DEVOTED TO PINOT NOIR
“She’s very delicate and has to be handled with care”
We exchanged a glance. Did the vintner just refer to the grapes as a “she”? Yes, such is the devotion to one particularly fickle varietal, the elegant and delicate light red Pinot Noir, in this unique and decidedly boutique wine region.
Martinborough ‘wine village’ lies in the Wairapara region about 65 km from New Zealand’s capital Wellington. Vines were originally planted here at the behest of a homesick French woman, Madam Beetham, the wife of a local landowner. With a climate similar to Burgundy, Martinborough produces some of New Zealand’s (and the world’s) best Pinot Noir. The ‘region’ is tiny, village-like, the wineries and cellar doors dotted around the town.
We didn’t have our own transport, so we hired bikes from Green Jersey. It must get busy at peak times because there was an incredible choice of cycling options ranging from the novel to the bizarre. We resisted the temptation of a tandem. Taking care to follow the principal rule of the road, “keep it safe and classy,” we set off to explore.
Our first stop was Palliser Estate, situated in beautifully manicured gardens. As for most cellar doors in the region there is a small tasting fee, usually $5 per person, but this is redeemable against purchase. It’s a good way to alleviate ‘taster’s guilt’ and to discourage boozy tour bus freeloaders.
Is there anything better than cycling through the vines? A short ride took us to Martinborough Vineyard. Excellent wines again, but we got distracted by sampling the locally distilled
Lighthouse Gin. Served neat, on the rocks, emphasising the botanicals- and also the alcohol. Now our day was truly up and running and it was only 11 a.m. (It’s an early start from Wellington- the train to Featherston departs at 8.21am).
It was at Magrain Wines that the personification of the grape as ‘she’ occurred. A $10 tasting menu offered the chance to sample a dozen of the hilariously described wines, including the 2015 Reserve Pinot Noir:
“Deep, dark and gargantuanly handsome, it muscles its way down court like a 7-foot tall moustachioed basketball centre, sweeping all in its path…”
Lunch, Afro-Spanish tapas style, was at Luna Estates and Kitchen. Thereafter a stop at Gewurtztraminer specialists, the Alpine chalet-style Hawthornwaite Wines, where our only wine purchase of the day of this aromatic varietal (excellent with spicy Asian food) did not appear to possess the redeeming power of the other cellar doors.
A quick visit to Ata Rangi for a final Pinot Noir tasting and then the short ride back to the bus stop in the town centre for the last and only bus-train connection back to Wellington. Therein lies half the adventure. Seeing that the public bus was running worryingly late, a wine tour minibus driver kindly offered to take us to Featherston Station. “If we leave right now, you’ll be fine,” she reassured us. At that moment, the overdue number 205 careened around the corner and picked us up for an anxious 18 km white knuckle dash for the train.
If visiting Martinborough, you can choose to go on a commercial wine tour but you still have to make your own way to Featherston. It’s way more fun by bike, at your own classy (or otherwise) pace. One of my 2017 favourites. Just don’t miss the last train.
Additional photography by kathryn_mcc.