Wairarapa: Pedalling to the pinots

By Sharon Lundy

Sharon Lundy settles into an easy bike-riding tour of Wairarapa's award-winning wineries.

March Hare Cycling through the vineyards of Wairarapa. Photo / Sharon Lundy
March Hare Cycling through the vineyards of Wairarapa. Photo / Sharon Lundy

I give the comfy couch and cosy fire one last, longing look before heading outside to grey skies and ... a bike ride.

It's hard to tear myself away from our lovely suite at Peppers Parehua Martinborough and on to a bike - especially as I haven't ridden one for the better part of 10 years - but there is an upside: wine. I love it, and I'm about to cycle to a couple of vineyards on Gretchen Bunny's March Hare Cycling tour.

Gretchen explains the ins and outs of adjusting the bike seats, then tells everyone to claim a bike, shortest rider first.

I try to loiter near the back as we set off, my nerves not helped by the knowledge that one of our group has just cycled 800km along the Mekong Delta. But all goes well and it would seem the old adage of never forgetting how to ride a bike is true. Phew.

Gretchen has been running the tours for three years; in a previous life she was more at home in the corporate world but, when she was made redundant, she took the plunge and set up the business.

She'd had the idea of vineyard bike tours while living in Hawkes Bay and noticing that whenever friends visited and did a wine tour, someone either had to be the sober driver or the car had to be picked up the next day.

"I never planned to set up my own business [but] it's the best thing I ever did," she says.

"It's basically a fun day out.

"It's not pretentious."

She sidesteps questions about whether anyone has ever come a serious cropper in those three years but does tell us the tale of one older woman who had decided a wine tour would be the perfect opportunity to learn to ride a bike. She fell off three times before reaching the first vineyard but, by the end of the afternoon, had nailed it and decided her next adventure was the Central Otago Rail Trail.

First stop on our tour is Ata Rangi, established in 1980 by Clive Paton who, at the time, was milking cows. "I milked cows just to get some money to make wine," he says.

An early scientific survey showed the area had similar soils to the Burgundy region of France, meaning it should be good for pinot noir grapes. Thirty-two years on, Clive can confirm that early survey was bang on - an opinion backed by the wine industry which, in 2010, honoured Ata Rangi with the inaugural Tipuranga Teitei o Aotearoa, or Grand Cru of New Zealand, for its pinot noir.

Clive, who was joined early on by sister Alison and wife Phyll, describes pinot noir as a "very personal wine" which reflects the personality of the winemaker.

Phyll is a little more direct, saying drinking vodka and tonic or brandy and dry is fine if you want something "dull and predictable. But this is a journey to the place and the time".

Speaking of journeys, it's back on the bike and off to Alana Estate for more wine and a long, lazy lunch.

Bridget Venning, of the estate's Game Keeper restaurant, produces platters laden with house-cured salmon, olives, dips and whitebait fritters, teamed with locally made bread.

It was all amazing but my favourite by a mile was Kingsmeade Cheeses Sunset Blue, a lusciously creamy blue which won bronze in this year's Cuisine New Zealand Champions of Cheese Awards.

We try four Alana Estate wines with the platters: a sauvignon blanc, a riesling and two pinot noirs, the 2008 and the 2009. Chief executive Peter Wilkins says while the '09 is good, the '08 is something special. I concur.

Back on the bikes and back to Parehua - via a quick stop at New Zealand-made boutique Thrive to buy a dress - and it's time for a quick change before attending the official launch of the resort under the Peppers brand.

Four couples opened Parehua about four years ago but have looked to Peppers, part of Australia's Mantra brand, to take over the running of it.

Peppers' regional general manager New Zealand, Ken Harris, says it's a privilege for the group to be in Martinborough, which he describes as a wine and food destination.

The resort certainly reinforces that with a degustation dinner flagged as "sublime", which certainly lived up to that promise.

From the vanilla-infused duck confit matched with Ata Rangi pinot gris ("Our nod to Alsace," says Clive), to the Ngawi crayfish ravioli with the Petrie chardonnay, chef Paul Condron outdid himself, even if the blue cheese, which had so taken my fancy earlier in the day, was just a step too far for me as an icecream.

Having dined like royalty, it was finally back to that lovely suite, my only regret being that it was too late to do justice to the spa bath.

CHECKLIST

Getting there: Air New Zealand has direct flights from Auckland to Masterton.

Where to stay: Peppers Parehua is in New York Street West, Martinborough.

What to do:

* March Hare Cycling
* Ata Rangi vineyard
* Alana Estate

Further information: See wairarapanz.com

Sharon Lundy visited the Wairarapa with assistance from Destination Wairarapa and Peppers Parehua Martinborough.

- NZ Herald

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