Keep Wairarapa Weird: New Zealand's Unassuming Pinot Paradise
With Hawke’s Bay to the northeast and Marlborough to the southwest, it can be easy to overlook Wairarapa. The charming, off-the-beaten-path region sits an hour east of New Zealand’s bustling capital city, Wellington, and it couldn’t be more distinct. Wairarapa, whose name in the local language means “Glistening Waters,” has a long history of tribal significance and is now characterized by rural farmland, the winding Hutt River, and low-slung, farm-style homes that populate deserted railroad villages with names like Featherstone, Masterton, and Martinborough.
With a name not easy to pronounce, Wairarapa is easy to overlook. But that would be a mistake. The region’s quaint towns are home to more sheep than humans, more cattle than cars, and some of the most highly praised pinot noir in the world. The wine region is small in terms of production, but packs a big punch. Since the 1980s, the former railroad town of Martinborough has earned international renown for producing pinots to rival Burgundy.
Unlike some of your mainstays, New Zealand wines, pinots in particular, are quite young. But don’t let their age fool you. Martinborough’s laid back vibe and exceptional grapes offer guests the opportunity to sample top wines with little pretense. Due in part to its relative youth but most likely the result of Kiwis’ charmingly relaxed affect, the region offers a refreshingly genuine experience that feels more like visiting the home of a good friend than stepping into a world class winery. Tours are often led by owners who clutch bottles like children and who eagerly share stories straight from their vineyards. It is not uncommon to see tractors beside tasting rooms and farm dogs asleep on the floor.
What’s more, you won’t see a tour bus in Wairarapa. Instead, in front of every winery, bikes and trikes (for those less confident after a few glasses) lean together to create a picturesque scene of chilled-out tasting.
Beyond the vine, there is so much more to do than pedal from porch to patio. Dining in Wairarapa is exceptional. Many wineries around Martinborough have opened restaurants and cafes. In true Kiwi style, even the most celebrated cafes maintain a low profile, letting the delicate flavors of fresh ingredients and creative pairings drive acclaim.
I stayed at Wharekauhau Country Estate and can't recommend it enough. A short drive from the vineyards and surrounded by thousands of acres of private farmland, the Estate still exudes its historic roots as a sheep station with nearly 160 years under its belt. Despite its reputation as a five-star luxury lodge, the property maintains its authentic identity through its commitment to local ingredients, unique experiences, and world-class guides. By day, guests can do everything from taking part in the life of a traditional sheep station to ATVing through the hills...or just relax at the lodge’s spa.
Wining and dining in Wairarapa is a uniquely relaxed experience where travelers, artists, craftsmen, and farmers enjoy rosé at the same table. For now, this corner of paradise is protected by the windy road from Wellington. But like most things worth traveling for, word is getting out and the time to visit is now.
The Wairarapa is only about a 1.5 drive or 15 minute helicopter ride from New Zealand’s capital city, Wellington, and is perfect way to experience true Kiwi style. It’s best to visit in the spring and summer, from October through March. If you’re willing to travel during the more unconventional months of April or May, you may get lucky and experience the harvest.
Cottage Suites at the Relais & Chateaux Wharekauhau (pronounced “Far-ee-ko-ho”) are perched high atop dramatic cliffs overlooking the black sand beach of Palliser Bay. The spacious cottages provide separate seating areas and gas fireplaces to cozy up on cooler nights. Committed to its roots, natural materials are used throughout the cottage suites, including clay tiles, pebble mosaics, plastered walls, rich New Zealand wool carpeting, cotton bed linen and hemp curtains.
Wairarapa has experienced a renaissance and is home to numerous boutique restaurants and wineries. I recommend riding from vineyard to vineyard and stopping by Poppies for a midday snack. In the evening, don’t miss the incredible dining experience on display at Wharekauhau.
Start you tasting at Martinborough Vineyard, the grandfather of the region. Afterwards, make your way on to Te Kairanga. Be sure to sample the rose and enjoy a pleasant afternoon lounging in a colorful beanbag on the tasting room’s spacious patio.
Soil. Barrel. Cellar. Passion. Wharekauhau is home to one of the most prestigious wine collections in the region. Join General Manager and wine aficionado, Richard Rooney, along with Wharekauhau’s sommelier on an exclusive tour through the private cellars of some of the most esteemed craftsmen of the region. Your tour starts with a walk through the vineyard at the award winning Devotus Estate. Draw samples from barrels to taste wine at each stage of fermentation. Afterwards, visit the private cellar of the world-famous Martinborough Vineyards to sample older vintages and rare gems from the region.
Paul Melser’s stoneware is designed and made in the artist’s studio in Wairarapa. Melser’s pottery is rooted in functionality: each piece is meant to add beauty to ordinary, everyday life. Be sure to pick up a set of his work before heading home!