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Why Martinborough Pinot Noirs Are New Zealand’s Best

The town may be tiny, but its wines offer outsized quality

Joelle Thomson By November 16, 2021
people on bikes in Martinborough wine village in Wairarapa, New Zealand
Bicyclists in Martinborough wine village in Wairarapa, New Zealand. Photo by Jet Productions.

The name Martinborough is synonymous with New Zealand’s best Pinot Noirs, as well for its village charms and being under the radar. It’s a tiny village, by any stretch. There were approximately 1,500 residents living there 20 years ago, and now, there are about 1,700. Not exactly big growth, but visitor numbers have swelled over that time, as have the number of quirky bicycles that can be seen quietly winding their way around the vineyards that surround this remote rural village. 

Martinborough is a 90 minutes’ drive from the country’s capital city, Wellington, but a world away in terms of climate. 

High sunshine hours, dry days, and spring frosts present a mixed bag of joy and sorrow, especially during spring when winemakers nervously wait for buds to burst into life on their vines. “We had 18 spring frosts last year but the dry, hot days and deep alluvial gravels provide growing conditions that make for deeply complex wines,” says Nick Hewitt, general manager of Butterworth Estate

Pinot Noir vines at Butterworth Estate in Te Muna Valley, Martinborough

Pinot Noir vines at Butterworth Estate in Te Muna Valley, Martinborough. Photo courtesy of Butterworth Estate.

The pioneers

A small handful of early pioneers had a profound influence on the culture of this farming village-turned-wine-town. The region’s first commercial wines were produced in 1984 by Ata Rangi, Chifney Wines, Dry River Wines, and Martinborough Vineyards. Chifney is no longer, but the other three original wineries remain. 

Larry McKenna was one of the first winemakers in the region at Martinborough Vineyards, and he set the stage for delicate but powerful Pinot Noirs. McKenna then established the Escarpment Vineyard in the Te Muna Valley, a slightly cooler part of Martinborough, six miles east of the village. He sees the climate here as key to the quality of the Pinot Noir. 

Martinborough is where New Zealand’s Pinot Noir story began. But it has been eclipsed, to a large extent, by bigger name regions, such as Central Otago and Marlborough, both of which boast significantly higher production. To put things in perspective, New Zealand has just over 99,000 acres of producing vineyard land, of which, Martinborough has just 2,700 acres compared to Marlborough’s 69,000 and Central Otago’s 5,000 acres. 

Numbers aside, it’s the quality that makes Martinborough Pinot Noir tick, but it’s not always easy to make money from it. 

Mother Nature makes her windy presence felt strongly in this wine region with spring winds that sweep away the risk of fungal disease but routinely reduce the number of grapes that remain on the vines. This ensures an enviable depth and concentration of flavor in Martinborough Pinot Noirs, while keeping volumes small. 

“Martinborough has managed to retain the fundamental character of a rural service village and while developments have added everything you would want, the place hasn’t lost its soul. That’s what I love about it.”

The village

Martinborough has charm to burn. Many winemakers and residents who work locally need to stroll no further than 50 paces to get to work, and the village had the highest growth in visitor numbers following lockdown in 2020. Which is no surprise to those who have been here. The wines have a reputation for being exceptional, but now there is a growing number of eateries and cellar doors at which to enjoy them. 

“Martinborough has managed to retain the fundamental character of a rural service village and while developments have added everything you would want, the place hasn’t lost its soul. That’s what I love about it,” says winemaker Roger Parkinson, who produces Three Canoes and Nga Waka (pronounced Na-wok-a) wines.

Jay Short and Peggy Dupey, owners of Nga Waka

Jay Short and Peggy Dupey, owners of Nga Waka. Photo courtesy of Nga Waka.

Martinborough’s small size and high quality encapsulate everything that great wine stands for, but the icing on the cake is that its production is set to expand by about 15% over the next two years, thanks to the acquisition of 247 acres of farmland which is now planted in vines for Craggy Range Winery

This bold vote of confidence in this small wine region adds another reason to take New Zealand Pinot Noir seriously, especially the powerful Pinots of Martinborough. A region that can provide a serious rival for its Burgundian counterparts at both village and regional levels, sometimes even higher up the ladder too. Watch this space. 

3 Martinborough Pinot Noir to try:

bottle of Cambridge Road Animus Pinot Noir 2018

Cambridge Road Animus Pinot Noir 2018 ($28)

Cambridge Road winemaker Lance Redgwell produces this Pinot Noir from his small vineyard in the heart of Martinborough village. It’s one of the oldest vineyards in the region, planted 34 years ago and now farmed biodynamically. This means systemic sprays are eschewed in favor of natural compost, and following the astronomical calendar for harvest dates and vineyard nurture. This savory, earthy wine is medium bodied and works well with game food and tasty cheese. It was matured for 11 months in old oak prior to bottling without added sulfur dioxide.

bottle of Butterworth Te Muna Martinborough Pinot Noir 2018

Butterworth Te Muna Martinborough Pinot Noir 2018 ($51)

Te Muna is the majestic valley situated 5.5 miles east of Martinborough village and is home to Butterworth Estate, where this exceptional Pinot Noir is made. Winemaker Martin Bell is at the winemaking helm here and ages this wine for 11 months in French oak, 25% new, which adds smooth, savory characters to the great concentration of black and red fruit flavors. Drinks beautifully now and has the structure to age for 10 years or more, in favorable storage conditions and if the willpower holds out.

bottle of The Escarpment Pahi Pinot Noir 2014

The Escarpment Pahi Pinot Noir 2014 ($60)

This wine is a collector’s item. Pahi is the name of a small vineyard in Te Muna Valley but when this wine was made, seven years ago now, it was the name of another outstanding vineyard in Martinborough village, which has since changed ownership. Both sites have a long track record of producing outstanding quality Pinot Noirs. Mother Nature’s brutal reduction of grape bunch size in this region makes for small, thick skinned grapes with dense tannins. Winemaker Larry McKenna is adept at managing these tannins so that the resulting wines are silky but powerful; the classic iron fist/velvet glove scenario. This beautifully aged, earthy, and spicy Pinot Noir shines a new light on the Southern Hemisphere’s potential with one of the world’s trickiest red grapes.