From Sheep to Chic-

The Changing Face of New Zealand's Wairarapa

By Edward Wilkinson Latham

Photography by Marina Dempster

There was a time when if you mentioned to a resident of Wellington that you were planning a visit to the near by area of Wairarapa, they would reply words like “sheep”, “why” and “don’t bother.” Today the sheep are elsewhere and a roaring business in boutique wineries has sprung up in their place, producing Cabernet Sauvignon, Riesling and Sauvignon Blanc, but especially Pinot Noir grapes; partial to the long hot days and cool nights found in this region. Wine has transformed this otherwise exhausted cattleman run pocket in the southeast corner of the North Island, into one of New Zealand’s most exiting destinations. Offering country chic, great wine, gourmet cuisine and stylish boutiques, the rejuvenated area is now popular with the city slickers as a great place to spend a weekend and is fast becoming a favored area for investment.

Half an hour out of Wellington the winding incline and switchback roads over the lush Rimutaka Range certainly make the trip to the Wairarapa an exhilarating one. Akin to some of the great winding roads to romance, like those in the Provence Alpes above the Côte d'Azur, the sun filled skies, a convertible hire car and a girlfriend donning a silk headscarf and sun glasses, make the perfect accompaniment, as we corkscrew through the mountains flanked by wild hillsides of hawthorn and heather.

The road descends from the highlands with the same vigor as its accent, panning in to plains of golden grass divided by green twisting willows trees. Greytown is my first stop. The main street is lined with wooden, colonial era buildings, most of which have been lovingly restored with ornate sweeping balconies and wide verandas. What is more surprising is the sophistication of the small business and boutiques that have made this town a hidden jewel. As well as the antique shops like Wakefield’s and McKenna's, offering old farm house chic and colonial furniture, there are shops such as Emporos, stocking 18th to 20th century European and Oriental items, custom made soft furnishings and a range of wonderful fabrics, including a unique line of ticking fabric from France and England. Next door is a modern looking store named after its style guru creator, interior designer and local legend Michael Nalder, stocking attractive Asian antiques and sophisticated reproductions. Shoppers struggling to find such things in Wellington come to Greytown for this very reason.

Bon Bon is one of the latest additions to the fashion boutiques on Main Street and sells modern a range of beautiful artisan jewelry for remarkable reasonable prices and walking out empty handed is near impossible. The smell of the fresh backed bread and roasted coffee beans attracts most visitors to the French patisserie, a few stores away. Owned by Frenchman Möise Cerson the bakery produces artisan French breads, cakes and tasty tartlets. Trained in Paris he met his wife from Greytown whilst working in Australia. They decided to open the bakery together and imported specialty ovens from Italy. Today they can barely keep up with the demand from visiting customers and a growing clientele of hotels and restaurants in Wellington.

The White Swan Hotel is one place that stocks Möise’s delicacies and it’s only next door. A renovated old railway building, it’s interior was designed by Michael Nalder and is the town most stylish retreats offering comfort, romance and a chance for visitors to tickle their imagination. With seven unique rooms in the main body of the building, each are individually styled and decorated, with names such as The Ruby, The Manhattan, Bombay and Hunter. The later comes with hunt scene wallpaper, a stags head a riding crop for those who want to be a little wilder.

If stylish hotels aren’t enough to get you in the mood then perhaps chocolate does. Schoc is a unique artisan chocolate studio housed in a small 1920s clapboard house on the main street and creates 49 different flavours of chocolate. In December 2002, Murray Langham and partner Roger Simson opened this ‘Therapy studio’ and store to promote the effects of chocolate, or rather cocoa, a bean with many supposed healing elements still largely unexplored by science. Murray is a trained conventional therapist turned chocolate therapist and lectures through out the world. He has written two books on his theories, Chocolate Therapy and Hot Chocolate: Unwrap the flavour of your relationships and was an advisor on the film Chocolat starring Juliet Binoche. With almost too many flavours of chocolate to choose from, (such as limechilli, sea salt, lavender, sweet basil, lemon grass, tangerine and pink peppercorn), there are copious amounts of samples on offer to help you decide. One of Schoc’s most recent experiments was working with some of the areas Pinot growers, making Pinot Noir and New Zealand cream dark chocolate truffles for the International Pinot Noir conference in Wellington.

Treated with a morning of ample chocolate tastings, French brioche and great coffee, it was now time to drive the fifteen-minute jaunt through the beautiful countryside to Martinborough, the heart of Wairarapa wine country and to taste the Pinot Noir for myself.

Martinborough was once a sleepy backwater in need of a paint job, with a wilting nostalgia for the mother country; England. Founded by landowner John Martin in the 1870’s, he named the streets after the places he had visited around the world, such as Dublin St., Venice, Naples, Cologne and Strasbourg. The centre of town is marked with the Memorial Square, a green park shaped like a union jack from which today any direction leads to a winery.

The Martinborough Wine Centre stocks most of the wines produced in the area and also caters a great lunch to compliment a glass or too. Flanked by fashionable boutiques it is just across the road from The Martinborough Hotel, again refurbished by Michael Nalder.

From the park, I take a northeast route out of town. Never a better excuse for a mid afternoon stroll, there are approximately twenty-six wineries, in and around Martinborough, an area known as the “Golden Mile”. With a similar soil ph and climate to that of Burgundy in France and underground water channels left over from the now dry Huangaroa River, viticulturalists have found perfect growing conditions for a broad selection of grapes.

Tirohana Estate is a boutique winery some fifteen minutes walk from town, growing 70% Pinot Noir, along side Chardonnay, Riesling and Sauvignon Blanc grapes and is owned by millionaire, screenwriter and television producer Ray Thompson. The estate includes a Cellar Door, where visitors can sample first class wines and purchase direct from the vineyard for a reduced price. A luxury Garden Suite and the beautiful Tirohana House (Qualmark 5 Star Rating) accompany the scenic backdrop of the Martinborough Hills.

Ray is so passionate about his view that he even purchased some of those hills, he tells me, as we sit and admire them over a glass of the estates fabulous Pinot. Garnet in colour with aromas of black cherry and plum, the smooth and velvety structure of the wine has a fuller depth and character that lacks in pinots from other areas of New Zealand.

Ray may be wealthy businessman who can buy what ever he chooses, but he considers himself as a caretaker of the land.

“When I came here for the first time twelve years ago, it seemed so familiar. I spend my life in airplanes and hotels and this place makes me wind down.”

He describes New Zealand as a world within a country and growing grapes and making wine with his family has a spiritual affinity he has found no where else. And thus he chose to name the estate Tirohana, meaning Earth Family (Tir is Gaelic for earth whilst Ohana in Polynesian means family). The estate produces some 30,000 bottles a year, although Ray claims he drinks or gives away a lot of it.

“The Wairarapa is like Bordeaux was 300 years ago, before small wineries were amalgamated. I really hope it stays 'boutique', because it gives the place a small town appeal.”

Ray’s view of “passion before process” is like many other newcomers to the Wairarapa whose creative talents and persistence have developed and rejuvenated an otherwise rural backwater into a thriving economy of small business enterprise and taste. And a similar attitude will get you to visit this unique and inspiring slice of stylish country life. Off the beaten track, idyllic and too good to miss.

Tirohana Estate Puruatanga Road Martinborough PO Box 233 Martinborough Managed by Saranne & Toby James Tel: (04) 920 9434 Fax: (06) 946 8044

Edward Wilkinson Latham traveled with Air New Zealand, which flies daily from Los Angeles to Auckland and Christchurch.