Martinborough Map

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The countryside around Martinborough is home to 26 small wineries, including Dry River, left gourmet traveller

New Zealand Its outstanding vineyards are within easy driving distance of Wellington, but Martinborough remains wonderfully discreet, says Mark Chipperfield, Photographs by Kieran Scott

If david lynch ever decides to settle in New Zealand, he could do worse than to plump for Martinborough, an affluent, rural township of freshly mown lawns, sparkling colonial architecture and a pervading sense of niceness.

Watching the local farmers double-park their battered pick-ups – with cattle dogs barking on the back – outside the post office every morning, it’s tempting to draw comparisons with Lynch’s Twin Peaks (even the double espresso here is damn fine coffee’)- As in that fictional frontier town, the combination of isolation, pristine nature and an abundance of clean air makes Martinborough irresistible, but also slightly odd. The requisite cast of colourful characters and the occasional political bun-fight add to its charm.

While the South Wairarapa (pronounced wy-rapa’), a wild and sparsely populated farming and fishing region north-east of Wellington, may lack the epic grandeur of the Southern Alps or the photogenic appeal of Lake Taupo, there is something deeply romantic about the landscape. Despite the region’s current vogue as the Pinot Noir capital of the New World, its hamlets and hill farms have changed little since Katherine Mansfield was a girl and the Wairarapa was ruled by a handful of Victorian land speculators with magnificent whiskers.

Some of these wealthy sheep farmers (known locally as runholders’) built themselves Italianate mansions. Others sent their boys home’ to public school in England, or imported European finery. John Martin, an ambitious settler from

the north of Ireland, went one better: he bought himself a town (well, a shed and some fields) in 1879 and changed its name to Martinborough.

Martin, by all accounts a rather pompous man who was lampooned as “the Laird of Rabbitboro’ in the Wellington press, had high hopes for his muddy metropolis.

A patriot, he insisted that the town should fan out from the central square so that the street plan would resemble the Union flag. Streets were named after some of the great cities of the world, such as New York, Cologne, Venice, Strasbourg and Naples. Only a railway was needed, he declared, to put Martinborough on

the map; its resident population of 1,356 is still waiting.

Martinborough’s slow decline came to an abrupt halt when a number of people realised that its well-drained soils and dry, windy climate were ideal for growing grapes. One of these, a chemist named Neil McCallum, had studied at Oxford. While there he had sampled some excellent college wine, which marked the beginning of an interest considered at best eccentric in 1970s rural New Zealand. McCallum planted Gewiirztraminer, Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Gris and hoped for the best. Today, the vineyard he founded. Dry River, is –

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