The road to New Zealand’s Wairarapa wine region is not for the faint of heart. The sole strip of pavement that connects the capital city of Wellington, at the bottom of the North Island, to the three subregions that make up Wairarapa—Martinborough, Gladstone and Masterton—is simultaneously breathtaking and nauseating.
It hurtles around hairpin bends carved into the sides of cliffs that served as a backdrop for The Lord of the Rings movie. It then descends into a windswept valley carved from the Ruamahanga River.
Once you’ve arrived, however, any queasiness is quickly replaced by the warm, fuzzy feeling only the most charming of places can evoke. Centered around the quaint, colonial town of Martinborough, the wineries of Wairarapa are the kind you can bike to in a flash, to taste for little or no fee at modest cellar doors and banter with the winemaker.
Just don’t let such modesty fool you. In crafting some of the country’s most complex, singular and long-lived wines from the notoriously fussy Pinot Noir grape, Wairarapa’s motley crew of winemakers has helped forge New Zealand’s reputation not just for Sauvignon Blanc, but premium, world-class reds as well.
Pay them a visit. But if you’re prone to car sickness, take the train.
The Dream Team
Clive Paton and Helen Masters, Ata Rangi
After dairy farmer Clive Paton read a scientific soil and climate report that compared Martinborough’s conditions to those of Burgundy, he sold his herd of cows, used the cash to purchase a sheep paddock on Puruatanga Road and planted Pinot Noir vines in the gravelly soil.
“I’d played rugby there, so I knew how stony the ground was, skinning my knees regularly, and how dry it could be in the cool winters and warm summers,” says Paton. “I had a penchant for red wine, but not the budget for it. So I figured I’d buy some land and give it a go.”
That was in 1980. The gold medals started to roll in six years later.
Aspiring winemaker Helen Masters joined on as a cellar hand in 1990, hoping to gain some experience during a gap year before college. Upon graduating from Massey University with a degree in food technology, she cut her teeth at wineries in both New Zealand and the U.S. before returning to the operation that gave her her start.
Masters was hired as Ata Rangi’s head winemaker in 2003, and has since taken the winery to even greater heights. She emphasizes the importance of good agriculture and maintains a close relationship with the vineyard.
Environmental stewardship is practiced at every level, with Ata Rangi attaining full ISO 14001 organic certification five years ago and acting as a founding member of the Sustainable Winegrowing in New Zealand program. These efforts have allowed Paton more time to focus on his other, similar, passion, environmental conservation.
Nearly 40 years since Paton’s first plantings, Ata Rangi, which means “dawn sky” or “new beginning,” is heralded as one of New Zealand’s finest wineries. Its full range of expressive, textural wines is worth seeking out, but Pinot remains its calling card. Bottlings are elegant yet powerful, evocative of bramble fruit and mineral. They’re savory, laced with sinewy tannins and, in many cases, capable of aging more than a decade.
Comparable structures and flavor profiles can be found throughout Wairarapa, thanks to low humidity, big day-night temperature shifts and fierce, drying winds. The conditions create low yields of loose, small berries with thick, tannin-rich skins and a high ratio of skin to juice. On properties like Ata Rangi’s, rows of trees known as “shelter belts” act as barriers to protect the vines from the raging winds.
Today, Puruatanga Road is lined not with livestock paddocks, but with vineyards. Ata Rangi is its heart.
Jannine Rickards, Urlar
The new owner brought on a trained viticulturist/oenologist, Kohei Koyama, as its onsite director and winegrower, but also retained Jannine Rickards as winemaker, whose six years as assistant winemaker at Ata Rangi seemed to set her up for the role perfectly.
“Urlar is the largest single organic vineyard [at 75 acres] in the region,” says Koyama. Beginning conversion in 2007, the vineyard became fully certified organic in 2010 and the Urlar team remains committed to the practice, as well as to biodynamic principles.
Urlar, Gaelic for “earth,” reflects the original owners’ Scottish heritage. The winery was established in 2004, when Angus and Davina Thomson planted 74 acres of vines that included Pinot Noir in the Gladstone subregion, where around a dozen wineries dot the pastoral land along the Ruamahanga River. Still primarily sheep- and cattle-raising country, there’s little difference between Gladstone’s climate and that of Martinborough or Masterton. Gladstone is a bit farther inland with slightly bigger day-night temperature ranges and more rainfall, but stylistically, the Pinots are similar.
Like many other premium Pinots of the region, Urlar’s wines present best after a few years in the cellar. Even then, they can benefit from decanting. But with time and air, they reveal pristine red fruit and spicy, green herbal notes that slink around the fine, savory, structured tannins. The exact characteristics that have come to define the Wairarapa region.
The Pinot King
Larry McKenna, Escarpment
Spend some time in the Wairarapa, and you’re likely to hear Larry McKenna’s name mentioned repeatedly. Affectionately dubbed the “Pinot King,” he has championed the variety since the earliest days of the region’s wine industry, which is centered around its most well-known and widely planted subregion, Martinborough.
A native Aussie, McKenna first came to New Zealand after college to work at Delegat’s Wine Estate in Auckland. In 1986, he migrated farther south to make wine for one of Wairarapa’s oldest wineries, Martinborough Vineyards. It wasn’t long before he recognized the region’s potential to make world-class Pinot Noir.
“At that time, Pinot Noir was in its infancy,” says McKenna. “I thought it had a great future in New Zealand, due to its suitability to cooler climates. Martinborough has an ideal free-draining soil type and is the driest place in the North Island, being in the rain shadow from the [Rimutaka and Tararua] mountain ranges on the western side of the country.”
McKenna spent more than a decade at the estate crafting award-winning Pinot Noirs that elevated both Martinborough and the country. He established his own winery, Escarpment, in 1998, considered today to be one of New Zealand’s finest Pinot producers.
McKenna’s wines are all hand-picked and undergo wild fermentation with minimal intervention. He prefers whole-bunch winemaking, and, in good years, his single-vineyard wines are fermented with 50–70% stems. All these efforts result in long-lived wines that can be intensely spicy, savory and floral. They burst with red fruit, are streaked with earthy, mineral notes, and are wound by downright sexy tannins.
While McKenna remains at the winemaking helm, Escarpment was purchased by Australian wine giant Torbreck Vintners, owned by American billionaire Peter Kight, in 2018. Quality shows no signs of wavering, though, and there are plans to double production and open a tasting room in a luxury lodge in Martinborough.
Wilco Lam, Dry River Wines
Like Schubert, Wilco Lam was enticed by Wairarapa’s rugged, windblown landscape. Originally from Holland, where he had studied viticulture, he was drawn to the area in 2003 upon completing additional winemaking education near Christchurch. He joined one of Martinborough’s founding wineries, Dry River Wines, in 2009 and became chief winemaker in 2014.
“Initially, I was drawn to Martinborough by its makeup,” says Lam. “A Pinot Noir focus [and] family-run producers seeking uncompromising wines. It wasn’t until I arrived that I experienced what makes this area special: a close wine community based on cooperation and mutual support with people who are hands-on—close to their product—and not afraid to get them dirty.”
That community, however, didn’t exist when Dr. Neil and Dawn McCallum first established Dry River in 1979; it was the more technical aspects of the environment that had drawn them. The couple was inspired by a scientific report that emphasized the region’s suitability for Pinot Noir and other cool climate-loving varieties. That study was written by soil scientist Dr. Derek Milne, who would set up Martinborough Vineyards one year later.
The McCallums planted Martinborough’s first vineyard in the bowl of a crescent-shaped terrace of free-draining, gravelly soil just north of the town of Martinborough. It’s the same terrace where vines of neighbors Ata Rangi and Schubert also now reside.
In 2003, Dry River was sold to New York investor Julian Robertson and California winegrower Reginald Oliver, though McCallum stayed on until his retirement in 2011.
With his small, youthful team, Lam now makes ultrapremium Pinot, among other wines, from three estate-grown, organically farmed and unirrigated plots: Dry River Estate, Craighall Vineyards and Lovat Vineyard. Each site imparts specific characteristics to the wines while still maintaining a distinctive winery style.
Through exacting viticulture and winemaking techniques, the team crafts small-batch, precise wines that may be slow to evolve, and perhaps even a little austere when young, but will morph into elegant and refined beauties with 10 years or more in cellar.
Kai Schubert, Schubert Wines
Kai Schubert is a long way from home. The German oenologist and his wife and fellow winemaker, Marion Deimling, spent much of the late 1990s in search of the perfect place to grow Pinot Noir. Burgundy was the obvious choice, but, as Schubert often jokes, “La Tâche was not for sale, and we could not afford Musigny.”
Schubert scoured the west coast of the U.S. as well as Australia and other parts of New Zealand. “But the real eye-opening experience for us was in Wairarapa,” he says. “All the Pinots we tasted here were pretty much [exactly] the style we were looking for: elegant, but with backbone and character.”
He acquired a small plot of vines in Martinborough, only a stone’s throw from Ata Rangi, in 1998, and soon planted additional Pinot in the Gladstone subregion nearby. Both vineyards have been farmed organically from the outset and were officially certified in 2013. Just a few years after its first vintage, Schubert’s 2004 Block B Pinot tied for top score at a prestigious international tasting in Berlin in 2007, alongside none other than a 1999 Musigny Grand Cru.
Block B remains one of Schubert’s most known wines, a savory, spicy selection with black cherry flavors that needs plenty of cellaring to blossom. Meanwhile, the Marion’s Vineyard bottling, from Schubert’s main block in Gladstone, is red-fruited, floral, minerally and more approachable young, but it’s also very ageworthy.
In the more than two decades since Schubert first discovered the Wairarapa, his love affair with the region and its prized variety hasn’t waned one bit.
“My parents must have known that I would move from Germany to New Zealand one day as they named me Kai, which in the indigenous language of the Māori means ‘food,’” he says. “So, I think this is a perfect pairing: wine and food; wine and Kai.”