GRETCHEN Bunny has a simple rule for people who want to use her bicycles to explore Martinborough, and that’s no Lycra allowed.
“Lycra is discouraged, and wedges are firmly encouraged,” Bunny says with a laugh, referring to her footwear as we cycle around her home patch on New Zealand’s North Island.
“Riding a bike in Martinborough is really easy,” she says.
“The roads are flat so you don’t need to be super-fit and you’re more likely to be passed by a tractor from one of the vineyards than a car, so it’s all about looking good during your day visiting the wineries.
“I have a lot of women doing this who haven’t been on a bike since they left school, which could be 50 years ago, and it’s true you don’t forget how to ride a bike you might forget how to start and stop, but we can fix that in one quick lesson.”
Bunny runs March Hare Cycling, which rents bikes to visitors eager to explore the cluster of wineries in this section of the Wairarapa Wine Trail, and we have joined her for an afternoon of eating and drinking on her popular Picnic & Pedal offering.
“I pack a hamper of goodies cheese, bread, chutney, olives making it as local as I can, and provide a map with the wineries marked,” she says.
“Most people set off around 11am. They can visit as many wineries as they want but most will get to four or five, and they will often find a quiet spot at one of the wineries to enjoy a picnic lunch.”
“There are tours like it in other New Zealand wine regions but we are unique because Martinborough is so small.” There’s only a short distance between wineries and the roads are quiet, with the speed limited to 50km/h.
We start our tour at Peppers Parehua, a boutique retreat set between the green paddocks of a farm and a block of pinot noir grapes belonging to Palliser Wines, and pedal the short distance to Ata Rangi Estate where we taste our first vino of the day.
There are 45 wineries set around this bucolic hamlet that boasts just 1300 residents, 20 with cellar doors, and Ata Rangi was one of the first, with owner Clive Paton planting his original block of pinot noir vines in 1980.
“Martinborough is known for its pinot noir,” he says.
“Our pinot noir is in the savoury camp. It’s not as obvious as pinots grown in other parts of New Zealand because it’s a little warmer here, and I describe the flavour as having a little more grunt with some power underneath because we’re all about texture.”
After sampling a couple of whites and the estate’s famed red, and hearing the colourful story about how Clive got his hands on those first pinot plants, it’s back on the bikes for the short ride to the next winery. We chat easily as we roll past vineyards that seem to stretch all the way to the hills that border this valley.
It’s getting close to vintage so immense nets cover whole blocks protecting vines heavy with fruit it seems the birds like the grape juice as much as we do and we pass workers out strolling the quiet fields, carefully tending the plants.
Our next stop is Alana Estate where we settle in for lunch with our treats complemented by a flight of wine that includes a riesling, a sauvignon blanc and two pinots selected to show the subtle differences between vintages in this sunny southeastern corner of the North Island.
Bunny’s favourite lunch spot is Olivo, the olive grove where owners Helen and John Meehan have put a table in the shadows of a sprawling tree. She explains that if those arriving by bicycle ask nicely, they will receive glasses to drink the wine that’s been purchased along the way.
Helen and John bought Olivo five years ago and now nurture 1200 barnea, manzanillo, leccino and frantoio trees to produce a fine extra virgin olive oil and a collection of infused creations that carry the strong flavour of lemon, orange, chilli, paprika, fennel and mushroom.
The Meehans offer a 75-minute tour that takes visitors through the olive grove to learn the process of making oil and then into the “cellar door” to sample the different varieties and learn how to best use the golden liquid.
Our route takes us back to Peppers Parehua, through the heart of sleepy Martinborough and around The Square marking the symbolic centre of this hamlet.
Bunny explains the town was laid out by pioneering pastoralist John Martin, who placed the streets in the pattern of a Union Jack as a tribute to his much-loved homeland.
Not long after he did the planning, Martin took his two daughters on a trip around the world and gave them the responsibility of naming the new streets.
The pair remembered their favourite destinations and gave the avenues titles such as Ohio, Strasbourg, Panama, Suez, Oxford, Dublin, Venice, Cologne and Naples.
There’s time for a spot of shopping in Kitchener St, imagining the Martin girls meeting Lord Horatio as I drift between the shops and what seems like a remarkably high number of restaurants for a town this size.
Then I’m back on my bike for the ride along New York St to my Peppers suite beside Palliser’s pinot grapes.
I’m staying in one of the Winemaker Suites, which has an open fireplace and a private deck.
As I sit in the afternoon sun enjoying a cold drink after my 6km ride, the only noise I can hear is the breeze drifting through the old pines and the occasional thud of a bird cannon scaring a flock away from the plump grapes in a neighbouring block.
Qantas (qantas.com.au), Jetstar (jetstar.com), Virgin Australia (virginaustralia.com) and Air New Zealand (airnewzealand.com.au) all offer flights to Wellington from Sydney.
Metlink rail (metlink.org.nz) runs to Featherstone, with a local bus completing the journey to Martinborough, which is in the southeast corner of New Zealand’s North Island.
It’s a 75-minute drive from Wellington to Martinborough, which is deep in the heart of the Wairarapa (wairarapanz.com) between the Tararua and Rimutaka mountain ranges.
Peppers Parehua (peppers.com.au) has 28 suites ranging from the cosy Winemakers Cottages, the Woodland Villas that are perfect for two couples holidaying together, Garden and Lake Cottages, and the private Secluded Cottages complete with an outdoor hot tub overlooking the water.
March Hare Cycling (march-hare.co.nz) provides bicycles, helmets, a picnic hamper and maps as part of the Picnic & Pedal program and visitors can buy wine as they visit the various Martinborough estates (wines frommartinborough.com).
For more information on visiting Olivo (olivo.co.nz), Ata Rangi (atarangi.co.nz) and Alana Estate (alana.co.nz) visit each property’s website.
THIS STORY ORIGINALLY APPEARED IN ESCAPE ON SUNDAY, APRIL 7, 2012