Located in the southeastern region of New Zealand’s North Island lies the Wairarapa, an area of big skies, wide valleys and small towns full of character. And in the Wairarapa, at the heart of the classic New Zealand Wine Trail, is Martinborough, a delightful wine village with a population of 1,680. It’s here that some of New Zealand’s most premium wine is made.
The region’s warm days and cool nights, combined with hot summers, dry autumns, and just the right amount of Spring rain, come together to make exceptional wine. Best known for its world-famous pinot noir, Martinborough is worth including on your New Zealand itinerary.
The Best Way to Tour is on Two Wheels
In New Zealand, tasting rooms are known as “cellar doors.” Many of the wineries in Martinborough are small producers and family-owned. The best part about wine tasting here is that most cellar doors are within walking or cycling distance from the center of town. I think the best way to tour this area is on two wheels.
In town, you can rent bikes for the day from the Martinborough Wine Merchants. Each bicycle comes with a basket strapped in front of the handlebars, making it easy to bring a few wine bottles back with you.
My Favorite Cellar Doors
Many visitors come to Martinborough on a day trip from Wellington. But with more than 20 wineries to choose from, I think spending a few days to properly sample the region’s offerings is worthwhile. The scenery surrounding Martinborough and the wineries is stunning. In the Springtime, the nearby hills are green and fresh. As you ride down country roads, you’ll cycle past meadows where baby lambs frolic and play, watched over by their mothers. Flowers bloom everywhere, while bud break starts to bring the grapevines back to life, and you’ll feel like you’re riding through a scene from a Hollywood movie.
You won’t be disappointed with any of the wineries you visit, but here are a few of my favorites:
One of New Zealand’s best-loved wineries, Ata Rangi should be at the top of your list. Gourmet Traveller Wine recently awarded Ata Rangi’s winemaker, Helen Masters, the 2019 NZ Winemaker of the Year. The magazine says, “not to drop by Ata Rangi on a visit to Martinborough would be akin to visiting the Louvre and missing the Mona Lisa.” I couldn’t agree more.
Biodiversity and sustainability are an integral part of Ata Rangi’s grape growing and winemaking operations. The grounds, surrounded by grapevines on a backdrop of the Aorangi Mountains, are quite lovely.
The winery welcomes visitors daily by appointment at 11:00 am and 2:00 pm for small, personalized tastings in their cozy cellar door. Their flagship 2016 pinot noir, a fruity, velvety vintage with notes of juniper and cranberry, found a place in my bike basket at the end of the tasting.
Colombo Martinborough, owned by a German-Kiwi Couple, Thomas and Nicola Rockinger, produces four whites and two reds. Bean bags scattered on the grounds near the vineyards, or tables on the cellar door’s spacious porch, offer visitors a relaxed setting to drink wine.
Pizza and platters are available Thursday through Sunday. But it’s their “No Menu” night that draws in the locals and packs the house. For $20 NZ, once a month, guest chefs prepare a seasonal meal for hungry visitors. On the night I attended chefs from a nearby French restaurant prepared a meal of Cassoulet, a slow-cooked casserole made with lamb, duck, chicken, pork, and white beans. A glass of Colombo’s pinot noir accompanied the dish perfectly.
20 years ago, when owners Kai Schubert and Marion Demling decided to make wine, they conducted a worldwide search for the perfection location. Martinborough met all the criteria, and they settled here. Today Schubert’s wines are prized around the world. Martinborough’s unique climate produces low yields but provides fruit with intense, complex character and a sense of terroir.
The new world 2016 pinot noir from Marion’s Vineyard offers luscious, deep-fruit aromas of raspberries and red cherries.
To get to Coney Wine, you’ll need a car, but it’s well worth the effort. About a ten-minute drive south of town, the winery can be found on a quiet country road. Tim and Margaret Coney started the winery 20 years ago. Tim says, “Wairarapa was a forgotten region” when they first came here. But today, their onsite restaurant fills on the weekends, and their pinot noir sells as far away as the UK.
A musical symbol, part of their logo, comes from their love of music. In fact, all the wines they produce, like “The Ragtime,” reflect music. The Pizzicato 2017, a jammy, spicy pinot noir, was my favorite.
Where to Eat in Martinborough
Where there’s good wine, there’s often good food, and Martinborough is no exception. In addition to several in-town choices, many of the wineries have onsite restaurants. It’s easy to find a wide variety of gourmet food, from Asian inspired dishes to French provincial, and seasonal New Zealand fare.
Margrain Vineyard serves breakfast and lunch Wednesday through Sunday. Guests can sit outside overlooking the vineyards, or inside in the cozy restaurant. You can sample their wines while you eat.
Luna Estate’s secluded yet intimate winery features a cellar door and a kitchen offering Asian inspired dishes. Landscaped gardens and the spacious, elevated patio provide a stunning setting to taste and enjoy their classic cool-climate wines.
For fine dining, the Chaine de Rotisseurs Restaurant at Tirohana Estate Winery should not be missed. Reservations are required for their three-course fixed-price dinner menu. A courtesy shuttle bus is available to transport you to and from your dining experience.
Where to Stay in Martinborough
The Martinborough Hotel, built in 1882 and fully restored in 1996, sits directly across from the village square. Lovingly decorated rooms, named after the region’s early pioneers, reflect the history of the hotel while providing modern comforts. An upscale restaurant, gin bar and pub, serving casual fare, are all part of the hotel.
The Prodigal Daughter Gourmet Lodge, recently opened by globetrotting chef Rachel Priestley, offers guests intimate accommodations in her pretty villa, just a short stroll from the town center. For a truly gastronomic experience, book ahead for dinner in the stunningly decorated dining room. Canapes and a glass of local wine in the evening, and continental breakfast, are included in the nightly rates.
If You Go
Most visitors come to Martinborough by car. But if you’re not too fond of driving on the other side of the road, you can catch a train in Wellington to Featherston. A bus will take you the short distance from the train station to Martinborough. A local taxi can get you there, too.
Regardless of whether you come for a day or a week, you’re sure to fall in love with this delightful wine village.