Wairapa, two hours outside Wellington, characterizes New Zealand in transition, from lands with a million sheep to new vineyards and vacation destinations. Start in the town square of the rustic town of Martinborough. Browse local restaurants, galleries and quaint shops. The square is also the jumping off point the third Sunday of each November for one of the world’s most fun wine, food and music festivals: Toast Martinborough.
The 25th edition is set for Nov. 20, 2016. Tickets go on sale in September and sell out fast. Some hotels and bed and breakfast establishments in the region have a Toast package that includes a Festival ticket, which gets you entry into the compact wine area. Organizers close the area to regular traffic on festival day so shuttle busses can circulate both directions, providing celebrants easy access to a dozen wineries, each with different restaurants from Wellington and musical groups from all over.
During our most recent visit on Nov. 15, 2015, we were impressed with the array of cuisine. Each restaurant had five to ten selections. A sampling: Wairapa venison burger, organic Spanish paella, duck spring rolls, twice cooked pork belly, Moroccan spiced calamari, Hawkes Bay lamb rump burger and onion rings, scallop and pork belly salad, crab taco, shucked oysters, mussels and, something perhaps linking to their British heritage, a steak and kidney pastry top pie. Music ranges from rock, to blues, to jazz, to an Abba tribute band, to an Elvis impersonator. Dancing in the vineyards is the order of the day.
Our favorite wineries: Dry River (2013 Pinot Noir and 2013 Chardonnay), Martinborough Winery (2012 Pinot Noir and 2013 Syrah-Viognier blend), Palliser (2013 Chardonnay), Margrain (2013 Home Block Pinot Noir), Ata Rangi (2013 Pinot Noir) and Te Kairanga (2013 Runholder Pinot Noir). Most are available in Southern California, but in limited quantities. We also enjoyed a barrel tasting at Ata Rangi, where we tasted five different Pinot Noir wines blind, each barrel samples from the latest vintage and made from Pinot Noir grapes, but different vineyard blocks and clones. Our group preferred A and C. Everyone enjoyed making their own cuvees to sip while learning more details on vinification from Helen Masters, winemaker.
Highly recommended for an urban escape: the capital city of New Zealand (www.wellingtonnz.com) at the southern end of the North Island. It has all the walking charms of San Francisco, Boston and Vancouver. The urban core includes Queens Wharf, Museum of Wellington, Academy of Fine Arts, Civic Square and the Museum of New Zealand (Te Papa), shops along Lambton Quay, and fun for foodies nearby in some 40 restaurants, bars and cafes. You also catch the ferry here for crossing to the South Island.
Next: Queenstown and Central Otago, emerging Pinot Noir region, on the South Island