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Ultimate Guide to the Wairarapa Wine Region

Wairarapa Wine Region History and Culture

Unlike the celebrated wine regions of Europe, New Zealand bears no an­cient or medieval tradition of viticulture. Its history began only as Europeans settled on the islands in the early 19th century. Settlers from England, France, Spain, Germany and Croatia were among the first winemakers.

William Beetham and his French wife Hermanze, regarded as New Zealand's first commercial winemakers, planted the first known Wairarapa vineyard at Lansdowne, near Masterton, in 1883 [source: Wines From Martinborough,]. Toward the end of the century, an Italian viticulturalist, Romeo Bragato, became the government's wine expert with a position in the Department of Agriculture [source: Dalley]. Touring the nation in 1895, Bragato visited Lansdowne and praised Beetham's product, declaring it a sign of the region's wine-producing potential [source: Kelly, Martinborough Business Association]. The fulfillment of this potential was cut short a few years later due to Prohibition. The Lansdowne Vineyard stopped producing wine, and was uprooted a few years later when Masterton became a "no-license zone" [source: Wines From Martinborough].

The Temperance Movement eventually subsided, and winemaking in New Zealand picked up again in the 1960s and 1970s. Martinborough's first vineyard was planted in 1978. The following year, the region got its big break when a report written by Dr. Derek Milne of the government's Department of Scientific and Industrial Research was published. The report singled out the Martinborough area as a potentially strong wine-producing area, because the nature of its soil and climate are similar to prime French wine-producing regions such as Burgundy [source: Kiwi Wineries]. The report stated that local conditions create a particularly suitable habitat for the Pinot Noir grape.

Wine enthusiasts soon bought up properties in and around Martinborough. Among the new vineyards were Dry River, Ata Rangi and Chifney Wines [source: Martinborough Business Association]. Winemaker Larry McKenna joined Martinborough Vineyard in 1986, and the winery soon began to win national acclaim; in 1989 its Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Riesling all were awarded trophies at Air New Zealand's annual wine competition [source: Destinations Live]. The region has continued to come of age, and is now home to a significant share of the country's best-regarded wines.

Read on to learn about agriculture and viticulture of the region.