Magical Martinborough

by Sharon Stephenson

It wasn’t so long ago that visiting Martinborough meant not only leaving behind your briefcase, suit and stress, but also your palate. Not surprising when you consider that this wee speck on the map was founded in 1881 by Irishman John Martin and, Guinness aside, the Irish aren’t exactly known as producers of gastronomic delights.

Then some bright spark had the idea of planting grapes, and so began the liquid dream that has since propelled Martinborough onto the global stage. Thanks to the cool nights, this wine region is, in fact, one of the few places outside Burgundy where it is possible to successfully grow the fickle pinot noir grape.

So it’s entirely appropriate that, an hour after leaving the capital city of Wellington, we check into Peppers Martinborough Hotel to find a bottle of the award-winning Ata Rangi 2006 Crimson Pinot Noir – made a couple of blocks from here – in our room.

It’s easy to see why American visitors liken Martinborough to the Californian wine growing regions of Napa and Sonoma: take white picket fences, sleepy streets and gracious colonial cottages, put them in high definition, and you have some idea of how chocolate-box cute it all is.

One of John Martin’s legacies is the layout of the town centre, where the streets radiate out from a leafy square in the shape of a Union Jack. Anchoring one corner of the square is the gracious Peppers Martinborough Hotel, which started life in 1882 as a stop-off point for prosperous travellers going to and from the region’s huge, isolated sheep stations. ??Later, mirroring the fortunes of the town, the hotel became a notorious booze barn and was apparently the place to go if you wanted to buy drugs, have a fight or hire a lady of the night.

When English property developer Mike Laven and his Kiwi wife Sally rescued it in 1995, it was keeling over from a lack of love. These days, the public bar is a magnet for local winemakers and anyone drawn to good wine and food, while the shearer’s quarters have made way for 16 knock-you-off-your-feet stunning guestrooms, each decorated in a different style that aligns with the hotel’s history.

We stayed in the Chifney room, named after one of the pioneers of the town’s wine industry, which was so large I could have fitted most of my apartment into it. The basic premise here is to relax: take off your watch, have a long soak in the claw-foot bath, or just spend some time getting intimate with the backs of your eyes.

Fortunately, the hotel is located within stumbling distance of most of the wineries, so much, much later we take our thirsts to Alana Estate where Australian winemaker Chris Archer joins us for a tasting. Three years ago, the Hunter Valley import brought his impressive skills to Martinborough and we spent a pleasant afternoon sipping our way through his most recent vintage. ??Because it seems so environmentally unfriendly to spit out a mouthful of good wine, I don’t – so by the end of the afternoon, my Sauvignons merge with my Rieslings and I can’t detect a peach, raspberry or cinnamon note to save myself.

Luckily, it’s a short stroll back to the Martinborough Hotel where executive chef Samantha Ashe senses our need for serious carbs, so whips us up a delicious wild mushroom risotto with parmesan wafers. ??Samantha honed her craft alongside celebrity chef Rosemary Shraeger at a castle in Scotland’s Outer Hebrides, which starred in the British reality cooking show ‘Castle Cook’. It’s easy to see why her food, sourced mainly from local produce, is grabbing almost as many headlines as the region’s fermented grapes.

Year round, Martinborough is a joy but, if you can, try and time your visit for the third Sunday in November when the population of this small but perfectly formed town swells for Toast Martinborough, the annual celebration of the region’s vineyards. In the New Zealand wine festival calendar, Toast, as it’s colloquially known, is the local equivalent of Europe’s May Day. New vintages have just been released, it’s the height of spring, and locals and out-of-towners alike are thrilled at the chance to dust off their sun dresses and shorts after a long winter. ??Last year the tickets, which are capped at 10,000, sold out in a record five minutes, and other statistics are just as impressive: revellers swilled 12,666 bottles of wine at the ten participating wineries, chomped their way through 15,000 parcels of food – including more than 3,000 whitebait fritters – and injected somewhere in the region of $1 million into the local economy.

Yet Martinborough is more than just the name on a wine bottle – it’s also a hub for artesianal cheese, olive oil and chocolate producers.

A short drive away is the impossibly pretty Greytown, where not only can you stuff your face with decadent hand-made Schoc Chocolates, but you can also have your personality analysed according to your favourite flavour. The boutique chocalatier was founded by two psychotherapists, Roger Simpson and Murray Langham, who discovered the link between their patients’ mood and the sweet stuff. Not surprisingly, Schoc is the global home of chocolate therapy or chocology – the science of discovering your personality profile by the chocolates you choose. My preference for chocolates with soft centres apparently means that I’m full of energy and have a lust for life – or something along those lines.

I was blissing out so much on the disgustingly calorific stuff that I wasn’t really listening to Roger, who is famous for advising author Joanne Harris when she was researching her book-turned-movie, Chocolat.

It’s about this stage of the weekend that I commit the ultimate fashion crime: I’m thinking about elastic-waisted pants in a positive light. Having consumed my body weight in local wine, olives, cheese and chocolate, it’s no wonder a trip to this Kiwi Garden of Eden means my jeans are a little more snug than usual. ??As my husband so succinctly put it, a trip to Martinborough is the most fun you can have with your clothes on – if they fit anymore, that is! ??Ed’s Note: We’ll bring you more on Martinborough wines soon – they’re deserving of much more space!

FACTS:

Peppers Martinborough Hotel, T: +64 6 306 9350, www.peppers.co.nz
Wharekauhau Lodge & Country Estate, T: +64 6 307 7581. www.wharekauhau.co.nz
Parehua Country Estate, T: +64 6 306 8405, www.parehua.co.nz?
The Claremont, T: +64 6 306 9162. www.theclaremont.co.nz
Martinborough Golf Club, T: +64 6 306 9076
Circus Cinema, Restaurant, Bar: T: +64 6 306 9442. www.circus.net.nz
Toast Martinborough, 15 November, T: +64 6 306 9183, www.toastmartinborough.co.nz
Martinborough Fair (first Saturday in February and first Saturday in March every year) in the Square