Masterton is the largest city in the Wairarapa region of New Zealand. An hour north of New Zealand’s capital city Wellington, Masterton offers an escape from the hustle of bustle.
The Wairarapa region is becoming famous for its wine, and as one of the earliest inland settlements, has lots of historical sites to see.
You can see working farms, country gardens, and wild coastline complete with seal colonies. You’ll be awed by the region’s unique natural heritage.
The rugged Tararua Mountains to the west and the wild Pacific Ocean to the east create a sense of isolation and wonder. The untamed coastline from Palliser Bay in the south to Akitio in the north is rich in Maori mythology.
The Wairarapa region’s wine and food make it a treasure trove for gourmets. Diners can sample anything from venison to mushrooms, berry fruit to crayfish, eels to olives. Discover the wine the world raves over in Martinborough Wine Village, famed for its international award-winning Pinot Noir.
wine + sheep
That may not be everything Masterton has to offer, but it’s definitely a part of the experience.
Named after pioneer Joseph Masters, Masterton was first settled by Europeans on 21 May 1854. It gained borough status in 1877, and the Masterton District is now part of the Greater Wellington Region. Local industries involve service industries for the surrounding farming community. The town is the headquarters of the annual Golden Shears sheep-shearing competition. It did not quite qualify to be a city by 1989 when the minimum population requirement for that status was increased from 20,000 to 50,000. The old Wairarapa Line railway, which first opened on 1 November 1880, helps many residents get easy access to work in the cities of Wellington, Lower Hutt and Upper Hutt.
Masterton, being a relatively small rural town in New Zealand, is very well served by public transport with rail, bus and air links. Despite Masterton and the Wairarapa valley being reasonably close to Wellington, they are separated by the Rimutaka Ranges with State Highway 2 cutting a winding hill road through the range and the Rimutaka railway tunnel.Unlike other parts of the country, the Wairarapa has seen passenger rail services remain largely due to it’s proximity to Wellington and the Rimutaka Tunnel’s advantage over the Rimutaka Hill road. There has been conjectural talk of constructing a road tunnel through the ranges for decades, but this has been ruled out due to the extremely high cost.According to the latest transportation plan from the Greater Wellington Regional Council, the only work planned is for upgrades to the existing Rimutaka Hill road and the addition of passing lanes between Featherston and Masterton.
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The Wine Institute of New Zealand names the bottom piece of the North Island as the Wellington region for statistical purposes, however this region emcompasses the important Wairarapa region which lies to the north east of Wellington city, about an hours drive along State Highway 2 over the windy Rimutaka Hills.Within the Wairarapa the main town is Masterton, while the important viticural region of Martinborough is a little to the south. Between Masterton and Martinborough, vineyards are planted along the river terraces to the west of Carterton and Greytowm and near the small farming town of Gladstone.
The Wairarapa district is important in New Zealand’s vinous history for it was probably here that the first pinot noir and syrah of some repute were made. The vintner was William Beetham who found his passion for the vine in France, where he also found his wife. Beetham planted his vineyard on his farm near Masterton in 1883.The government viticulturist, Romeo Bragato, noted Beetham’s vineyard and wine when he toured the country in 1895, prior to taking up his position. Bragato decided that Wairarapa and nearby Hawkes Bay was great wine country. Dr Neil McCallum, a modern Martinborough pioneer, announced at the Pinot Noir 2001 Conference that he had tasted a 1906 Pinot Noir from Beetham’s vineyard 80 years after it was bottled. “It was alive and well”, he said.
With the prohibitionists running rife in the Masterton area, Beetham himself did not continue for long after that historic 1906 bottle was made. If only Beetham were alive now to see how the Wairarapa region has developed.
The revival of the area came in the late 1970’s. Dr Neil McCallum was one of the pioneers. But if he had had his way, he would have planted vines on the shores of Lake Taupo. Fortunately for McCallum, his friend, adviser and fellow DSIR colleague Derek Milne, persuaded him to plant in the unknown Martinborough on a stony ancient river terrace.
McCallum planted his now famous Dry River vineyard in 1979 on Puruatanga Road. The following year saw planting’s by Ata Rangi almost next door, Chifney a little further down the road while closer to the town square the vines of Martinborough Vineyard, in which Milne had a share-holding, went into the ground.
These producers all released their first commercial wines in 1984. Interestingly, Dry River, now regarded as one of New Zealand’s finest Pinot Noir producers, did not have pinot noir amongst his original vines. And while Stan Chifney was alive, there was no pinot noir planted there either. It was left to Ata Rangi and Martinborough Vineyards to show the world the quality of pinot noir that could be produced from the dry, cool-climate region.
Wine & Food Martinborough made its name as a one of the world’s premium pinot noir and sauvignon blanc regions.
Look out for events at Wairarapa’s vineyards. The Wairarapa Wines Harvest Festival showcases premium local wines, food, music and art on March 21st. Toast Martinborough Wine, Food and Music Festival, held on the third Sunday in November, sees wine and food lovers celebrate the new releases.
There are also several tours and wine trips you can book.