Even those with a decent grasp of New Zealand geography will struggle to locate the Wairarapa region, a glorious expanse of wild coastline, rolling, green hills, clapboard towns and empty roads on the south-east corner of the North Island.
For a new generation of New Zealand wine-drinkers, especially in the capital Wellington, the Wairarapa is synonymous with only one thing: the Pinot grape. But apart from Wellington’s BMW-driving wine buffs, few people venture across ˜the hill’, as the locals call the vertigo-inducing Rimutaka range, to the Wairarapa – a place many New Zealanders still consider something of a backwater.
The newly-created Classic New Zealand Wine Trail (www. nzwinetrail.co.nz) -linking Hawke’s Bay with Martinborough and the surrounding wine-growing regions – should help remove any lingering prejudice against the Wairarapa. Billled as a ˜self-drive
tour through New Zealand’s prestigious wine regions’, the 380km trail snakes Napier south to Wellington where dedicated wine enthusiasts can take the ferry across Cook Strait to explore the Marlborough vineyards (such as Cloudy Bay) aroun Blenheim Although New Zealand has more glamorous wine destinations (Waiheke island or Central Otago, for instance) the Classic New Zealand Wine Trail offers a rare chance to explore a region still largely untouched by the Lord of the Rings frenzy. Outside the thriving wine centres of Martinborough and Hawke’s Bay, the visitor wilt find an idyllic, time-capsule New Zealand. While crowds throng to Rotorua, Taupo and the Bay of Islands, the North Island’s eastern flank remains gloriously unfashionable. Some of the smaller towns don’t even possess an espresso machine. What they do have is wide, open skies, –
and Martinborough Vineyard now enjoy a strong following in Britain, Australia and the USA. The annual wine event, Toast Martinborough Wine, Food & Music Festival (held in November), is now the country’s biggest, attracting more than 10,000 devotees.
Another turning point came nine years ago when a well-heeled Englishman called Mike Laven and his New Zealand-born wife, Sally, bought and refurbished the town’s imposing Victorian hostelry. The Martinborough Hotel. Laven, originally from Aylesbury, had made his money selling property in Hong Kong in the 1980s and was looking for a new challenge, and a healthier environment for his young family. ˜When I first came here from Hong Kong my eyes were sore for the first few months,’ he jokes. –
This is a very conservative place. I don’t think you’ll ever see a McDonald’s here – they’d blow it up.’
I just wasn’t used to looking at light as pure as this.’