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Every Wednesday, we cover a different wine region around the world for our Wine Wednesday series and have so far visited both the Old and New Worlds in countries from Australia to Austria and from Chile to France. Today we head back south of the equator to New Zealand – a country that, though it produces just under 5% of the world’s wine has had an outsize influence across the globe. TPG Managing Editor Eric Rosen takes us on a day trip from Wellington to one of its lesser-known wine regions, the little town of Martinborough.
Although most folks thing of that other “M” wine region when you talk about New Zealand – yes, I’m talking about Marlborough and all the crisp “savvies” that come from it – Martinborough is a veritable oenophilic gem, and at just an hour’s drive from Wellington, is a great place for a day visit during your New Zealand’s North Island. Home to some of the country’s best known producers, this little area is known for its distinguished Pinot Noirs, and once you taste them, you’ll understand why.
Although Wellington is New Zealand’s capital, it is just a tenth the size of Auckland, so chances are you’ll be transiting through there to get here and you’ll most likely be taking Air New Zealand (a member of Star Alliance) unless you’re coming from somewhere else like Australia. The Wellington International Airport is small but nice and is serviced by Air New Zealand, Jet Star, Qantas, Virgin Australia and several regional airlines, so you can find connections to other points throughout New Zealand and Australia. It’s just about a 15-minute drive from the central business district and easily accessible by taxi, though you can also catch the Airport Flyer bus, which departs every 20 minutes.
In terms of getting out to the hamlet of Martinborough itself, renting a car and driving along Wellington Harbour then through a winding mountain pass to the Wairarapa Valley only takes about an hour, and the road is very well maintained. You can also opt for a day tour with one of several companies including Martinborough Wine Tours or Tranzit Tours if you don’t feel like doing a self-guided trip.
Where To Stay
Although it’s a charming little villages and does have some hotels including the 19th-century Martinborough Hotel right on the town’s main square and the more standardized Peppers Martinborough, most folks tend just to make a day trip of it and stay in Wellington.
The capital has a lot more options including a Novotel (part of Accor), the eccentric but hip Museum Hotel near the harbor, the imposing Te Papa Museum, and the trendy shops, restaurants and bars of Cuba Street, and the city’s most deluxe accommodations at the Intercontinental, which is right in the heart of the central business district and close to the iconic Wellington Cable Car, which you can take up the hill for panoramic views of the city and the harbor.
Martinborough has the quaint country charm of a Sonoma or Barossa from decades ago. The town is actually named after a man named John Martin who was a local businessman here in the 19th century and is responsible for laying out the town’s streets in a Union Jack configuration (very patriotic!). The streets are named after places Martin visited on his travels, and many of the structures that dot the quiet streets and gracious main square date from that time, though they now house cafes, tasting bars, boutiques and restaurants.
That’s not to say Martinborough is sleepy, exactly. It’s got a bustling tourism trade, its restaurants and bars are usually packed in the summer, and this region has been producing some of New Zealand’s most award-winning wines for decades now.
Start your visit to town at the Settlers Bar at the Martinborough Hotel on Memorial Square where you can grab a café au lait (it’s called a flat white here) and chat up the locals before heading around the corner to the Village Café, which also houses the Martinborough Wine Centre to taste some of the local wines, pick up a map of the area get your bearings and decide which wineries you want to visit – most of which are within a 10-minute drive of town.
Not to miss is one of Martinborough’s most esteemed wineries and one that’s become well-known far beyond New Zealand’s shores, Ata Rangi. The tasting room is in a humble little house where the friendly staff will casually chat you up while offering you pours of the current releases. This is a great place to get a benchmark for the style of wines that have put Martinborough on the map, so be sure to taste any of the fruit-driven yet finely structured and balanced Pinot Noirs they’ve got open.
Around the corner is less-known winery but one well worth visiting called Te Kairanga, where the elegant and light Pinot Noir and florally aromatic Pinot Gris are excellent expressions of the region’s cool-climate wines.
If you need a quick break from the wines, take a stroll through olive groves and taste the freshly pressed oils and other gourmet goodies at Olivo before continuing on to Margrain Vineyard for a casual gourmet lunch with wine pairings. For something a little more casual, you can head back into town for a light lunch at est wine bar & eatery, which is housed in the town’s former 19th-century post office.
On your way out of town back on the road to Wellington stop for one final tasting at another big name in New Zealand wines, Palliser, which helped put Martinborough on the wine world map with its high-end boutique wines. Their Pinot Noirs are some of New Zealand’s finest, though you can also try something a little different with tastes of their Riesling and even sparkling champagne-style wines.
It might not make as many wines or be as well known as New Zealand’s other “M” wine region, but Martinborough is a world-class region in its own right and well worth a visit if you find yourself in Wellington.