Absolute corker

The Wairarapa is New Zealand's newest wine-growing region. Lucy Gillmore develops a passion for pinot among the vines, samples chocolate therapy and tries her hand at trout fishing

A middle-aged, slightly dumpy man is running crazily through a vineyard swigging from a wine bottle. Chasing him is a lanky Lothario with blow-dried mop. Gasping for breath, Dumpy staggers to a halt among the vines and tenderly cups a bunch of grapes. The scene is from the surprise hit and Oscar-winning buddy movie
Sideways; the location the Santa Ynez valley in California; the unexpected star of the film, pinot noir. Hunkering down in my plane seat,
Sideways on my monitor, I pass my glass back to the steward for a top-up. I'm heading home from another pioneering pinot region on the other side of the International Date Line and immersing myself in a little extra research. As Miles's pinot passion reaches a crescendo, I savour the wine's smoky smoothness and inhale the spicy aroma.

A middle-aged, slightly dumpy man is running crazily through a vineyard swigging from a wine bottle. Chasing him is a lanky Lothario with blow-dried mop. Gasping for breath, Dumpy staggers to a halt among the vines and tenderly cups a bunch of grapes. The scene is from the surprise hit and Oscar-winning buddy movie Sideways; the location the Santa Ynez valley in California; the unexpected star of the film, pinot noir. Hunkering down in my plane seat, Sideways on my monitor, I pass my glass back to the steward for a top-up. I'm heading home from another pioneering pinot region on the other side of the International Date Line and immersing myself in a little extra research. As Miles's pinot passion reaches a crescendo, I savour the wine's smoky smoothness and inhale the spicy aroma.

That other pinot region is a twelve-hour flight west of California - and around a 26-hour pinot-numbed journey from the UK. The Wairarapa, one of New Zealand's up-and-coming wine-growing areas, is the country's self-proclaimed pinot capital. (A claim, it should be said, which is hotly disputed by Central Otago in the South Island, the southernmost wine-growing region in the world.) Over the hills but not too far away from the drowsy (despite it's celebrated coffee addiction) capital, Wellington, the area is not yet on the tourist trail. Yet this relatively undiscovered corner at the south-eastern tip of the North Island has recently become the fashionable weekend retreat for the glitterati of Wellington.

Once a poor farming region, the Wairarapa has been increasingly gentrified over the last few years. Quaint Martinborough, the wine "capital", is surrounded by picturesque vineyards, while Greytown's long Main Street is lined with antique shops, delis and cafés. Nearby, and also touted for future viniculturalist glory, are slumbering Gladstone and Otapaki. But even though money continues to trickle over the hills, it's more refreshingly quirky than chi-chi. This is where Lord of the Rings director Peter Jackson has added Hobbit-like tunnels to his new pad, a farm up near Carterton; where the Kiwi version of Stonehenge was opened last month (a full-scale working adaptation of our Salisbury standing stones); and where you'll find the man who invented chocolate therapy.

Yes chocolate therapy. "Once self-realisation around chocolate takes place, it allows you to restore, nourish and rebalance the human psyche. When this happens, many other neuroses and fears just drop away." So now you know. Murray Langham, said therapist turned chocolate-maker, can be found in his shop Schoc, a little 1920s clapboard confectioners in Greytown - when he's not travelling the world giving chocolate therapy workshops with Deepak Chopra. A "conventional" therapist for ten years, he has published two books on his theories, Chocolate Therapy and Hot Chocolate: Unwrap the flavour of your relationships. In fact, Juliet Binoche used the first book to help her get into character for her role in Chocolat. From your choice of centre to the way that you discard your wrappers (if you scrunch your mind wanders in bed), reveals aspects of your personality - and, apparently, sexuality. Are you a Fondler (someone who experiences chocolate through their fingers?) or a selfish Gobbler, "lovemaking tends to be sloppy and mouthy"? Still, that's better than being a Chomper ("in bed you may be clumsy, rough and loud. You could be called a screamer or a loud moaner"). Then there's the Sucker...

At Schoc, you can enjoy a less complicated relationship with the food of the gods, by watching it being made on an old marble slab out the back and then sampling broken chunks kept in the mini drawers of an old wooden medicine chest. The tastebud explosion that is limechilli is the most popular flavour, but the range also features lemongrass, cardamom, strawberry, black pepper and kiwi fruit. And the pinot noir truffle...

Even in this tiny chocolate shop you can't escape the wine that's putting the Wairarapa on the map. Pinot grapes like the long hot days and cool nights found in the region. Situated in the rain shadow of the brooding Rimutaka Range, which separates the Wairarapa from Wellington, and subject to cooling winds from Palliser Bay, the resulting cool summers and long, dry autumns are perfect for the grape. When the new breed of wine-makers came here they planted a number of different varietals to see which would fare best. Today, local wineries produce cabernet sauvignon, riesling and sauvignon blanc, but it's pinot that's king.

Although vines were planted here back in the 19th-century, most were ripped up after an outbreak of disease (thought to be the parasite phylloxera) and the onset of prohibition which spanned the first half of the 20th century. In the Wairarapa even the "Big Four" vineyards (Dry River, Chifney, Ata Rangi and Martinborough) only date back 20 or so years. Which makes the quality of the wines and the clutch of awards that they have won all the more remarkable.

Martinborough was, until the winemakers' arrival, a sleepy rural backwater. Even now it has more in common with the rustic charms of Santa Ynez than the highly polished experience offered by California's Napa Valley. The long, wide streets lined with clapboard buildings have a whiff of the Wild West about them. The town was founded in the 1870s by a local landowner, John Martin, who named the grid-patterned streets after the places he had visited on his travels and laid out the leafy square in the shape of a Union Jack. It might be a pocket of pastels, but there's still a rural edge which stops it from veering towards the twee. There are 26 wineries, about 10 an easy walk from the centre and the rest only a kilometre or so away.

Tirohana Estate is not one of the oldest but has to be one of the most friendly. It's owned by Raymond Thompson (remember Howard's Way? He wrote it), and if he's in residence you're likely to see him driving a tractor or showing visitors around. When I wander in, the bird-scarers are going off. "We had a few members of the NYPD a while back," Ray laughs. "They all dropped to the floor thinking they were under fire. I love the fact that you never know who's going to stop by. Last week it was the Swedish Prime Minister, and, when she was in Wellington recently, Cherie Blair ordered a couple of cases of our wine. I don't know how she'd heard about us."

His passion might be his vineyard but Ray is * * also CEO of Cloud 9, the production company behind, among others, the cult Five programme Tribes. He's currently developing a drama based around New Zealand's vineyards. "I was asked to do a series set among the vineyards in France but they just don't have what this area has. People are still stamping their personality on this place. The Wairarapa is like Bordeaux was 300 years ago."

Ray's mother was a Romany gypsy and he attributes his affinity with the land to his roots. He was making wine at six, plays music to the vines and insists that everything is done by hand. Tirohana means "earth family" and the vineyard, which he bought only a year ago, has become a family concern. His son Adam, a writer and musician, helps out in the tasting room. His youngest son, Cameron, is autistic but Ray says that he comes out of himself at Tirohana. His daughter, Saranne, and son-in-law, Toby, also manage a couple of cottages in Martinborough and Greytown. Ray loves the fact that people still have time to chat here. "I hope the wineries stay 'boutique', as this is what helps to give the place its small town appeal," he says. "Our neighbour, Peter Jackson - another one, not the director - has no cellar-door sales and just makes 700 bottles a year. This is the kind of place where an electrician can be a wine-maker."

Over the hill every Friday come the weekenders in their 4x4s, all of whom need somewhere to stay. At Tirohana, the Colonial House next to the tasting room is available to rent. A beautiful white clapboard building with views over the vines to the hills beyond, its interior is all polished wooden floors and contemporary in design. Guests are welcome to help out in the vineyard and many do. Toby and Saranne also manage Heritage Cottage in Greytown and Duckback Cottage in Martinborough (a traditional Victorian property with log fire and clawfoot bath dating back to 1890) and the charming Ladybird Cottage. Ladybird has just been renovated and sits in a garden of lavender and oleander bushes opposite the little Presbyterian church.

For those who prefer to be catered for, there's the elegant 19th-century Martinborough Hotel on the square with its wooden façade and exterior balconies. The hotel was renovated in 1996 and the rooms are all named after original settlers. In Greytown, the White Swan is another colonial gem which has had the designer treatment. And for out-and-out luxury, the Wairarapa can oblige, too.

Wharekauhau (pronounced "Forry Ko Ho") is a farm with a difference. A 5,000-acre working sheep station and the second oldest Romney stud in the country, it's also home to one the new breed of luxury lodges springing up across New Zealand. Before wine there were sheep. And still are. Sheep have been farmed here since the mid 1800s, and today there are 10,000 of them, along with 800 cattle, on the estate. The well-heeled guests who make the 90-minute drive over the dramatic Rimutakas from Wellington, or opt for the 10-minute hop by helicopter, can watch the sheepdogs at work, or try their hand at sheep-shearing. However, that's about as rustic as it gets. Guest rooms are not in the old homestead, which was moved from its original location and is now used as staff quarters, but are in little white-washed cottages with sweeping views out over the cliffs. Think New Zealand wool carpets (don't think of the lambs you see skipping about the fields), soaring church ceilings, roaring fires, and modern four-poster beds in a calm sea of cream and beige. The main lodge was designed by the South African architect, Fred Van Brandenburg, and is an elegant Edwardian-style manor house, with a predictable Cape Dutch feel.

The lodge might be the byword for decadence in the region, but its luxury is of the laid-back, low-key house party variety. As soon as you sweep up the gravel driveway (or land on the lawn) you feel right at home. Breakfast is served at a big country kitchen table, the resident cats Fish and Chips are likely to be curled up on the sofas, and dinner (with a choice of 1,400, mostly New Zealand wines), after the evening cocktail party, is a jolly communal affair.

Activities on offer during the day, apart from sheep-shearing, include horse-riding, hiking, 4x4 tours, quad-biking, mountain-biking, clay pigeon shooting, fishing and archery (Jan Kozler, the Lord of the Rings archery trainer, taught the instructors at Wharekauhau).

Inland, the Wairarapa might be a pastoral idyll scattered with pretty wooden towns, rose-lined vineyards and rounded hills, but down here on the coast the scenery is more primeval. Wharekauhau is Maori for "place of knowledge" and before European settlers arrived this is where the Maori holy men came to be initiated into the priesthood. Taking a 4x4 farm tour, with Joe Houghton - his father worked here for 40 years; Joe's worked here for almost 50 - we tramp through dank beech forest and career across steep inclines before bumping down to the sea.

The beach is six miles of grey shale, windswept, impossibly desolate and littered with driftwood, bleached and twisted - an interior designer's dream, and many a sailor's nightmare. The coast is littered with wrecks - and old baches, ramshackle fishing shacks. The sea is an other-worldly turquoise, the waves crashing and spraying silver onto the steely grey sand. You can go surfing and surf-casting here - for kahawai, snapper, red cod and grey sharks. Once, when Joe and his son were riding the breakers, killer whales swam between them and the beach. However, the fishing is no good for days or even weeks after a south-westerly storm has whipped through. High country fly-fishing is a surer bet.

I head for the Ruamahanga river up near Gladstone with Andrew Snell, the estate's guide. Waders on, polarised glasses cocked, juggling the two images of JR Hartley and Brad Pitt in A River Runs Through It, I have my first lesson in tracking trout. "There, just below the surface. Can you see it?" I squint, crouching down on my knees. "No," His look says "dozy blonde". "They're not a headband, put the specs on." The surface glare eliminated, I catch the swish of a tail. The rivers here are full of brown and rainbow trout in what is a world class fly-fishing destination. With the fast-flowing icy water tumbling over the rocks, the only sound the cicadas in the willows on the banks, I was beginning to see the appeal. Just you, the swish of your line and silence. Whether you get a bite or not is ultimately irrelevant.

Back at Wharekauhau another south-westerly was blowing in as Fish (or was it Chips) and I beat our way back to the aptly named Storm Watch Cottage after dinner. The next morning the power was out and helicopter transfers over the mountains were cancelled. This land, crouched beneath the mountains and the savage Cook Strait suddenly seemed far from a tame weekend destination. The Wairarapa I decided, still has grit - the type you find with a pearl.

TRAVELLER'S GUIDE

GETTING THERE

Lucy Gillmore travelled with Air New Zealand (0800 028 4149; www.airnewzealand.co.uk), which flies daily from Heathrow to Auckland and Christchurch via Los Angeles. Current online deals start from £579 for travel from 26 March until 15 June. Airlines such as Singapore Airlines, Emirates and Malaysia Airlines fly to New Zealand via Asia.

STAYING THERE

The Peppers Martinborough Hotel (00 64 6 306 9350; www.martinborough-hotel.co.nz) has doubles from NZ$260 (£100) Tirohana Estate's (00 64 6 306 9933; www.tirohanaestate.com) Colonial House costs from NZ$240 (£92) per night Duckback Cottage (00 64 4 920 9434; www.duckbackcottage.co.nz)

Ladybird Cottage (contact Tirohana) Wharekauhau Country Estate (00 64 6 307 7581; www.wharekauhau.co.nz) has 12 luxury cottage suites from NZ$795 (£305) per person based on two sharing

FURTHER INFORMATION

Schoc (00 64 6 304 8960; www.chocolatetherapy.com)

Tourism New Zealand (0905 060 6060 calls cost 60p per minute; www.newzealand.com)

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