Compared to the hustle and bustle of Marlborough, the pocket-sized Wairarapa
district with the sleepy town of Martinborough at its head comes across
less as a wine-producing region, accounting for 3.5% of the country's vines,
and more like a cottage industry. Much of this is perhaps down to the compact
size of its favoured old Martinborough terrace with its gravely, sandy,
alluvial soils, located a hour's drive east of the country's capital
Another factor is the nature of the winegrowers themselves, often holding
down a professional career during the week, and tending their vines at the
weekends; so more therapy than husbandry, reflected perhaps in the relatively
high land values, making commercial viticultural a tricky proposition. Added to
which, and despite being in a rain shadow, this south-eastern corner of the
North Island is constantly at the mercy of the icy south-easterlies spinning
off the Antarctic, bringing frosts five or six times a year, from flowering
through to harvest. Pinot Noir yields
are therefore often at the 25-30 hl/ha mark.
Just as Cloudy Bay launched a
hundred wineries in Marlborough, so it could be
argued that Dry River Wines and Ata
Rangi provided the spark that lit up Martinborough. While the
region's history dates back to the first commercial vintage of 1893,
prohibition intervened, followed by Marlborough's debut, so Dry River's
inaugural vintage was only in 1979 with Clive Paton releasing Ata Rangi
in 1985. Much of the initial buzz surrounding the region came from the Abel or
`Gumboot' clone of Pinot Noir whose origins apparently lie in a certain Romanée-Conti vineyard.
During the `60/70s, a cutting was allegedly smuggled into New Zealand via a
gumboot, discovered by the then Customs officer Malcolm Abel who in turn
propagated it on the quiet before releasing to Ata Rangi. To this day one sniff
of a barrel of Abel Pinot Noir conjures up visions of Musigny…something
evidently not lost on Nigel Greening, who planted most of his Cornish
Point vineyard with it.
Though Pinot Noir put the region on the map, and continues to turn heads in
the hands of Dr Neil McCallum (Dry River), Clive Paton (Ata Rangi), and,
recently, Chris Archer of Alana
Estate, economically the region's arguably better suited to Sauvignon
Blanc, Riesling and even Gewurztraminer. Unlike Marlborough, or Burgundy for that matter, this
region has to juggle several varieties to make ends meet; not an easy task.
The regional style is dark plum and chocolate black fruit with a
savouriness akin to meat.