If a girls' trip is long overdue, the Wairarapa awaits: a destination where local produce, rolling vineyards, quaint villages and boutique distilleries combine for the ultimate wine-and-dine weekend.
A little over an hour's drive from Wellington's vibrant café culture, the small South Wairarapa town of Martinborough sits amid sprawling countryside and charming colonial builds, with over 20 cellar doors in the area. The region is an up-and-comer in the winemaking world, with its free-draining soils, hot summers and long, dry autumns making it an ideal environment for growing traditional cool climate wines.
It's here you will find The Runholder, a recent addition to the township's growing hospitality scene - and a must for any weekend in this winemaking region.
Overlooking the stunning Martinborough Terrace, The Runholder presents a cellar door dining destination that is home to three local brands: Lighthouse Gin along with wineries Te Kairanga and Martinborough Vineyard.
Hailed by owners Foley Wines for its "elevated but not overstated" elegance, The Runholder spans three dining areas that can seat over 100 patrons, as well an outdoor terrace with sweeping 180-degree vistas of the valley. Encompassing a restaurant, tasting room, cellar door, barrel hall, distillery and bottling room, the property is nestled on Te Kairanga vineyard, a plot of land originally inhabited by sheep and held by Martinborough's pioneering namesake, John Martin.
Its ethos is simple: the celebration of the region's abundant produce, from kaimoana sustainably caught in the nutrient-rich salt waters of Tora on the South Wairarapa coast, grapes harvested straight from the neighbouring vines, local Olivo olive oil, or a farm-to-table approach with lamb from Wharekauhau Country Estate in Palliser Bay.
The Runholder restaurant is currently open for long lunches, with dinner service to begin in the summer. The venue is headed by Foley Family Wines' executive chef Tim Smith, who's impressive credentials span the luxury Wharekauhau lodge, Waiheke Island's Mudbrick, and serving as the personal chef for the 2014 British Royal Tour of New Zealand. There's an à la carte menu as well as shared plates, charcuterie, antipasti, and sourdough pizzas crisped to perfection in the kitchen's wood-fired oven.
During a recent visit, I was treated to a delicious degustation that showcased the region's abundant produce.
We began with the warm Clareville sourdough and whipped brown butter (gluten-free bread is also available), fire-roasted kumara hummus, and the Tora Collective's whipped smoked kahawai. Next was a line-caught, cured fresh kingfish with shallot, lime and olive oil, followed by Manuka-smoked lamb ribs, served with harissa, lemon, tomato, cucumber, jus and a sheep's milk labneh.
Then there was charcoal-grilled Wairarapa Wagyu, followed by a delectable Whittaker's chocolate torte with Pinot-poached pear and hazelnut for dessert. As a side, we all enjoyed (perhaps a little too much) the Pomme Anna Fries: a potato chip like no other, layered with rosemary and garlic and deep-fried to a crisp. It's safe to say, we were one bite away from being rolled back to our accommodation.
Come summer, the sharing menu will be expanded and an additional à la carte menu will be added, featuring prime cuts such as tomahawk steaks, Wagyu, and lamb saddle grilled over charcoal and smoked with manuka wood.
Of course, the friendly and attentive waitstaff are on-hand to expertly pair your meal with a glass of local wine - and there are many to choose from. The drinks list features an extensive catalogue of Te Kairanga and Martinborough Vineyard wines by the glass and bottle, including cellar and rare drops.
The Runholder building itself is a work of art, with each detail carefully considered to complement the surrounding landscape. The interior is spacious, light and airy, inspired by the aged linear timber and open ceilings of the region's woolsheds.
Through floor-to-ceiling windows beside the tasting room, guests are also treated to an impressive view of Lighthouse Gin's new copper-and-steel CARL distillery. It's a work of art and a talking piece, but crucially, will allow head distiller Rachel Hall to meet international demand.
We were lucky enough to meet Rachel for an intimate masterclass, where we sampled the Lighthouse range, discussed the botanicals (liquorice, juniper berries, coriander seeds, cinnamon quills, cassia bark, almonds, naval oranges and Yen Ben lemons, blended with water from the Remutaka Ranges), and mixed our own French '75 gin cocktail.
Down in the barrel hall, we were also treated to tastings of Te Kairanga with chief winemaker, John Kavanagh. Among the oak we swirled, sampled and yes, spit, our way through a selection of straight-from-the-barrel sips. If you come to The Runholder, prepare to be very full - and perhaps a little tipsy.
While The Runholder offers a unique experience, allowing foodies and oenophiles alike to discover the region's produce and winemaking expertise under one roof, there are plenty of other wineries you can visit during a weekend in the Wairarapa, or even Martinborough more specifically. Up the road, Martinborough Vineyards original winery and cellar door also plays host to tastings and events, with an underground inventory of wines dating back to the 1980s. Come for a tour: stay for the dog, Bruno.
Where to stay
During a trip to Martinborough, I can highly recommend the boutique Martinborough Hotel, a historic build dating back to 1882. The owners have done a spectacular job at maintaining its unique old-world character, while bringing it up-to-date for the modern traveller. There's a tranquil garden and courtyard with seven country-style garden suites, as well as a selection of heritage suites and smaller rooms in the original building. I stayed in one of the nine heritage suites on offer, with its super-king bed, aged wooden floors, plush furnishings and a clawfoot tub. The main drawcard? The French doors that lead out onto the wraparound balcony and overlook Martinborough Square and village life below. There's a cosy fireplace, plenty of books and comfy seating to enjoy in the lobby, which also leads into the Union Square Bistro & Bar, a venue that offers daily breakfast to guests as well as lunch, dinner and weekend brunch. Here you can enjoy an extensive selection of local and international wines alongside a French-inspired menu, or take a seat at the bar and get to know the locals.
If you're looking for breakfast or brunch outside the hotel, Nära is a stone's throw from the lobby and serves tasty coffee and delicious food made with locally sourced, seasonal ingredients. The café opened in August and is open for breakfast and lunch five days a week, as well as dinner on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays. Nära itself began as a food truck post-lockdown in 2020, which trundled between StoneCutter, Te Kairanga, Palliser Estate and Nga Waka Vineyards.
Old-school sweet shop and chocolatier, the Martinborough Sweet Shop, is also just up the road: I'd recommend perusing the pick 'n mix for a selection of sweet treats before your journey onwards.
If you're in the Wairarapa, you should also consider paying Greytown a visit: about 15 minutes north of Martinborough, the quaint township was crowned New Zealand's Most Beautiful Small Town in 2017. There are boutique shops, second-hand fashion finds and cafés to enjoy: plus, it's also the hometown of Lighthouse Gin distiller Rachel Hall, who grew up at the Greytown Hotel.
For the wine connoisseur, gin aficionado or lover of good grub, the Wairarapa is not a region to be overlooked.
Lana Andelane travelled to Martinborough, dined at The Runholder and stayed at the Martinborough Hotel as a guest of Foley Wines.