A gold-medal microclimate

Ian Verrender savours the flavours of Martinborough, the source of superb pinot noir.

In Martinborough, they call it "The Hill", the twisting pass that traverses the rugged mountainous barrier surrounding Wellington. Although only 65 kilometres from the Kiwi capital as the crow flies, it takes a good 90 minutes to drive past Wellington's outlying towns, Lower Hutt and Upper Hutt, across The Hill and down into the ancient volcanic caldera that now is home to some of New Zealand's finest vineyards.

Marlborough, on the South Island, is New Zealand's heavyweight of wine production, with hectare upon hectare of sauvignon blanc vines. Martinborough, at the bottom of the North Island, is its alter ego: small, intimate, friendly and with gobsmackingly good vino. Marlborough produces the bulk of New Zealand's wines; Martinborough picks up the bulk of the medals.

Accounting for just 1 per cent of New Zealand production, Martinborough produces superb and distinctive sauvignon blancs, exceptionally good chardonnays and a sprinkling of wonderful pinot gris. But the region's specialty is that fickle prince of wine, pinot noir.

The world's most temperamental vine and certainly the most difficult from which to extract decent product, pinot noir is suited to just a handful of regions throughout the world - Burgundy in France is its spiritual home - and Martinborough happens to be one of those places.

The region is named after John Martin, an enterprising Irish immigrant who bought a large sheep station in 1879 and subdivided it into almost 600 blocks to create a town. Laid out in the shape of the Union Jack, the town centre gives a good indication of Martin's political leanings. Streets with names such as Dublin, Panama, New York, Cologne, Strasbourg, Suez and Venice are a tribute to a world tour Martin embarked on.

Though just a short hop from the capital, Martinborough has a distinct microclimate that, given the fickle, sometimes ferocious, weather that lashes Wellington, can be welcome respite. They don't call it "windy Wellington" for nothing.

After an enchanting Friday evening on the waterfront in Wellington among city workers thronging to myriad bars and restaurants, we wake the next morning to a northerly gale howling down Cook Strait and across the harbour as menacing storm clouds gather. Just the type of weather to escape.

A map check reveals a relatively straight run to Martinborough, and many of the wineries appear to be in the town itself. The tasting rooms, or offices, we assume. In fact, the vineyards - almost all family owned and run - surround the settlement and the wineries are in town. It's possible to make a walking tour of some of the best-known operations, including Palliser Estate, Ata Rangi, Te Kairanga and Craggy Range, along with several dozen smaller ventures. That's what several thousand invaders do each November during the annual Martinborough Toast.

Nestled in the driest area of New Zealand's North Island, Martinborough is a welcoming town with a single pub and lots of little bars and tasting rooms that offer visitors a tipple.

Our first stop is Palliser, one of the bigger operations, but the tasting room is empty. As we go to leave, a manager rushes over, all apologies. They preparing for a big function that night, but why not sample some wines, he suggests.

He is thrilled to learn we are regular customers from across the ditch (Palliser is readily available here) and breaks out some stunning wines from the top shelf. Then he opens a pinot from the estate's secondary and more affordable label, Pencarrow. "This one took out the major prize at the Air New Zealand wine awards," he says, a little perplexed but proud nevertheless. "It even beat our top range."

The town, on the alluvial plains of the Ruamahanga River, is brimming with wine and winemakers. In a tiny produce shop attached to an eatery, the chief winemaker of Murdoch James is pouring customers a sip from his latest vintage. The woman behind the counter at a homewares shop, where we've pulled in to shelter from a rain squall, recounts her particular local favourites.

We take her advice and head around the corner to Brodie Estate, at 142 Dublin Street. It's set off a long dirt driveway flanked by vines and an olive grove, with a guest cottage some way from the main house.

James and Ann Brodie moved here a decade ago. He was a psychologist, she an artist. "We decided we'd do what everyone else here does," James says. "Make wine."

That's an understatement of monumental proportions. His 2008 pinot noir is sensational: soft, subtle and spicy. His 2009 is radically different: a big wine, and magnificent. The difference, James says, was that 2009 was much drier than the previous vintage.

"We don't use irrigation," he says, "so when you get a small harvest, the fruit becomes very concentrated. Try this one from next door. He used some irrigation that year." The neighbour's wine, from just across the fence, is equally impressive but seemingly from another country.

Now we face a dilemma. To buy Brodie Estate's 2008 pinot noir or 2009? Diplomatically, we decide on a mixed case.


Getting there

Air New Zealand has a return fare to Wellington from Sydney ($475) and Melbourne ($510) for the three-hour flight; see airnewzealand.com. Qantas and Virgin Australia also have non-stop flights.

Staying there

Many family-owned vineyards have guest accommodation in separate cottages on the estates within walking distance of the town; see martinborough.com. A few options: Wharekauhau Lodge and Country Estate has rooms from $NZ950 ($750); Peppers Parehua has rooms from $NZ160; Martinborough Hotel has rooms from $NZ110.

Eating there

Wendy Campbell's French Bistro, 3 Kitchener Street, is recommended by locals. Bookings essential.

Cool Change Bar and Eatery, 6 Memorial Square, lunch and dinner on weekends.

Other good choices include Cornucopia Bistro, 19 Huangarua Road; Bloom Restaurant, 284 Dry River Road; Cafe Medici, 9 Kitchener Street; The Village Cafe, 6 Kitchener Street.