Wandering through Wairarapa: One of New Zealand's wine gems

Nikki Michaels
By Nikki Michaels
about 1 year ago
4 min read

As far as boutique wine regions go, New Zealand’s Wairarapa deserves a spot atop even the most seasoned wine drinker’s list. Nestled next to the Tararua mountains at the bottom of the country’s North Island, the Wairarapa is a mere hour’s spectacular drive west from the capital city of Wellington — and it’s well worth the trip to taste some of the best vino New Zealand has to offer.

Named after the Māori word for ‘glistening waters,’ the Wairarapa hosts just three percent of New Zealand’s vine acreage and accounts for even less of its total wine production. But what it lacks in quantity, it more than makes up for in quality, producing some truly outstanding examples of NZ’s trademark varietals — pinot noir and sauvignon blanc — as well as remarkable cool-climate aromatics (riesling, pinot gris, gewürztraminer, and viognier among them).

With a long growing season brought about by the diurnal temperature swings between warm days and cool nights, the Wairarapa comprises three sub-regions with similar soil types and climates: Martinborough, Gladstone, and Masterton. Though the Wairarapa is sheltered to an extent by the mountains, frost and wind regularly descend upon the area’s vineyards, placing stress on the vines that, when properly managed, results in gorgeous wines of singular strength and personality.

As a general rule, the area produces structured, perfumed pinot noir with a strong backbone; concentrated, intense, and highly aromatic sauvignon blanc featuring punchy tropical notes balanced by the classic Kiwi hints of green; ripe, juicy aromatics; and elegant, spicy syrah.

Here’s what to expect from each sub-region in the Wairarapa... 

Martinborough

The largest and best-known of the Wairarapa sub-regions, Martinborough is world-famous for its pure, perfumed pinot noir. It’s further south than Gladstone and Masterton, with a climate reminiscent of Burgundy — so it’s no wonder that pinot’s the standout here!

This climate also allows for the production of mouthwateringly juicy sauvignon blanc, aromatics that embody the name, and lifted, peppery syrah (really the only other red wine to come out of the Wairarapa).

In line with the ‘boutique’ theme, the wineries here are predominantly small and family-owned, and many are within walking distance of each other — so it’s the perfect place to take yourself on a walking wine tour! Your options are vast, but we recommend these:

Cambridge Road

Established in 1986, this family-farmed estate grows pinot noir and syrah using minimal-intervention techniques alongside biodynamics and eco-farming.

Julicher

Warm days, cool nights, and low rainfall in Martinborough’s Te Muna Valley make Julicher a hotspot for pinot noir, sauvignon blanc, chardonnay, and riesling — which the team grows sustainably.

Murdoch James Estate

Pinot noir and syrah run the world at Murdoch James Estate, where the team practices bio-sustainable winegrowing.

On Giants’ Shoulders

This small winery focuses on structured pinot noir, textured chardonnay, and floral pinot gris, producing terroir-driven expressions of each varietal.

Palliser

The team at Palliser harvested their first grapes in 1989, on land they transformed from farm to vineyard. Today, they cultivate seven vineyards on the Martinborough Terrace, all of which grow extraordinarily intense, flavourful grapes due to the stress placed on them by the aforementioned wind and frost. Their pinot noir, sauvignon blanc, chardonnay, pinot gris, and riesling are all remarkable.

Terroir Wines

These guys are one of the smallest producers in New Zealand, and they’re one of your only options for red wines that aren’t pinot noir or syrah. Their 2010 and 2011 BDX wines make gorgeous use of cabernet sauvignon, merlot, and cabernet franc!

Gladstone

Situated between Martinborough to the south and Masterton to the north, Gladstone sees warm days, cool nights, and low levels of rainfall — making it a mecca for pinot noir, sauvignon blanc, and aromatics.

We recommend a visit to the family-owned, 27-hectare Borthwick Estate, which produces exquisite pinot and sav, as well as chardonnay, pinot gris, and riesling. 

Masterton

The largest town in the Wairarapa and also the most northerly wine sub-region, Masterton lays claim to the area’s OG vines, as the first Wairarapa grapes were planted here over a century ago. The Tararua mountain range exerts a particular influence on this spot, fostering big temperature swings that produce strong, bold examples of pinot noir and sauvignon blanc.

For a scrumptious taste of what Masterton has to offer, spend some time at the well-known Matahiwi Estate — an award-winning, family-owned winery that uses sustainable practices to coax out deep, complex pinot noir and well-rounded sauvignon blanc, as well as smaller amounts of pinot gris and chardonnay.


And that’s a wrap! We hope you learnt something new in our 101 Guide to Wairarapa, one of New Zealand’s boutique wine gems.