Joelle Thomson

Wine writer and award winning wine author

What I am drinking, reading and savouring each week


Pinot Pioneers event in Martinborough

A small region with a big message

There is no shortage of Pinot pioneers in New Zealand today but a group from one of the country's smallest wine regions is hosting a big event in July this year to commemorate, celebrate and promote its success with Pinot Noir.

The region is Martinborough. The event is called Pinot Pioneers and it is a dinner to be held at Union Square, the eponymous bistro named after the village square, from which roads branch off in the shape of the Union Jack. This region's success has sometimes been eclipsed by better known wines (Sauvignon Blanc) and regions (Marlborough) and in a general sense, Martinborough and the Wairarapa are not the first words to spring to mind when talking about New Zealand Pinot Noir, despite the fact that this region made more of it than other areas in the early days of modern wine in this country, in the 1980s. 

Martinborough is the heart of the Wairarapa and is a 90 minute drive from Wellington city. And with 1090 hectares of grapes currently in the ground, the volumes are not high, especially given that only about 400 hectares, or so, are actually Pinot Noir.

There are 5779 hectares of Pinot Noir nationwide, the vast majority in the South Island, most well notably in Central Otago where at least 80% of the region's vinous eggs are in the Pinot Noir basket; of the 2055 hectares in Central Otago, approximately 1800 are Pinot Noir. The deep south has also specialised in edgy dry white wines, with great success, and it has been extremely adept at marketing itself, despite being remote, at the extreme end of a cool climate wine region and, until the early 1990s, minuscule in numbers with just seven hectares of grapes in 1989 compared to 51 hectares in Martinborough and the Wairarapa. How times change. By 2010, Central Otago had 1540 hectares of grapes and Martinborough/the Wairarapa had 882 hectares. Two other high quality Pinot Noir regions are wedged in the middle; North Canterbury and Marlborough, but they are both another story, along with Nelson where a trickle of very good to exceptional Pinot Noir is produced. 

The styles of Pinot Noir made from all of these regions varies enormously, due to climate, weather patterns and winemaker philosophies, along with, famously, the wind in the Wairarapa and Waipara (North Canterbury); two regions where high winds routinely ensure that the volume of grapes and size of berries is small, thick skinned and generally more tannic than Pinot Noirs from other areas.

The organisers of the Pinot Pioneers event in Martinborough plan to highlight the high quality of wines from the only North Island region in which Pinot Noir thrives. Their aim is to celebrate the success of the first modern wine pioneers in the region and also give the region a bigger profile in the minds and mouths of wine lovers. Pinot Noirs will be opened to taste in both structured and informal settings over two days and evenings for invited media, who will have a hand picked tour of the region's vineyards and cellar doors. The event will also show what is new in this small wine region and where the growth is; most notably in the Te Muna Valley, where Craggy Range Winery has purchased an additional 132 hectares of land, which will see the production of Wairarapa wine grow by approximately 10 per cent).

It may be a remote rural village, devoid of the majestic mountain peaks of the deep south but Martinborough Pinot Noirs scale their own heights of quality, making this region a place to watch. 

Disclaimer: The writer, yours truly, is an unashamed admirer of good quality Pinot Noir, so much so that I am now a full time resident of Martinborough, a village that is thriving due to the region's wine industry.

  • The Pinot Pioneers dinner is to be held on Thursday 27 July at Union Square bistro. Tickets are currently limited to the wine trade.