Three-wheel pedal power can lead to a perfect pinot noir, writes Paul Rush.
Early summer, that sublime season when the sun rises higher over the standing stones of Stonehenge-Aotearoa, lambs frolic on the golden Wairarapa Downs and people come from far and wide in search of ambrosial wines of finesse and complexity on the Martinborough Wine Trail.
I've heard through the grapevine that Southern Wairarapa is a magnet for wine lovers and I've come for a "hands-on" experience of the vigneron's most tempting treasures from the cellars. I hear there is a fountain of fine wine flowing through the region, and the elegant pinot noir leads by a nose.
My first discovery is that 40 wineries in the region are boutique-size rather than commercial, which makes Martinborough unique, as most of the premium wines are rarely seen in wine stores. It gets even better as many vineyards are within cycling distance of the village square.
Pedalling for the perfect pinot is the current vogue and Stuart Green of Green Jersey Cycle Tours is on hand to provide transportation.
"You don't have to exert yourself by pushing pedals," he says to my surprise.
"I'll take you first class on my three-wheeler Asian rickshaw; it's a fun-filled treat for all the senses."
Cycling the Lower Wairarapa byways is a carefree, stress-releasing activity. The expansive plains are quilted in green and yellow, seamlessly joined by orderly shelterbelts and neat hedges. Tethered vines march in orderly ranks towards the hills, each leafy top sprouting darling buds and grape clusters, ripening to perfection.
The first person we meet epitomises the glass half-full philosophy of Martinborough's vintners.
Poppy Hammond of Poppies Vineyard began her working life reassuring people that diving into space tied to a bungy cord was the perfect adrenalin rush and a fun experience.
"Working with pioneer adventure operators, A.J Hackett and Henry van Asch on my first job was pure inspiration for me," Poppy says.
She went on to do a degree course in oenology with a work experience component at Dry River vineyard. After graduation, she was appointed assistant winemaker at that company from 2001 to 2012.
At a friend's wedding in Ohakune, she bumped into her first boyfriend, Shane, whom she hadn't seen for 11 years.
"The decision to launch out on our own was not difficult," she says.
"We just looked at each other and said we can run our own vineyard. It's a big challenge but let's just go for it. Now we make the wines that we like to drink. But the best part is that other people like them, too, so we're doing what we love."
Poppy calls her cellar door sampling "speed dating with wine. As a proud mother of our wines, I love introducing people to them, sharing food and wine in a vineyard setting just as they do in Italy and France".
We sample a 2013 pinot noir and 2014 sauvignon blanc, which are are both luscious and succulent with lots of perfume and character.
Later Ann Brodie welcomes us to the Brodie Estate, home of wonderful pinot noir, olive oil, art works and boutique accommodation. Ann and James grow their grapes without irrigation to ensure that all the energy goes into the fruit and produce 1000 cases of high-quality pinot noir each year.
Ann's art studio sits enticingly behind the tasting room so we survey some of her richly coloured, ebullient works of art, which explore the alchemical nature of the winemaking process. The large canvasses represent grapes being processed and are dramatic and eye-popping in abstract whorls of burgundy red and purple.
At Olivo Olives, Helen and John Meehan guide us around the oldest commercial grove in the region with 1200 trees from Greece and Italy. Its extra-virgin blend is crafted from a mixture of Barnea, Manzanillo, Leccino and Frantoio olives. The range of infused oils on offer is mind-boggling.
Lemon is the most popular flavour; great in muffins or drizzled on asparagus and tossed with scallops. Orange is gorgeous on carrots, pumpkin, kumara and beetroot. I sample the smoked chilli and get the pungent smoky taste first then feel a distinct tingle in my palate.
I switch to motorised transport and visit Murdoch James Estate. Marketing guru, Nicola Belsham, is the perfect host for their celebrated Grape to Glass Wine Tour. "Our tours are really about demystifying the winemaking process and helping people to feel empowered with their own wine knowledge," she explains.
New Zealand produces three per cent of global wine and Martinborough makes just one per cent of the country's total production, so it's small scale, hand-picked, hand-made wine made by dedicated vintners with a hands-on-philosophy.
Murdoch James' point of difference is the calciferous clay soils on its ancient limestone terraces, which are relatively frost-free.
During the extreme frosts in 2007, growers on the plain spent a fortune on helicopters to stir up the air. Vintners asked Karl, "How did you get on with the frost last night?" His reply was succinct, "Oh, I had to put another blanket on my bed."
Over a satisfying glass of sauvignon blanc Nicola says their "wine-whisperer" is Chris who hand-prunes the 70,000 vines. I recoil at the thought of such mind-numbing and back-breaking toil but soon learn it's part of the intrepid process of hand-making wine.
The very day the grapes turn red, swarms of starlings blacken the sky ready to gorge on the fruit. That's the day the bird scaring programme swings into action with 4km of black netting, but the resourceful birds just peck through the mesh.
Cannons are mounted on top of the hill to shatter the bucolic tranquility of the countryside for phase two of this "shock and awe" warfare, followed by shotgun pellets aimed at scout birds leading the flocks.
Now, when I buy a bottle of pinot noir, I realise just how much effort goes into making it.
Importantly, I've learned something of the character of people who work in Martinborough's wine industry. They are all perfectionists, meticulous to a fault and extraordinarily dedicated and passionate about the art of making wine.
The "glistening waters", for which the Wairarapa was named, can now relate to the rubicund lake of sparkling, handcrafted wines. Blend these with fine contemporary dining and you have a near perfect lifestyle.
All you have to do is pedal along nice and easy and let your legs and tastebuds do the work. Or just lie back in a rickshaw and breathe in the country air.
IF YOU GO
Touring the vineyards: Green Jersey Cycle Tours run 3-4 hour guided cycle tours of top Martinborough vineyards and olive oil producers, including a vineyard lunch. An animal farm can be included if children are in the group.
Accommodation: The beautifully refurbished Peppers Martinborough Hotel has 16 individually designed rooms and is the ideal base for exploring the Southern Wairarapa.
Further information: See wairarapanz.com.
Paul Rush travelled to Martinborough with assistance from Destination Wairarapa, Cross-Country Rentals and Peppers Martinborough Hotel.