I FIRST visited Martinborough in about 1986.
I did not at that time realise that Larry McKenna, then working for Martinborough vineyard, was about to unleash his 1986 pinot noir upon an unsuspecting world. It was Larry's skill and Martinborough's peculiar terroir that would result in a wine that would prove, once and for all, that New Zealand was not just about sauvignon blanc.
But the thing about Martinborough at that time is that it was, not to put too fine a point on it, a no account little town with little to offer visitors. If the winemakers of this region began the astounding transformation of the town, then it was artisans with other skills who would complete it. My second visit to the town was in 1998. By then the revolution was more than simply under way. My wife, Jackie, and I came here just prior to moving to the UK for six years, with an aim to "sussing out" the region as by this time I was involved in the wine industry myself - selling the stuff. And what we found was a story of change that is typical of New World wine scenarios.
I can tell you that the primary reason I love the wine industry so much is precisely represented by what happened to Martinborough in those 12 between visits years. Gone was the "dead end" town that no Wellingtonian would be caught dead in. Gone was the ruggedly austere Martinborough Hotel, replaced by the chic boutique institution that we know so well today.
There were catering companies, wedding venues, a whole raft of new wineries and cellar doors, a thriving annual wine and food festival and cafes and restaurants. Allied to this new growth were the sundry businesses that had also entered the town in those years - clothes shops, salons and speciality stores of various kinds. Locally, Wharekauhau Country Estate was about to be constructed.
All of this would not have come about if it weren't for wine. And wine, wherever it becomes an industry, always promotes regions into the minds of people far and wide. Many of our guests at Wharekauhau visit us because of wine. Wine brings culture and culinary diversity. It lifts regions out of what might well have been the doldrums. And, in the case of Martinborough, that would once have been a fair phrase to use. The wine industry has placed the town fairly and squarely on a map, of sorts ... the wine map of the world. Local producers have continued to deliver ever increasing quality, as vines age, experience grows and demand qualifies the escapade to continue. This is a town that produces about 3 per cent of New Zealand's total wine crop. Yet local growers, year in year out, collect medals and awards that far outweigh any rational consideration of the volume of wine produced here. In wine terms, it is a place of magic.
That makes people continue to want to visit us. Yet it doesn't mean that all our eggs are in one basket. The wine industry stands alone. Not all of its stories are those of success. There will be failures. But, when push comes to shove, the wine industry will do what it does best. It will continue to create products that keep us firmly fixed in the gaze of people local and elsewhere.
Ancillary business concerns will profit because of this. Which means work, which means development, which means general good health for the town as a whole, which means a fine place of residence for those of us lucky enough to live in this region. And all of those people who flock over each weekend from Wellington now come because they have long since learned that the town, and Greytown for that matter, which has followed suit and set its own high standards, is certainly not only about the wine industry.
So, next time you raise a glass of fine local wine, take a second, to consider what you have in your hand. For it is the foundation stone of a thriving local village. It is the reason for our success. A success that is now self-generating. Add that to the fact that this is certainly the only place in New Zealand where one can start out walking and, in a 4km-5km stroll, complete a wine tour that takes in a dozen or more cellar doors and you have another reason to love the place. We are small. We are a collective of small operators. We have a code by which we work. We help each other. So, sometimes, small is good. Indeed, sometimes it can bring magic all of its own.
Try this: Te Kairanga Riesling 2005. Still available, this wine is now showing the significant benefits of bottle age. Riesling, properly stored, keeps longer than almost any other white wine. This one shows generous lime and kerosene aromatics, excellent palate texture and acidity and generous all round drinkability. Riesling is something that TK has always done brilliantly and this is a wonderful example of powerful, just off dry wine that will keep you entertained on a lovely, sunny Martinborough afternoon. An absolute snip at $18 at the TK cellar door. It's magic!