If only its output were not so tiny, Tirohana Estate’s wines might be famous. While you can taste them at the cellar door, the ideal context is over dinner in the adjacent restaurant, overlooking the carefully manicured vineyard.
Considering it has been open for 11 years now, the restaurant interior is also remarkably pristine. The furnishings are eclectic, but through careful placement they blend together. You enter through antique Mexican doors to the shelter of a huge Chinese parasol. In a nook there’s a display table of unusual glassware, flanked by huge, ornately carved chairs from an Oddfellows Lodge. Contemporary artworks include a riff on a tapa cloth design by the celebrated Nuiean artist John Pule. With Italian floor tiles, a roaring log fire and candles on the white linen tablecloths, the sense of romance is total.
This is where couples might come to toast their wedding anniversary many times over, since drink-driving laws are rendered irrelevant by a free pick-up and drop-off service within Martinborough. The price-fixe menu runs to five courses, so the temptation is to begin with Tirohana’s weighty, fruit-driven chardonnay with the caramelised onion and mozzarella tart, then move on to the complex, Burgundian-like pinot noir with the beef and lamb, and end with the honey and apricot notes of the vineyard’s botrytis-affected riesling.
Chef Saranne James, the daughter of the owners, offers a wine-friendly Anglo-French repertoire free of violent aromatics, chilli and spices. It’s mostly traditional, simple fare, but all the cooking benefits from perfect timing. Appropriately for a country restaurant, the produce is local: an entree of cultivated Swiss brown mushrooms comes from Parkvale near Caterton. Simply stuffed with garlic, onion, cheddar and breadcrumbs, they chime in well with Tirohana’s pinot noir.
The beef used here is also from a Wairarapa farm – Red Devon, a rare breed high in intramuscular fat, which produces a spectacularly tasty, juicy fillet. This comes with both horseradish sauce and jus in addition to the promised garlic butter, over vegetables freshly picked from Tirohana’s kitchen garden.
Palliser Ridge Lamb, cooked medium-rare, again comes with seasonal vegetables, brightened up with a vivid green pea puree. There’s a duo of sauces – a French wine jus and English mint sauce (which the French regard as a strange Anglo-Saxon aberration).
What really warms you to this place is the warm welcome from Saranne James’s husband Toby, who seats each party with a Sauvignon Squeeze and an amuse bouche. Toby observes all the old-school formalities, including brushing down the table-cloth between courses, but he wears a baseball cap and can be very amusing.
The signature pumpkin bread and butter pudding (deliciously stacked with caramel sauce and vanilla bean ice cream) “has no calories, of course”, while the chocolate pot, a stiff goo bolstered with caramel, brandied cherries and whipped cream, Toby warns, is very intense: “If her eyes don’t dilate for two hours, that’s normal. After that, call an ambulance!”
His father-in-law, Ray Thompson, the owner of Tirohana Estate, is equally diverting. When he is not away making films, Ray can sometimes be seen in the tasting room. One day, he told me, a long-haired, particularly scruffy group turned up for a tasting. Assuming they must be vineyard workers, Ray thought it was so great they were taking an interest in wine that he whispered to his assistant: “Don’t charge them for the tasting.” But as Ray later found out, this motley crew was none other than AC/DC.
42 Puruatanga Rd, Martinborough
Ph: (06) 306 9933
Open for lunch Sat-Sun, dinner 7 nights
Price-fixe menu: $59 for 5 courses
Cost: $118 for two (excluding wine)
Wine list: ★★★★½