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Wairarapa rebrands as Wellington Wine Country

Winemakers in New Zealand’s Wairarapa Valley, which includes the boutique Pinot Noir heartland of Martinborough, have collectively rebranded as Wellington Wine Country in an effort to better communicate the region and its wines.

Helen Masters, winemaker at Ata Rangi in Martinborough

Located on the north island, east of Wellington, the Wairarapa Valley comprises the Martinborough GI, Gladstone GI and Masterton, regions connected by the Ruamahanga river. The most planted varieties across all three regions, now known as Wellington Wine Country, are Pinot Noir and Sauvignon Blanc, with smaller plantings of Riesling, Pinot Gris, Gewurztraminer and Syrah.

Accounting for 1.3% of New Zealand’s wine production, but 2.8% of its vineyards, the Wairarapa is largely home to small, family-owned and boutique producers with far lower cropping levels than, for example, Marlborough.

But while the region is home to some of New Zealand’s best Pinot Noir, with Martinborough the most prominent of its three sub regions, its winemakers admit that even many New Zealanders don’t fully understand their region, provinces and wines, let alone those outside of New Zealand. As well as the potentially difficult pronunciation for many international consumers, the region is often confused with the Waipara wine region in North Canterbury on the south island.

“Collectively people often know Martinborough but they don’t understand Wairarapa,” said Helen Masters, winemaker at Ata Rangi in Martinborough, speaking to the drinks business.

“We need people to understand that these are a villages within a greater region. You won’t see us all over the shelves in the supermarkets because there’s just not that volume going overseas. We have to be working collectively if we are going to really establish and keep growing as a region.”

‘We are stronger as a group than when we are divided’

To achieve this Wairarapa winemakers have looked toward Central Otago, which has successfully built a brand image for the region as ‘Central Otago’ comprising its sub regions of Bannockburn, Alexandra, Gibbston, Wanaka, Bendigo and Cromwell.

“They have collectively put themselves under one name,” explained Katherine Jacobs, owner of Big Sky winery in Martinborough. “We are following that model and we are trying to adapt that model and make more impact as Wellington Wine Country. It’s a collective voice that we are trying to speak with. We are stronger as a group than when we are divided. People don’t know we exist here. Central has that impact.”

Rebranding its region as Wellington Wine Country, with the world’s “coolest little capital” – Wellington – just an hours drive away, Wairarapa winemakers are hoping that highlighting its geographic proximity to the city will help raise awareness and recognition of their wines. Importantly, Wellington Wine Country is not a geographical indication, but a marketing body to promote the region on domestic and international markets.

“We need Wellington to own us as their wine region,” adds Christine Kernohan, owner and winemaker of Gladstone Vineyard.

“It’s almost like looking from the outside in rather than the inside out. There are some of us that travel to the other side of the world and we see New Zealand from the outside in. It made sense, so it may be that we use Wellington Wine Country as a label. At the end of the day we need to get more wines sold at better prices across the region. As a group we have to be supportive of people across the region.”

Vineyards in Gladstone viewed from the Urlar Estate

‘Small volumes of unique wines’

Volumes produced from Wellington Wine Country are small, with yields necessarily low, so the growth of export markets is less of a driving factor in its rebranding than achieving greater recognition for the region as a boutique producer capable of producing small volume premium wines.

“Often these wineries are very small,” adds Masters. “We export to 30 markets across the world. We allocate all around the world and for us it has been quite strategic. We can’t bring big volume of our wines but we really want it to be in the best fine dining and retailers where we do export.”

Due to the region’s necessarily low yields, big corporations and large winemaking operations have not yet ventured to the Wairarapa, which is still almost exclusively home to small, family-owned wineries. The Matahiwi Estate, Martinborough Vineyards and Te Kairanga, the last two owned by the Foley Family, are perhaps the biggest in the region.

“There’s no big players in this region,” says Masters. “There never has been because there hasn’t been the land available and the lower cropping levels means that it isn’t as commercially successful. We can’t grow the volume here. We can’t make a NZ$20 quaffer – the math doesn’t add up – so we have to be really committed to the small game.”

Positioned some 40km from the coast, Wairarapa has a semi maritime climate and is the driest region in the north island with the Tararua ranges to the west and the Aorangi’s to the south protecting the region from wet weather. On average, the region receives around 600- 700mm of rainfall each year. Much of the region’s vineyards are planted on stony, infertile river terraces, with the region characterised by its southern exposure to Antarctica, with cool winds driving up from the south defining the growing season.

“For us that prevailing wind coming up this valley during spring has a huge affect on us in terms of yields,” explains Masters. “For flowering it really has to be over 14 degrees. We often get, during that three to four week, wind and a lot of cool weather coming up. So what that means is that we get flowers not fertilising and dropping off, so the formation of the bunch is much lighter, resulting in lower bunch weights and tougher skins.

“They are more exposed to the elements. Others [bunches], like in Central Otago, are filled and tightly packed. That’s part of the reason our wines are so different from other regions in NZ. Our position and exposure to the south is critical to the low yielding aspect. To me the bunch architecture, putting aside weather and soils, that’s quite a critical element to the wines of Wairarapa. They are unique wines and for me it’s about the texture and the length of the palate,” says Masters.

“I think our wines need a little more time in the bottle because of that slightly more structured approach. Our wines aren’t necessarily fruit driven. It’s more spicy savoury, so for people that aren’t looking for a light fruity wine there are small producers here that are eking out a living and producing small volumes of unique wines.”

Wairarapa, now known as Wellington Wine Country, is around an hour’s drive from Wellington on the south east of the north island.

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