By Insider – Suzanne Peri-Chapman
Excellent idea, this unmasking of Martinborough. For those of you who don’t know where, or what, Martinborough is..click here. For those who do – it’s that little piece of paradise, just out of Wellington, with a drive over the Rimutakas that’s just tricky enough to make you feel you’ve really achieved something when you get there. The home of NZ wine, NZ Olive Oil and general NZ loveliness.
Martinborough Unmasked is a new event, that could well become an annual one, especially if attached to some of the existing festivals that occur in the region. The brainchild of Gretchen Bunny, the idea is that you get a “behind the scenes” tour from various local good sports who have generously opened their vineyards, olive groves and galleries to the tourists.
I prudently went with the shuttle bus ticket, as those wine tastings can really sneak up on you…before you know it, you could find yourself explaining things to a stern-faced officer of the law, from behind the wheel of your car that has just been stopped from weaving all over the road. A very friendly bus driver drove a loop of ten locations you could visit, each with activities such as vertical tastings, barrel room tours, vine grafting, tree pruning, harnessing yeasts, vineyard tours and…tasting, tasting, tasting. (Hence the bus, not the car).
I arrived in the early afternoon, and had to choose three things to do, owing to the timing of the bus circuit – we were dropped off at our location of choice, and picked up an hour later. Sounds like a long time, but in each location the bus was back before we knew it and on to the next location. I picked the Vynfields tour and tasting – Martinborough’s first (and presently only) organic and biodynamic viticulture. Partly because a friend, on hearing I was going to Martinborough, had given me a shopping list of wines including Vynfields, and also because I was hungry and I knew they had a café.
So, first stop Vynfields. John Bell, one of the owners, gave us a tour of the vineyard, with a most interesting commentary. We learned about what makes an organic vineyard, how they weed under the vines without spraying, their agreement with the neighbours who do spray (only when there’s no wind blowing in the direction of the organic vines), and what makes compost organic. There was also an introduction to the mystic arts of vineyard magic – a sort of divining device, involving water and sundry potions for various vineyard activities. Didn’t quite get all this, but their wines are lovely, so whatever they are doing, it’s clearly working.
Back to the house (moved to its present location from Lyall Bay in Wellington, in five segments, we heard) for a spot of vegan, homemade lunch – in my case a delicious mushroom and tarragon pate, with fresh warm bread. I would so like the recipe, if Kaye McAulay (the other owner) could be persuaded to part with it…
The bus arrived on time, and we piled in and headed off to the next spot. I should say that the “we” included an assortment of Rugby World Cup travellers – South Africans, Irish, English…politely, no-one made mention of RWC losses, although the Irish fellow did say that he’d only just emerged from several days of drowning his sorrows.
There was a large group heading to the barrel tasting, so I thought I’d go solo and jumped off the bus for a wine tasting experience at Te Kairanga vineyard. (TK to their pals). Apparently I was early, however the nice people there agreed to give me the tour with Wendy Potts, Chief Winemaker. This proved to be truly fascinating, and was about some of the alchemy of wine-making. She has a science degree in the making of wine, so may not approve of my choice of description as alchemy, however to my wondering eyes that’s what it seemed like. She had prepared a demonstration of live yeast (so live that she referred to the yeast elements as “them” and fed them with special food that they liked), and even had a chalkboard with the formula written out. An imaginative idea, and it was fun and informative to talk with her. She talked about the temperatures of yeast, what was important, the balance between acids and sugars….truly fascinating, and I know many wine buffs who would have killed to be talking with a winemaker. We tasted a Sauvignon Blanc from a tank, and one from a barrel, this one made from natural yeast. (Forgive me Wendy, if my explanation is less than technically accurate…). However, if you come across an SV grown entirely in a barrel, grab it – a marked difference between the two.
Something else of interest at this Te Kairanga tour was the barrels – all made in France. Although we Kiwis may be hoping the French get thoroughly beaten in the Rugby World Cup, it has to be said that they have done, and continue to do, wonderful things for the world’s wine industry. Vive La France – just not on the Rugby fields, thank you very much. The nice lady behind the Te Kairanga counter was telling me that they had had many RWC travellers from South Africa, who really knew their wines, and were asking all sorts of highly technical questions about growing wines in NZ.
On to the bus again, this time hopping off at Olivo – yes, you guessed it, the Olive Oil people in Martinborough. Helen Meehan took us on a pruning tour of the olive groves, along the way giving us lots of interesting information about the growing of olives in New Zealand, and which varieties grew well here. She was most interesting when telling us about the trees, how they grew, what was desirable in an olive tree, and how to pick and prune them. We had a supervised go with the shears (immersed in bleach so as not to pass on any diseases from tree to tree), then it was back to the tasting room for John to take us through the flavours and rankings of olive oil.
We learned about the importance of first pressed and cold pressed – I now know what this means when I see it on a label. They produce only Extra Virgin Olive Oil, and they also produce infused oils, with some excellent flavours…cumin-infused EVO is their new kid on the block. They have a porcini one, however we were not allowed to taste this as it wasn’t ready – Helen is very particular about when the oils are ready to be released. Although I’m not a fan of chilli, I would have to say I liked their smoked chilli blend – as John said, the chilli follows the taste of the oil, not leading it, and the chilli factor arrives on the palate a few seconds after the oil. Almost as complex as wine tastings, although without (yet) the extraordinary descriptions you get in wine tasting notes….”first on the palate is the note of leather car seats, with later notes of magnolia, followed by weetbix” and so on.
The bus arrived on cue, and we piled in, the Irish chap with a large bottle of chilli-infused EV oil “you’d never get this in Ireland” said he. We were deposited back in Martinborough at the Martinborough Hotel, where Gretchen had organised an after-party. This consisted of yet more tastings of wines, cider and foods, and more interesting conversations with the local producers. I had a chat with Morton Anderson, of Tiwaiwaka wines, who produce a range of reds. I had always thought of myself as not really a red drinker, however I was introduced to a Tiwaiwaka Cabernet Franc, which I came to admire very much. Raspberry notes, I was told, and yes – that is exactly what it had. Could it be possible I’m turning into a wine buff..? Schubert was there, with a fine Rose for tasting, and Coney Wines had a great Riesling range. (They also have limericks on the back of every bottle, for a bit of light entertainment while quaffing).
So, as a punter for this hopefully inaugural Martinborough Unmasked, I had a fine old time, and enjoyed learning more about wines and oils, in a thoroughly pleasant way, and all the while tasting, tasting, tasting. I would encourage the organisers to make it an annual event, as I am certain the more serious wine aficionados would love to get up close and personal with the winemakers. Cheers!