For a small town, Martinborough packs a big punch.
It's New Zealand wine country - bottom of the North Island, prime pinot and chardonnay mostly, and some smart syrah too (as opposed to shiraz... so up yours, Australia) – with some interesting bits and pieces thrown in.
It's home to Ata Rangi for a start, one of New Zealand's very heavy hitters – and with the likes of Martinborough Vineyard, and a small but serious boutique producer in Schubert – there's plenty to like.
Even if you're not a wine tragic, the scenery around there is lovely, the driving beautiful, and the town itself is a charmer. Population 1300, a pub and a couple of bars and restaurants, all designed around a beautiful square. Actually the square and surrounding streets are designed around in the shape of the Union Jack –- how's that for a nod to olde England.
We stayed at the historic Martinborough Hotel, which takes pride of place right on the square. It's as central as you can get.
The highlight of our trip was the return call from Paul Mason, winemaker at Martinborough Vineyard who agreed to come in on a day when the winery was closed to show us around and give us a taste. I'd explained that I wasn't planning to spend a heap and didn't want him wasting his time, but he had no reservations.
"We've got to look after fellow wine lovers," he said. A lovely bloke - very down to earth. He was telling us he had a stint working with Tyrrell's in the Hunter Valley, but these days his CV also includes working in France, Italy, Chile and the US.
I should point out that Martinborough Vineyard hit the international headlines in 1997 when they won the trophy for – wait for it, it's a pretty fair handle – Best Pinot Noir Worldwide at the International Wine and Spirit Challenge in London.
So while it's not a huge operation, it produces serious quality.
There's no doubt in my mind that their pinot is the star, although they also produce a riesling (slight residual sugar which is quite common in NZ), pinot gris (not my favourite grape but this was impressive), sauvignon blanc (more the Australian style, passionfruit showing through and not quite as green as many from NZ), a chardonnay (nice, balanced with lovely stonefruit flavours, but in general terms we found NZ chardies a touch oaky, but that’s a personal thing), a syrah and syrah-viogner (both good).
Their best pinot is superb no doubt, although they do a more approachable, entry level version called Te Tere that is downright moreish, but still pinot to the core.
If you're in the region I can also talk up Schubert (German background, beautifully balanced, poised wines), Poppies where you can enjoy a vineyard platter with wine and, of course, Ata Rangi.
Also, it's worth dropping in to the Martinborough Wine Merchants in the main street. They sell all the region's labels, as well as some back vintages, and can organise to ship them home. We found them very helpful – and knowledgeable with wine suggestions – when we did our end-of-visit splurge.
And straight across the road from the Martinborough Hotel on the main square is the Cool Change bar and restaurant – a terrific spot for a leisurely end-of-day beer or two and a snack.
Oh, and on a slightly different matter, Martinborough Vineyard also does a sideline business - it's called Lighthouse Gin. It’s a boutique gin, handcrafted in 200-litre copper stills right next to the barrel room.
We spotted it in a bar later that night and after some thorough research, feel well qualified to say it’s also very good.
So, is Martinborough worth a visit? Absolutely. It’s a great weekend getaway.