gris also do well but the region produces less than three percent of New Zealand’s wines - because it is dominated by small family-owned wineries.

Nonetheless, its cellar doors are often full to the brim on sunny weekends and the main square, laid out in the shape of a union jack in 1881, is very much the centre of activities.

Martinborough pinot noir, particularly from producers like Ata Rangi, Escarpment and Martinborough Vineyard is outstanding, but chardonnay also thrives, as does riesling, which is generally made in a sweeter style, pinot gris and sauvignon blanc.

In and around town, wineries to note include Palliser Estate, Murdoch James, Martinborough Vineyard, Ata Rangi (right), Vynfields, Te Kairanga, Tirohana Estate, Dry River, Alana Estate and Schubert.

Although several of the best cellar doors are within walking distance of each other, the greater Wairarapa wine region extends well out of the town into Masterton, Gladstone and other hamlets worth exploring.

Palliser Estate was part of the first wave of wineries to become established in Martinborough with first plantings in 1984 and continues to be one of the regional leaders. 

Ata Rangi is one of New Zealand’s most famous wineries and offers an excellent tasting experience in a leafy setting with friendly and extremely knowledgeable cellar door staff. It has been a Martinborough style leader for over 30 years.

Murdoch James is a familiar name with Australian wine buyers and it is one of the Martinborough region’s most popular cellar doors, offering “Grape to Glass” tours that include the winery and barrel cave. Roger and Jill Fraser were regional pioneers and the company is expanding after Chinese investment.

Cambridge Road is one of the newest producers in Martinborough – and young vigneron Lance Redgwell is making some outstanding wines, particularly pinot noir and syrah, grown in tiny quantities using biodynamic principles. Open weekends or by appointment.

Martinborough Vineyard (below) is regularly listed among New Zealand’s leading producers and has won an award for the world’s best pinot noir a couple of years ago. It has a friendly cellar door with a wide range of styles available for tastings. Platters are offered during summer.
The much-loved Wendy Campbell’s French Bistro/Café, a regular award winner, closed a couple of years ago, but there are still several good dining options.

Bloom at Murdoch James Estate offers spectacular views and a lovely ambience just a short drive out of town. The menu matches dishes like confit chicken leg with roasted new potatoes and coq au vin garnish with wines by the glass. Desserts are a speciality and sitting on the deck is most enjoyable during summer months.

Tirohana Estate restaurant offers both fine dining and casual meals at lunch and dinner. There is an open fire in winter and vineyard views. Think dishes like lamb shank on bubble and squeak with wilted spinach and wine jus, or confit duck and chorizo cassoulet with rocket and red onion salad.

Cool Change is a café and bar on the main square that’s popular with local winemakers. The dining room features booth seating, an open fire, period lighting and retro wallpaper. Italian-inspired cuisine is the drawcard here.

Poppies Martinborough, the brainchild of former Dry River winemaker Poppy Hammond and her husband Shayne, offers "fine wine and fantastic food in a relaxed, boutique vineyard setting”.

Also try Micro Wine Bar, Circus, Pinocchio, Vynfields Café and Wine Bar, Taste Vine @ Margrain, and Trio Café at Coney Wines.

Accommodation options range from Peppers Parehua Country Estate, one the leading resorts in the region and just a short walk from Martinborough village, to the The Martinborough Hotel (right), where the verandah rooms are in the original 1882 building, while the courtyard houses seven spacious garden rooms furnished in rustic style.

The Petit Hotel, Aylestone Retreat and The Claremont are all popular, while Pinot Villas is just off the main square and features self-contained one- and two-bedroom villas and suites, while Margrain Vineyard Villas are surrounded by vines and offer a country ambience just a stroll from downtown.

Wharekauhau Country Estate is one of New Zealand’s best known luxury lodges, overlooking Palliser Bay on a working farm on the fringe of the Martinborough vineyards. Facilities include an indoor pool, fitness centre, spa treatments, tennis, croquet, pétanque and archery.

The Toast Martinborough wine festival, which increases the population to 10,000, is held annually on the third Sunday in November.

The surrounding Wairarapa region is dotted with small vineyards and wineries. Look out for Gladstone Vineyard (the lunches are terrific), Clear River Estate, Paddy Borthwick, Paper Road, Loopline Vineyard and Urlar.

Greytown is a lovely spot to stop and browse through antique stores and boutiques and is also home to the Wairarapa Wine Centre, with a wide variety of local boutique offerings. Golfing, horse trekking, boating, coastal walks and fishing are all popular local pastimes.

Qantas and Air New Zealand both have regular daily flights to Wellington.,

All major car hire companies have desks at the airport. Martinborough is 65 kilometres north-east of Wellington over the Rimatuka Range (beware: this is a twisting drive on narrow roads).,,

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