Sitting at a table at a cellar door, sipping an excellent pinot noir and picking at a vast platter of locally produced cheeses, dips and olives, it seems as though it's been like this forever. That Martinborough, in the heart of New Zealand's Wairarapa wine region north-east of Wellington, has been idyllic wine country for a century or more.
But that's not the case. When the town was founded in 1879 by Irish settler John Martin it was intended as a service centre for local farms. But sheep farming faltered, and a century later in 1979 the town was dying. Then someone had a bright idea – why not try wine?
The rest is history. With an ideal climate and terroir for pinot noir grapes, Martinborough soon became a viticulture hub and a drawcard for Wellingtonians who fancied a weekend break among the grapes with food and drink institutions such as the graceful Martinborough Hotel and the nearby Wine Bank adding to the appeal.
I'm taking that option myself, by rail. A commuter train from Wellington runs beneath the Remutaka mountain range to Featherston, where Matt Finn from Martinborough Wine Tours picks me up in his minibus. Finn's company offers a choice of half-day wine tours, visiting four wineries, or a full-day tour including five wineries and lunch. As I'm short of time he's devised a truncated version of his full-day tour, covering three tastings and the midday meal.
PINOT AND A PLATTER AT POPPIES
That meal today is Poppies' seasonal vineyard platter, an impressive selection of local produce, including salmon, pork belly, grilled vegetables, hummus, tapenade, mushrooms and cheeses. It's the perfect accompaniment to my glass of the winemaker's 2018 pinot noir.
Lunch is followed by a wider tasting of its output, which includes whites such as pinot gris and riesling. There's even a gewurztraminer, sweet and bold. "Drink it with curry," advises the staff member pouring the drops.
After the tasting, Finn drives me to where the wine is actually made, to see the tanks and vines and the winery's luxury accommodation; and to meet the cheerful co-owner, Poppy Hammond.
TASTEFUL TASTING AT ATA RANGI
One of the most appealing elements of Martinborough is the short distances between vineyards, due to its relatively small blocks of land. So a few minutes later we're at the second winery, Ata Rangi.
One of the oldest in the region, Ata Rangi is a hugely successful vineyard planted on what were barren sheep paddocks. They were bought up in 1980 by Clive Paton, who tried out various varietals, some of which are still growing here today.
Inevitably the bulk of the production is pinot noir, but the winery also produces rosé, sauvignon blanc, riesling and chardonnay. A notch above the everyday cellar door experience, tasting sessions here must be pre-booked; and so I find myself joining a well-heeled couple from Auckland as we sit around a table and are guided through a relaxed and refined tasting by a knowledgeable staff member.
CLONE WARS AT TE HERA
The polar opposite of Ata Rangi is our third and final winery, Te Hera, where we meet winemaker John Douglas at his no-nonsense cellar door (really a shed) with a view over vines and dark hills.
"We're a tiny winery," he says, "Low intervention, with as natural a wine-making process as possible."
After explaining the fermentation process of pinot noir, Douglas moves onto the fascinating subject of clones – different cuttings of pinot noir vines distinguished by numbers.
"I think they all taste different," he says. "You're about to find out if that's true."
I taste clone samples from different barrels – and strike me down if they aren't all different. In fact I decide I'm more of a Clone 667 man, as its complexity appeals to my palate so much more than mere old Clone 5.
I've learned something today, and tasted a lot of good wine. More than that, I've had a taste of the wide variety of vineyards and vignerons around Martinborough, and enjoyed that as much as the wine they produce.
Tim Richards visited Martinborough as a guest of Destination Wairarapa.
The Claremont offers comfortable accommodation on the edge of Martinborough, with rooms from$NZ120 ($A114) a night. See theclaremont.co.nz
Martinborough Wine Tours offers half-day tours at $NZ99 per person, full-day tours at $NZ199 per person including lunch. See martinboroughwinetours.co.nz