Independent UK Absolute Corker

The Wairarapa is New Zealand’s newest wine-growing region. Lucy Gillmore develops a passion for pinot among the vines, samples chocolate therapy and tries her hand at trout fishing Published : 12 March 2005

A middle-aged, slightly dumpy man is running crazily through a vineyard swigging from a wine bottle. Chasing him is a lanky Lothario with blow-dried mop. Gasping for breath, Dumpy staggers to a halt among the vines and tenderly cups a bunch of grapes. The scene is from the surprise hit and Oscar-winning buddy movie Sideways; the location the Santa Ynez valley in California; the unexpected star of the film, pinot noir. Hunkering down in my plane seat, Sideways on my monitor, I pass my glass back to the steward for a top-up. I’m heading home from another pioneering pinot region on the other side of the International Date Line and immersing myself in a little extra research. As Miles’s pinot passion reaches a crescendo, I savour the wine’s smoky smoothness and inhale the spicy aroma. That other pinot region is a twelve-hour flight west of California – and around a 26-hour pinot-numbed journey from the UK. The Wairarapa, one of New Zealand’s up-and-coming wine-growing areas, is the country’s self-proclaimed pinot capital. (A claim, it should be said, which is hotly disputed by Central Otago in the South Island, the southernmost wine-growing region in the world.) Over the hills but not too far away from the drowsy (despite it’s celebrated coffee addiction) capital, Wellington, the area is not yet on the tourist trail. Yet this relatively undiscovered corner at the south-eastern tip of the North Island has recently become the fashionable weekend retreat for the glitterati of Wellington. Once a poor farming region, the Wairarapa has been increasingly gentrified over the last few years. Quaint Martinborough, the wine “capital”, is surrounded by picturesque vineyards, while Greytown’s long Main Street is lined with antique shops, delis and cafés. Nearby, and also touted for future viniculturalist glory, are slumbering Gladstone and Otapaki. But even though money continues to trickle over the hills, it’s more refreshingly quirky than chi-chi. This is where Lord of the Rings director Peter Jackson has added Hobbit-like tunnels to his new pad, a farm up near Carterton; where the Kiwi version of Stonehenge was opened last month (a full-scale working adaptation of our Salisbury standing stones); and where you’ll find the man who invented chocolate therapy. Yes chocolate therapy. “Once self-realisation around chocolate takes place, it allows you to restore, nourish and rebalance the human psyche. When this happens, many other neuroses and fears just drop away.” So now you know. Murray Langham, said therapist turned chocolate-maker, can be found in his shop Schoc, a little 1920s clapboard confectioners in Greytown – when he’s not travelling the world giving chocolate therapy workshops with Deepak Chopra. A “conventional” therapist for ten years, he has published two books on his theories, Chocolate Therapy and Hot Chocolate: Unwrap the flavour of your relationships. In fact, Juliet Binoche used the first book to help her get into character for her role in Chocolat. From your choice of centre to the way that you discard your wrappers (if you scrunch your mind wanders in bed), reveals aspects of your personality – and, apparently, sexuality. Are you a Fondler (someone who experiences chocolate through their fingers?) or a selfish Gobbler, “lovemaking tends to be sloppy and mouthy”? Still, that’s better than being a Chomper (“in bed you may be clumsy, rough and loud. You could be called a screamer or a loud moaner”). Then there’s the Sucker… At Schoc, you can enjoy a less complicated relationship with the food of the gods, by watching it being made on an old marble slab out the back and then sampling broken chunks kept in the mini drawers of an old wooden medicine chest. The tastebud explosion that is limechilli is the most popular flavour, but the range also features lemongrass, cardamom, strawberry, black pepper and kiwi fruit. And the pinot noir truffle… Even in this tiny chocolate shop you can’t escape the wine that’s putting the Wairarapa on the map. Pinot grapes like the long hot days and cool nights found in the region. Situated in the rain shadow of the brooding Rimutaka Range, which separates the Wairarapa from Wellington, and subject to cooling winds from Palliser Bay, the resulting cool summers and long, dry autumns are perfect for the grape. When the new breed of wine-makers came here they planted a number of different varietals to see which would fare best. Today, local wineries produce cabernet sauvignon, riesling and sauvignon blanc, but it’s pinot that’s king. Although vines were planted here back in the 19th-century, most were ripped up after an outbreak of disease (thought to be the parasite phylloxera) and the onset of prohibition which spanned the first half of the 20th century. In the Wairarapa even the “Big Four” vineyards (Dry River, Chifney, Ata Rangi and Martinborough) only date back 20 or so years. Which makes the quality of the wines and the clutch of awards that they have won all the more remarkable. Martinborough was, until the winemakers’ arrival, a sleepy rural backwater. Even now it has more in common with the rustic charms of Santa Ynez than the highly polished experience offered by California’s Napa Valley. The long, wide streets lined with clapboard buildings have a whiff of the Wild West about them. The town was founded in the 1870s by a local landowner, John Martin, who named the grid-patterned streets after the places he had visited on his travels and laid out the leafy square in the shape of a Union Jack. It might be a pocket of pastels, but there’s still a rural edge which stops it from veering towards the twee. There are 26 wineries, about 10 an easy walk from the centre and the rest only a kilometre or so away. Tirohana Estate is not one of the oldest but has to be one of the most friendly. It’s owned by Raymond Thompson (remember Howard’s Way? He wrote it), and if he’s in residence you’re likely to see him driving a tractor or showing visitors around. When I wander in, the bird-scarers are going off. “We had a few members of the NYPD a while back,” Ray laughs. “They all dropped to the floor thinking they were under fire. I love the fact that you never know who’s going to stop by. Last week it was the Swedish Prime Minister, and, when she was in Wellington recently, Cherie Blair ordered a couple of cases of our wine. I don’t know how she’d heard about us.” His passion might be his vineyard but Ray is also CEO of Cloud 9, the production company behind, among others, the cult Five programme Tribes. He’s currently developing a drama based around New Zealand’s vineyards. “I was asked to do a series set among the vineyards in France but they just don’t have what this area has. People are still stamping their personality on this place. The Wairarapa is like Bordeaux was 300 years ago.” Ray’s mother was a Romany gypsy and he attributes his affinity with the land to his roots. He was making wine at six, plays music to the vines and insists that everything is done by hand. Tirohana means “earth family” and the vineyard, which he bought only a year ago, has become a family concern. His son Adam, a writer and musician, helps out in the tasting room. His youngest son, Cameron, is autistic but Ray says that he comes out of himself at Tirohana. His daughter, Saranne, and son-in-law, Toby, also manage a couple of cottages in Martinborough and Greytown. Ray loves the fact that people still have time to chat here. “I hope the wineries stay ’boutique’, as this is what helps to give the place its small town appeal,” he says. “Our neighbour, Peter Jackson – another one, not the director – has no cellar-door sales and just makes 700 bottles a year. This is the kind of place where an electrician can be a wine-maker.”