Close to the southern tip of North Island, some top-class, aromatic Pinot Noir is being made in the sleepy town of Martinborough, with the best rivalling good Burgundy. Compared to the hustle and bustle of Marlborough, the pocket-sized Wairarapa district – with Martinborough at its head – comes across less as a wine-producing region, accounting as it does for three-point-five percent 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 an hour's drive east of the country's capital, Wellington.
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 viticulture a tricky proposition. Added to which, and despite being in a rain shadow, this south-eastern corner of 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, hence 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 1960s or 1970s, 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 it 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, more recently, Chris Archer of Alana Estate, economically the region is arguably better-suited to Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling and even Gewürztraminer. 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.