Sipping a pinot noir in the tractor shed of the vineyard where it was grown really gives you an appreciation of terroir.
On a tour with Martinborough Wine Walks, not only can you sample some of the region’s signature wines, you’ll get an intimate understanding of the local industry – from terroir to tasting insights and the chance to meet winemakers, all on a gentle ramble through beautiful vineyards.
Because it is so compact, Martinborough is one of the only places in the world where you can walk between vineyards, cellar doors and wineries, meeting growers and winemakers, tasting wines and learning about the art and science of winemaking.
We set off from Martinborough Wine Merchants with our guide, Nicola – former vintner and wine aficionado – for a leisurely amble through several vineyards and wineries that are not normally open to the public. It’s a behind-the-scenes glimpse of the Martinborough wine community.
The first vineyard we visit is Devotus, where we meet Don McConachy – winemaker, farmer and tractor-enthusiast. His three-hectare vineyard is organic, with strips of bright red clover planted in between the vines. He tells us that these crops will eventually be turned over to release nitrogen into the soil. Like many producers in Martinborough, Devotus is about quality over quantity. And without machinery or sprays, Don uses labour-intensive techniques that have been around for hundreds of years. “I don’t keep track of my hours because it’d be too depressing,” he laughs.
But the hard work does reap rewards. Devotus is the only producer in Martinborough that sells out of each vintage ‘en primeur,’ or before the wines are even finished. With such small production numbers – Devotus produces just nine barrels per vintage – combined with such high quality wine, sales are rationed to just one bottle per person at the Martinborough Wine Merchants.
Much like Devotus, most Martinborough vineyards are small and vines are hand-pruned. The average crop here is just 1.5 bottles per vine, compared to places like Marlborough where each vine produces up to eight or nine bottles. But the low fruit yield creates more intense flavours in the wine.
The small size of the vineyards also means it’s easier to be organic. There’s a greater awareness of seasonal cycles and ecosystems when winemakers are tending vines by hand.
Martinborough has the lowest annual rainfall in the North Island, making it the ideal climate for viticulture. That, and the rocky, free-draining soils, which force vines to root deeply and work harder in their production of fruit. To make great wine, we learn, the vines need to suffer.
Martinborough’s signature tipple is, of course, pinot noir.
With each sample of swirling crimson liquid we learn about flavour characteristics and wine descriptors. Nicola tells us that pinot noir is often described as an ‘iron fist in a velvet glove,’ with flavours that ‘spread like a peacock’s tail on the palate.’ It’s considered a lighter red wine because of its low tanins, and can be described as ‘haunting,’ subtle, persistent and complex. Martinborough pinot noirs are distinctive: spicy, savoury, Burgundian. There are also some more dubious descriptors thrown around, describing a wine as: “hot dog rolled in sheep poo.”
But wine descriptions are subjective; there are none that are wrong. The important thing, we learn, is to be able to describe and remember what you are tasting to create your own personal library of descriptors.
It’s not all wine on the Martinborough Wine Walk. We also get the unique opportunity to go behind the scenes at Lighthouse Gin. Rachel Hall is New Zealand’s only female distiller and takes the term ‘hands-on’ to a new level – from sourcing local spring water and ingredients, to the full distilling process; to bottling, labeling and packing the finished product for export – she does the lot herself. And the Lighthouse recipe is safely tucked away in Rachel’s head, but she shows us ingredients for the signature gin that include iris root, licorice, almonds, cinnamon, lemon zest, cassia bark and coriander seeds along with the ubiquitous juniper berries.
At On Giant’s Shoulders, one of the region’s newer wineries, we meet Braden Crosby – winner of Young Viticulturist of the Year a few years back. He and wife Gabrielle took on the 4.8-hectare vineyard in 2015 and today they produce pinot noir, pinot gris and a very tasty chardonnay.
The last stop for the day, after clambering over back fences via a rickety stepladder and painters trestle, is at Tiwaiwaka vineyard. Here, we sample a range of wines straight from the barrel to compare and contrast with a 13-year-old wine in bottle.
There are so many variables that go into a wine – varietals, grape clones, vine age, weather, time on the vine, time in the barrel, processes in the vineyard, processes in the winery, blending… with each vintage adding up to a snapshot of the year that was.
They say in Martinborough that 90% of the work happens in the vineyard; 10% in the winery, with wines being a true reflection of terroir.
But the most important thing to remember, says Tiwaiwaka Wine’s Morton Anderson: “you can make a bad wine out of great fruit, but you can’t make a good wine from bad fruit.”