Martinborough: where small is beautiful

by Stuart.George

The tiny New Zealand town of Martinborough is a great place to spend a few days eating and drinking

Martinborough is a tiny place with a population of only 1,300 or so, 65km from Wellington on the Wairarapa Line. Hop off the train (NZ$13) straight onto the bus (NZ$3) and the driver will drop you anywhere you like in Martinborough.
Where to stay
The best bet for bed and beer is The Martinborough Hotel on the southeast corner of the town’s square, at the junction with Kitchener Street. It is undoubtedly the poshest place to stay in the town (which is not to say that it is very posh at all), but it also has a friendly bar – the Settlers Bar – where many of the locals congregate to discuss rugby, wine and sheep farming. For more private, self-contained accommodation, Pinot Villas in Cambridge Road are ideal – but staying at the hotel is more fun. The Settlers Bar has nice barmaids. I met one called Simone Pye. Not quite a perfect 10, but certainly a very good 3.14.
Exploring the vineyards
Although it is a tiny place, Martinborough has a worldwide reputation for its wines, particularly the red Pinot Noir. The area’s climate and soils are ideally suited to this very fickly grape variety. Being such a compact area, it is quite possible to spend a day or two walking or cycling round the various cellar doors.
The Martinborough Wine Centre in Kitchener Street, more or less opposite the Hotel, is a good place to start an exploration of the area’s wines. It is housed in a quirky building that used to operate as a garage – the inspection pit is still in place. Attached to the Wine Centre is the Village Café, a good place for breakfast,  with its friendly service, wooden seats and tables, and stone floor. Not quite as grim as it sounds, it has some character. On the other side of The Square, the Pukemanu Tavern has an unappealing appearance and even more unappealing name but is a reasonable place for an inexpensive fill-up.
Arguably the best producers in Martinborough are Ata Rangi and Dry River, both in Puruatanga Road, about 15 minutes walk from The Square. Ata Rangi has a charming and simple cellar door where its wines can be tasted, though opening hours are restricted to noon to 4pm on weekends and 1pm to 3pm weekdays. I was in awe of its founder and co-owner Clive Paton when he told me that he had played on the wing for a provincial rugby team against the 1977 British Lions, marking JJ Williams and scoring a try. What a player! Clive was also a good cricketer in his youth; is a very keen mountain-biker these days; likes listening to blues and jazz, and is a big Bob Dylan and Led Zeppelin fan. A very likeable man and terrific wines, too.
Dry River is a very different operation to the Ata Rangi family concern. It is the vision of one man, Dr Neil McCallum. No cellar door here – if you want to buy Dry River wines, you must join the waiting list. Visits are possible but must be booked in advance.
Martinborough Vineyards is up the road in Princess Street, off Puruatanga Road. Nice wines, nice people. Its cellar door is open 11-3 daily. Further out on Puruatanga Road, Alana Estate has probably the best – or certainly the best developed – winery restaurant in the area, capable of hosting functions, weddings and concerts. You can bring a picnic to a concert here but for some reason you can’t take your own wine…
The Toast Martinborough Festival is an annual shindig held each November, with festival sites spread across various wineries, who host food and wine tastings and a concert performance. All good Kiwi fun! In 2009 it will take place on Sunday 15 November. 
Martinborough, then, is a very civilised place, where people say “good morning” as they pass each other on the street. The food and wine are super. But a warning: It can be very, very windy, however warm or cold it might be. And a cautionary tale: to head north, you need to get to Masterton, and the only way to do that promptly is on the local school bus. I thought that the ferry crossing over the Cook Straits was bad but being surrounded by Kiwi schoolchildren punching each other and indulging in belching contests is even worse, I can assure you. 


After graduating from Warwick University in 1996 with a degree in English and European Literature, Stuart George began his working life as a van driver for a Cotswold wine merchant. Over the next few years, he took all the Wine and Spirit Education Trust exams and travelled widely across the world's wine regions. He has done grape havests in Italy, France and Australia, and now works as a freelance writer. Favourite places: Cape Town, Adelaide, Melbourne, Wellington, Kyoto, Hamburg, Stockholm