Wine and travel writer Winsor Dobbin presents the latest in a series of guides to Australia and New Zealand's top wine regions.
Martinborough is a tiny New Zealand town with a very big reputation on the global wine stage.
With a population of just 1300 permanent residents, Martinborough, in the southern Wairarapa region on the southern tip of the North Island, is hugely popular as a weekend getaway for residents of the capital, Wellington, which is just a one-hour drive away.
Martinborough has established itself as a European-style "wine village" producing some of the best pinot noir in the country - and some very decent chardonnays. Riesling and pinot gris also do well but the region produces less than 3 per cent of New Zealand's wines, because it is dominated by small, family wineries.
Nonetheless, its cellar doors are often full to the brim on sunny weekends and the main square, laid out in the shape of a Union Jack in 1881, is very much at the centre of the activities.
Although several of the best cellar doors are within walking distance of each other, the greater Wairarapa wine region extends well out of the town into Masterton, Gladstone and other hamlets worth exploring.
In and around town, wineries to note include Palliser Estate, Murdoch James, Martinborough Vineyard, Ata Rangi, Vynfields, Te Kairanga, Tirohana Estate, Dry River and Schubert.
How to get there
Qantas and Air New Zealand both have regular daily flights to Wellington (qantas.com, airnewzealand.com.au). All major car-hire companies have desks at the airport. Martinborough is just 65 kilometres north-east of Wellington over the Rimutaka Range (beware, it's a twisting drive on narrow roads).
Best cellar doors
Ata Rangi is one of New Zealand's most famous wineries and offers an excellent tasting experience in a leafy setting with friendly and extremely knowledgeable cellar-door staff. A Martinborough style leader for 30 years. Open daily.
Murdoch James is a familiar name with Australian wine buyers and it is one of the Martinborough region's most popular cellar doors, offering "Grape to Glass" tours that include the winery and barrel cave. Roger and Jill Fraser were regional pioneers and are now expanding thanks to Chinese investment. Open daily.
Cambridge Road is one of the newest producers in Martinborough - and young vigneron Lance Redgwell is making some outstanding wines, particularly pinot noir and syrah, grown in tiny quantities using biodynamic principles. Open weekends or by appointment.
Martinborough Vineyard is regularly listed among New Zealand's leading producers and won an award for the world's best pinot noir in 2012. It has a friendly cellar door with a wide range of styles available for tastings. Platters are offered during summer. Open daily.
Palliser Estate was part of the first wave of wineries to become established in Martinborough, with first plantings in 1984, and continues to be one of the regional leaders. Open daily.
Also try Te Kairanga Wines, Brodie Estate, Alana Estate, Escarpment, Hamden Estate, Haythornthwaite Wines, Julicher, Hudson Vineyard, Schubert Wines, The Cabbage Tree Vineyard, Tirohana Estate, and Vynfields.
Where to eat
Unfortunately, much-loved Wendy Campbell's French bistro/cafe, a regular award winner, recently closed but there are still several good dining options around.
Bloom at Murdoch James Estate offers spectacular views and a lovely ambience just a short drive out of town. The menu matches dishes such as confit chicken leg with roasted new potatoes and coq au vin garnish, or lamb rump with sweet red onion tarte tatin, with wines by the glass. Desserts are a speciality and sitting on the deck is most enjoyable during the summer.
Tirohana Estate restaurant offers both fine dining and casual meals at lunch and dinner. Dinners Tuesday to Sunday and lunches Friday to Sunday. There is an open fire in winter and vineyard views. Think dishes such as lamb shank on bubble and squeak with wilted spinach and wine jus, or confit duck and chorizo cassoulet with rocket and red-onion salad.
Cool Change is a new cafe and bar on the main square that's popular with local winemakers. The dining room features booth seating, an open fire, period lighting and retro wallpaper - the house speciality is schnitzels, with a curry night every Wednesday. It's open Tuesday to Sunday from 4pm until late.
Poppies Martinborough, the brainchild of former Dry River winemaker Poppy Hammond and her husband, Shayne, offers "fine wine and fantastic food in a relaxed, boutique vineyard setting". Try vineyard platters on the terrace.
Also try Martinborough Hotel, Cafe Medici, Circus, Vynfields Cafe and Wine Bar, Trio Cafe at Coney Wines, The Bach wine bar, Ohio Street Wine Bar and Ingredient cafe.
What to drink
Martinborough pinot noir, particularly from producers such as Ata Rangi, Escarpment and Martinborough Vineyard, is outstanding, but chardonnay also thrives, as do riesling (which is generally made in a sweeter style), pinot gris and sauvignon blanc.
Also try the intense 2010 Blue Rock Cabernet Franc at Murdoch James and the standout syrahs at Cambridge Road. The Schubert range is also reliably good.
Where to stay
Peppers Parehua Country Estate is one of the leading resorts in the region and is just a short walk from Martinborough village. There is a range of accommodation options, including 30 suites and villas or garden and lakeside cottages. There is an on-site restaurant and each of the cottages on the property has its own sitting area with fireplace and private deck. Rack rates from $NZ350 ($284).
The Martinborough Hotel offers traditional country-style hotel accommodation in the heart of Martinborough. The verandah rooms are in the original 1882 building, while the courtyard houses seven spacious garden rooms furnished in rustic style. From $NZ130 room only.
Pinot Villas is just off the main square and features self-contained one- and two-bedroom villas and suites with spa baths, all recently redecorated, in a lovely garden setting. From $NZ160-$NZ350 a night depending on the room and the season.
Margrain Vineyard villas are surrounded by vines and offer a country ambience just a stroll from downtown. Distinctive self-catering studios and villas have private balconies. From $NZ185 a night.
Wharekauhau lodge is one of New Zealand's best-known luxury lodges, overlooking Palliser Bay on a working farm on the fringe of the Martinborough vineyards. Facilities include an indoor pool, fitness centre, spa treatments, tennis, croquet, petanque and archery. From $NZ650 a person a night, inclusive of cocktails, dinner and breakfast.
Also try Brackenridge Country Retreat and Spa, Todd's Cottage, Vynfields Cottage and Villa, Villa in the Vines, Aylstone, The Vicarage, De Vine Martinborough, Swan House B&B, Villino Cottages, Petit Hotel and the Winemaker's Cottage at Murdoch James.
The Toast Martinborough wine festival, which increases the population to 10,000, is held annually on the third Sunday in November. Billed as New Zealand's premier wine, food and music festival, it will be held on November 17, 2013. The annual Wairarapa Wines Harvest Festival will be held on March 9, 2013, on the banks of the Ruamahunga River.
The Martinborough Golf Club has a tree-lined, 18-hole golf course. The more active may enjoy a bout of paintball action at Mission Martinborough or perhaps a quad-bike adventure with Wairarapa Quad Adventures.
The Wairarapa is dotted with small vineyards and wineries. Look out for Gladstone Vineyard (the lunches are terrific), Clear River Estate, Paddy Borthwick, Paper Road, Loopline Vineyard and Urlar. Greytown is a lovely spot to stop and browse through antique stores and boutiques and is also home to the Wairarapa Wine Centre, with a wide variety of local boutique offerings. Golfing, horse trekking, boating and fishing are also popular local pastimes.
For more information
Many visitors to Martinborough base themselves in Wellington and take day trips to the vineyards — and there is no shortage of places in the New Zealand capital in which to enjoy a quiet drink.
On weekend nights, Wellington buzzes with crowds flocking to places such as The Library, a Melbourne-style late-night bar, Cuckoo Cocktail Emporium, The Apartment, Motel and Hope Bros, all of which serve wines by the glass, cocktails and boutique beers.
Matterhorn, on lively Cuba Street, is a late-night hangout for Wellington movers and shakers and regularly wins awards as New Zealand's best bar. Tucked away down an unpromising corridor, it also serves top-notch food, has great cocktails and an admirable wine list. There's an outdoor courtyard that's popular in the summer months.
At the Cuckoo Cocktail Emporium, a quirky cocktail lounge/wine bar from the same stable as popular duo Hawthorn Lounge and Hooch, not only the drinks are for sale — also on offer are the furniture, artworks and even the pool table.
Foxglove is a popular after-work venue, big and packed to the rafters on Friday and Saturday nights, while The Apartment is a New York-style lounge bar just off party central on Courtenay Place. Motel is a stylish cocktail lounge, and Hope Bros is a popular bar and restaurant on Dixon Street.
And even if it does occasionally get wet and cold, New Zealand's capital offers plenty of places to keep warm and well fed, including some of the country's top restaurants in Logan Brown, the Boulcott Street Bistro and Martin Bosley's, along with a huge choice of cafes and wine bars on funky Cuba Street, as well as the bustling Ortega Fish Shack and bar.
There are some great places to stay, too, ranging from the chic boutique Bolton Hotel, which has particularly friendly and efficient staff, to the Ohtel in the seaside neighbourhood of Oriental Bay.