Martinborough, New Zealand

At the southern tip of the North Island of New Zealand sits the Martinborough wine region- not to be confused with the Marlborough wine region, which sits at the northern tip of the South Island, just across the Cook straight. Whilst only responsible for 3% of total New Zealand production, a significant 9% of winemakers live and work in this area. There are 2 reasons for this; the first is that Martinborough, unlike the rolling fields of vines found in Marlborough with one enormous factory of a winery, consists of a large number of small-plot wineries, each with their own “lifestyle (meaning semi-retired) winemaker”. Click map for larger image

The second reason is that Martinborough harvests are significantly smaller per hectare when compared to every other region in New Zealand. These low yields are almost certainly responsible for the high quality of wine across the region, but how does a winemaker encourage a fairly vigorous vine to stop putting energy into growing foliage and instead put its energy into the berries? The answer to that is one of the key aspects of the wine industry; terrior. Martinborough actually has an incredibly similar climate and geography to Marlborough across the water; however the two regions could not be much more different in terms of the styles and quality of wines made. Martinborough is most definitely classified as a cool-climate growing region, however the location of the region within a wide river valley between the Rimutaka mountain range and the eastern Wairarapa hills means the vineyards are protected from too much rain and wind, and enjoy a long, even, sunny growing season. The cold nights ensure the grapes retain their high natural acid, which gives the wine its noticeable freshness, and ensures a long life in bottle. In addition to the favourable climate, Martinborough has exceptional soil for making wine; the plateau is made up of alluvial gravel that is centuries old and nutrient poor, pushed up to the surface by tectonic plate movement. This poor soil is the main difference between Martinborough and Marlborough, which sits on fertile river-beds. The best wines are made from vines that must struggle to survive- the theory is that these vines put all their energy into creating the best berries that a bird will eat and fly away with, depositing the next generation in a better-suited site. For us this means brilliant wines!

In Martinborough, Pinot Noir is king- it is responsible for just over 50% of all plantings in the region. Pinots from this area differ from their southerly cousins in the more globally recognised region of Central Otago in that they possess a deeper colour and more of an earthy, gamey complexity and tighter tannins, compared to the lighter, red-fruit driven style of Otago. This is due to the lower-yielding smaller berries that have a higher skin to juice ratio. Chardonnay also has a very good reputation in Martinborough, again with greater complexity and weight than other regions. Growing in popularity is Martinborough Riesling and Pinot Gris, which are getting better and better as winemakers learn how best to work with the varieties.

Only an easy 1 hour drive from the nation’s capital Wellington and with this reputation for world-class wine, you could see why this region is a popular tourist destination. Helping this along are the many well-known names that come from Martinborough, such as Ata Rangi, Palliser Estate, Martinborough Vineyards, and one of my favourites, Escarpment. Many of these wineries were established in the late 70’s when a scientific report classed the climate of Martinborough as incredibly similar to that of Burgundy. Another thing that Burgundy is known for is its many sub-divisions, down to specific site name. Today several Martinborough winemakers are attempting to differentiate separate sub-regions of the area- Te Muna, Gladstone and Wairarapa are all small sub-zones that are gaining a reputation for creating their own styles of Martinborough Pinot Noir, and you can sometimes find the name of this town on the bottle in an attempt to raise the awareness of this movement to sub-regionality. So it seems there is an exciting future ahead for Martinborough!

Mark Faber
Wine Sales Manager