When I was recently asked if I had a penchant for wine I immediately thought of the words “Is the Pope Catholic?” I love the stuff. White, red, sticky, though I’m still not up to speed with the rosé stuff. Perhaps my [insert posh accent here] palate is yet to mature. I’m half way through my life so if I’m not mature now then I’ll never be!
I couldn’t help but be a little excited when I found out that I’d be doing a day trip up to the beautiful Wairarapa wine region, with Peter, on this epic Wellington eating and drinking fest. I can’t believe how close this wine region is to the centre of Wellington.
Following a full breakfast and a scenic ride in the WOAP-mobile over the Tararua Ranges I struggled to fight off motion sickness from the left and right precarious winding curves up and over the mountains. You’ve got to be kidding. The first time I ever experience car sickness has to be here, before wine tasting?
Once over the mountain the road straightened enough for my stomach to go back to relative normality and I could fully appreciate the beauty of this Lord of the Ring’s landscape. Bryn is clearly a fan of these movies as he’s quick to point out several filming locations as we’re driving. “See that rocky riverbed? That’s where they shot the scene where …. see that little valley up there? That’s where the shot the scene with …”
The green tundra-like forest thickly blankets the rugged ridges and deep valleys with windswept bonsai trees and bright yellow wild flowers. It’s a spectacular sight and the only safety barrier between the winding road and a 300-metre drop is a string of wooden fence palings and flimsy wire.
Before you know it you’re on relatively flat terrain and meandering along open country road past farms and green fields and tall hedges of trees. This is what I love about New Zealand. The green in this country is almost blinding, even on an overcast day. Unlike the sepia tone of the Australian landscape.
Our host today is Bryn, international marketing coordinator of Positively Wellington Tourism. He’s showing us a very small part of the Classic NZ Wine Trail. A trail that covers 380 km of highway from Hawke’s Bay, Wairarapa, through to Wellington and across the Cook Strait on to Marlborough. Covering 230 wineries, many with boutique accommodation and an almost endless array of restaurants and cafe’s.
Our first stop is in the gorgeous town of Martinborough, full of beautifully preserved wooden colonial shop fronts and pubs and a memorial square that has the layout of the Union Jack. We’re headed for Muirlea Rise, one of at least 30 wineries within walking distance of the main village.
There are so many small boutique wineries sitting side by side on the back streets of Martinborough that we happen to just drive past without noticing. A quick u-turn and a lap of the town we find Muirlea Rise.
This family owned vineyard is relatively young as it was only established in 1987 by Lea and the late Willie Brown. Today Muirlea Rise is run by son Shawn, whom we meet and are guided around the operations for a behind the scenes view on his wine production.
The predominant grape in this region is Pinot Noir and from the 10 acres of vines this small boutique vineyard produces 750 cases a year, also including the fortified Après dessert wine and Mareth, a delicious blend of Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon.
We’re quick to learn that a vine under the age of 30 years is considered young and here at Muirlea Rise the non-irrigated grapes are picked by hand.
I’m quite intrigued by the Mystery Grape also known as ‘Mad Red’ or ‘Que Sirah’ and Shawn gives us a little insight. It supposedly turned up in the 1970’s and was introduced illegally to Martinborough as a cutting and its abundance is now distinct to the region.
The grape has similarities to Syrah and Shawn uses it in a couple of his blends, such as the sweet and syrupy Après and oaky Mareth. He’s not a fan of the grape on its own so I ask if he has any for us to try. There is nothing bottled so he goes straight to the barrel and syphons a sample to see what we think. I immediately like its caramel flavour and candy floss finish.
Following our wine tasting at Muirlea Rise we jump back into the WOAP mobile and drive to nearby Greytown, another picture-perfect village full of beautiful wooden Victorian buildings. Museums, antique stores and cafe’s line the main street and it is here that we stop at Bar Saluté to sit and enjoy their Wellington On a Plate menu.
Located in the centre of town in amongst beautiful old buildings and beneath massive oak trees left bare from the cold seasons the restaurant is an amalgum of Middle Eastern, Mediterranean and Moroccan and the tapas style food it serves ends up being a highlight of my entire New Zealand experience.
Chef and owner Travis Clive-Griffin explains to us that he changed the style of the restaurant from fine dining with a comprehensive menu to a much more relaxed and informal set-up with a wine bar and small plates to match.
Within a couple of minutes we’re given a warming cup of harira, a hearty lamb soup with chickpeas and lentils, finished with lemon and fresh herbs. The flavours are distinctly Moroccan with cinnamon, cumin and coriander and it’s a perfect teaser for the rest of our dishes.
A glass of local Urlar Sauvignon Blanc from Gladstone is poured to ready us for plates of char-grilled flatbread with a trio of dips and a sensational slab of pan-fried Cyprian haloumi with olive oil and lemon. The trio of dips consists of a tomato confit, creamy hummus and a roasted beetroot dip all lightly drizzled with olive oil and a sprinkle of sumac.
Fried haloumi is always a winner for my taste buds and this particular one had the usual ‘squeeky’ bite yet was low on the salt content. With a bit of a squeeze from the lemon wedge it was perfection.
Something that I’m definitely going to replicate at home is the fresh and crunchy Moroccan chorizo and cabbage slaw. The simple mixture of shredded cabbage, red onion, chorizo, coriander, and flaked almonds roasted in ras el hanout is divine and went well with the accompanying dishes.
The Smoked kahawai & baccalau fritters are small crisp-shelled morsels of velvety smoked fish and the similar textured croquettes of Moroccan spiced lamb are filled with tender fibres of meat that are rich and moreish. The quince aioli the croquettes sit on is sweet and creamy. All of this with the beautiful slaw is heavenly.
I’m loving every mouthful so far and to add to my bliss a Kapiti Awa blue cheese pizza has me quietly moaning with pleasure. The base is perfectly light and chewy, the cheese is molten and pungent and the sweet caramelised onion and bacon top it off with a fresh salad of rocket, pear and caramelised walnuts. A definite salute to Bar Saluté.
Onto the home run we get a surprise palate cleanser of Lighthouse gin & tonic sorbet. This one will knock your socks off with its alcoholic slap and I’m glad we had one scoop to share as with all the wine I’d sampled and consumed in the last couple of hours, my vision was getting a little pixelated.
Finally we have coffee and a little something sweet in the form of lemon fritters with Kapiti vanilla ice cream and pomegranate molasses. The fritters look deceptively heavy and dense but with the touch of a spoon they pop and reveal a cloudy interior with a sharp lemony bite. Along with the icecream and pomegranate molasses they’re a perfect finish to a fantastic lunch.
If today was just a small taste of what there is to see and do not only in the Wairarapa region but along the Classic NZ Wine Trail then I’m definitely coming back sometime with a hire car, the other half and time to spare. Actually, while we were driving I noticed many vineyards have lodges and villa’s right on the vines so I’ll be investigating a few of the names I jotted down for future visits.
hnf visited Muirlea Rise and dined at Bar Saluté as a guest of Positively Wellington Tourism for Wellington On a Plate (WOAP)
Other posts from my Wellington On a Plate experience: