Martinborough has so many vineyards within cycling distance it gives it a charming South of France feel. Surrounded by steep mountains, the flat region is windy which means fewer grapes grow but the ones that survive are tenacious and intense, leading to some world-class wine. A long autumn is excellent for ripening the celebrity of grapes: Pinot Noir, closely followed by the equally popular Sauvignon Blanc, and then lesser-grown varieties: Riesling, Syrah, Cabernet Franc, Pinot Gris and Gewurztraminer. Like its wine, Martinborough’s full of character, from the town square which conjures up images of croquet and maypoles, to the tales of many winemakers who gave up careers or city life to follow their viticultural dreams.
Here’s our pick of known and not so well known vineyards from an entertaining cellar door experience to extremely sought after handcrafted wines.
Captain Cook was so taken with the wild coastline of the lower east coast of New Zealand he named it after his Admiral, Hugh Palliser. Like its namesake, Palliser Estate, is steeped in history and is now the largest winery in the area, producing award-winning wine drunk around the world. The underground cellar is as vast as the range of wines on offer including Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and special Methode Traditionnelle. Winemakers, Allan Johnson and Pip Goodwin are not only wine zealots, the five estate dogs are often seen romping amongst the vines and their vintage-only Dog Series is terrific. If you’re visiting in the summer, stop and stay for a game of petanque with a bottle of your favourite vintage and a platter from their summer only kitchen.
The best way to experience Muirlea Rise is taking their ‘vine to bottle’ tour. It’s only an hour but as this boutique vineyard is so small you get to see more than you would on a large vineyard. Winemaker, Shaun Brown, who has taken over the reigns from his father, will teach you everything from harvesting to ageing plus he’s funny, so it makes it that much more enjoyable. You’ll come away drenched in good knowledge and able to swill and spit with the best of them. While there, taste Shawn’s Cabernet Syrah blend with the famous ‘mystery grape’ along with his Pinot Noir.
Pinot Noir, the holy grail of grapes, has lured many international winemakers into Martinborough with high hopes, including Kai Schubert and Marion Deimling. Both from Germany, they’re graduates from Geisenheim University of Viticulture and Oenology, and they looked at Oregon, Europe and Australia before settling on New Zealand in 1998. They’re now among the world’s top pinot noir producers and most of their wine goes offshore so this is the best place to taste Schubert, and hear the story from the source. There’s a fantastic European feel to their cellar door from tasting glasses imported from Switzerland to strange wondrous offshore bottles lining the walls.
Clive Paton was a rugby-playing farmer with a passion for red wine he couldn’t afford, so in typical kiwi style he figured out how to make it himself, along with sister Alison, and wife, Phyll. 27 years later, you won’t find a best Pinot Noir List anywhere without Ata Rangi on it. Honoured with the Tipuranga Teitei – ‘Grand Cru’ of New Zealand, Ata Rangi is enjoyed globally. Organic and ISO 14001 certified, they practice large-scale biodiversity and are pioneers in conservation and sustainable winegrowing. Occasionally Clive can be found in the cellar and he’ll tell you all about it himself.
Poppy Hammond isn’t the only female winemaker in Martinborough but she’s one of the most passionate. Visiting her cellar door, and meeting Shayne, her partner is a highly rated experience. Their food platters are as legendary as the stylish surroundings. New York loft style, it’s full of eclectic pieces from a six metre long velvet couch to a 1930 replica sports car, and is often booked for weddings – so call before planning a visit. Best known for the whites: Pinot Gris, Riesling, Chardonnay and Gewurztraminer, it is all expertly matched to food. And if it’s sunny, the courtyard’s a place to while away an afternoon.
It’s important to visit Tirohana on an empty stomach, as you will want to languish over a meal once you're there: lunch or dinner. The wine’s won awards over the years but you don’t go just for the Reserve Pinot Noir. There’s the award-winning Anglo-French cuisine from chef Saranne James, open fire, views of the vines, Italian slash Mexican décor with fine art and leather couches to get lost in. You might get the chance to talk to owner, Raymond Thomson, BAFTA judge and BBC writer*, or equally lively restaurant manager Toby who’s an eclectic mix of old school formal with terrific wit.
Pinot Noir is notoriously hard to grow and called ‘the heartbreak grape’, inspiring mystery and awe. Valeria and Don Worsdale, behind Devotus wines, have devoted everything to this petulant grape and it’s paid off. Pinot Noir is the only variety they grow and their 2016 Vintage sold out in the first six months. They’re not on the popular wine tours because you can’t rock up and talk to the winemakers. So while it may seem like a tease telling you about a vineyard you can’t visit, this wine is a must taste. Head to Microbar or Wine Merchants to try some.
Kiwis, Kathryn Jacobs and Jeremy Corban, came home from France in 2005 with one big ambition: to make world class wines. They chose the high alluvial terraces above Martinborough’s Huangarua River to realise their dream. With warm days and cool nights under the big open sky, its ideal grape growing conditions. 12 years on and they’re producing handcrafted Pinot Noir and Sauvignon Blanc wines that are so sought after they are hard to get hold of in New Zealand. Most kiwis haven’t heard of them yet Big Sky’s one of the best of the region.
Kusuda is another vineyard you can’t visit (yes we're teasing again) but it produces such incredible wines it’s worth buying a bottle in town and having a picnic. Wine-maker, Hiroyuki Kusuda, worked for Fujitsu in Japan before giving up law to pursue his dream of making Pinot Noir. He studied German, enrolled at the Geisenheim, and then moved to Martinborough in 2002 to make it happen. Every summer he brings over 50 volunteers from Japan to hand pick the grapes. He’s known to be almost fanatical about every detail and it comes through in the quality of his wine, which now has a cult following – in Japan and around the world.
It hasn’t been scientifically proven that music has a harmonious effect on grape growing but it certainly has a positive effect on the workers. At Coney vineyard, music blasts around the 10,000 vines, and lyrics flow through every detail – from poems on the back of each bottle to Tim Coney, the owner occasionally bursting into song or poetry in their Trio café. All the grapes are musically named: Rallentando or Ragtime Riesling, Ramblin’ Rose, Pizzicato Pinot Noir, Piccolo Pinot Gris and Que Sera Syrah. Tim and Margaret Coney come from a much-loved New Zealand family and visiting their vineyard is much-loved entertainment. (Please note Trio café is closed August and September).