Of all the grape varieties, the pinot noir is the one that most expresses its origin.
"That's why you tend to get a certain type of person who makes pinot noir," says Clive Paton, founder of Martinborough winery Ata Rangi. "It's not for everybody. If people want to make money and make easy wine, they grow sauvignon blanc or something else that crops easily."
We're sitting under a tree on some hay bales around half an oak barrel next to the vines, swirling, sniffing and sipping the various sips Ata Rangi makes. A group of sunburnt women in pretty dresses and floppy hats are dancing on a grassy area in front of a DJ. Wine glasses clink in the background and laughter and lively chatter fill the air.
It's a more educational weekend for me, meeting the region's winemakers and sampling the goods from half a dozen other vineyards in the area. Pinot noir is the flagship wine of Martinborough.
"It's not an easy grape," Paton tells me, as I swish another mouthful. "Of all the grapes I'd say it's the most difficult. It's thin-skinned, it's more prone to disease, it's a delicate thing. So it's not a hit-you-in-the-face wine, although you can have pinots like that. It taps into a different part of a person's psyche."
Paton founded Ata Rangi winery 40 years ago. An Officer of the New Zealand Order of Merit, he's been recognised for his contribution to viticulture and conservation. "I've seen 38 vintages and every one is different. I can remember them all."
Just an hour north of Wellington, Martinborough's climate is well suited to winegrowing, with a very dry March and April, cold rain and a big shift between night and day, which is crucial for flavour and acidity.
But this Wairarapa village is not like other wine regions; it has its own unique vibe, due to the high number of boutique wineries and cellar doors all close to one another. It's a charming town and easy to navigate - a picturesque grassy village square marks the centre, surrounded by eateries, shops and the iconic Martinborough Hotel, and flat roads heading straight out from the square to the wineries. There are 30 of them, making the location perfect for the annual food and wine event, Toast Martinborough.
I'm there on the weekend that is meant to be the Toast festival, but Covid forced organisers to cancel the event. However, most wineries chose to hold their own individual, smaller events with food stalls, tastings and music over the same weekend. I get to have my own "Toast" weekend without the formalities, showcasing how Martinborough makes for a great escape regardless of the calendar.
There are a few different ways to get around. Cycling is common, including quad-cycles if you're in a small group. But something far more fun, faster, and a whole lot less energetic, are Peonies Cruisers, from Peonies Home and Living.
These little electric scooters can go up to 50km/h on the roads and are by far a highlight of the weekend. We get a quick lesson on how to drive them and are given matching helmets decorated to look like watermelons. We're sent on our way with a map of Martinborough's wineries, zipping past impressed cyclists and tooting past pointing pedestrians doing double-takes and shouting out, "Where can I get one of those?" I imagine it's quite the sight to someone who's spent the day tasting wine; two watermelon heads cruising past them on brightly decorated scooters with a basket on the back.
I quickly learn appropriate attire for such transport - my short dress flapping around in the wind is bound to have horrified half the population of Martinborough. But I'm stopped several times each day by passers-by keen to find out if I recommend the scooters and where to hire them. After a weekend on the wheels, I'm even tempted to buy one for scooting around the back streets of Auckland.
If biking or cruising isn't your thing, the joy of Martinborough is that it's easy to get around between the wineries on foot. Martinborough Wine Walks offers tours focused on "walking and talking wine"; it feels very behind-the-scenes as you stroll through vineyards and across the winemakers' backyards. A typical tour explores four to five wineries over about five hours.
I get a taster of the tour, with John Porter, of Porters Pinot. He takes us through his vines, showing us the various grapes he grows and the story behind them, giving us a brief viticulture education and the history of Martinborough's wines.
"Wine is not made in a winery," he explains. "You can only make great wine with great grapes."
Porter is a self-proclaimed "fussy bastard" when it comes to grape growing. He became fascinated with winemaking while playing rugby in France. He mainly grows pinot noir but a little bit of pinot gris too, although he says his palette has changed over the years. He says one of the big challenges for his winemaking is overcropping, which means too much fruit and too little foliage.
"If you overcrop pinot noir or pinot gris, you lose the flavour and lose the intensity. They're two grapes that just cannot overcrop." He takes us to the shed where the barrels and vats are for tastings.
Over the course of my Martinborough weekend, I also get to sample rosé at Palliser Estate, pinot noir and oysters at Moy Hall, Lighthouse Gin at Te Kairanga, a selection of speciality red wines at Ata Rangi, alongside a gourmet vineyard picnic from Txoko of breads, dips and cheeses, among other local artisan foods. It's a weekend of wining and dining and exploring the best of what Martinborough has to offer.
I've traditionally always been more of a syrah drinker, but when it comes to choosing a bottle of wine over dinner, I feel more confident opting for Martinborough pinot. I think about what Clive Paton told me about the subtlety of this particular grape.
"Subtlety can have power too, so I guess that's what we strive for. So the flavours are different to say, cabernet merlot, syrah, which are quite profound fruit flavours. There's a gentleness about the pinot fruit flavours. When you get a good one you know about it.
"We grow it and make it because we love the end result. For those people who make it, pinot noir will always be at the top of what they like to drink. I drink many many grapes and wines and there are other grapes that are really lovely, but pinot is always at the top."
I leave Martinborough with a newfound appreciation of what goes into a great pinot, and how a delicate flavour can produce such a powerful wine.
How to make the most of a weekend in Martinborough
How to get around: You can hire a bike, but my preferred option is the scooters at Peonies Cruisers on Jellicoe St. They're cute, fun to zip around on, and will get plenty of jealous looks as you cruise past.
Where to eat: Union Square Bistro is in the Martinborough Hotel and is open for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Or grab a lamb pizza at Little Square Pizza down the road.
Coffee: In The Neighbourhood Coffee House roasts and serves great coffee, and legendary cheese scones.
Tastings: There are simply too many cellar doors to list but Martinborough Wine Walks is a guided winery tour that sees groups walk around several wineries, stroll through the vines, meet the winemakers and of course, sample the goods. For beer, head to the Martinborough Brewery. The region also has an abundance of olive groves and you can taste olive oils at Lot Eight and Olivo.
To take home: Martinborough Wine Merchants is a specialist wine shop and they also hire out bikes for cycling around the wineries.
Where to stay: The Martinborough Hotel has 20 rooms, including the Heritage suites in the original 1882 building.
Saturday night drinks: Cool Change bar and eatery. Or, for good old-fashioned pub grub, head to the locals' spot, Pukemanu.
In the neighbourhood: If you have transport, head to the delightful town of Greytown, about a 15-minute drive away. The town is known for the number of independent boutique shops. Be sure to stop in Schoc Chocolates for a tasting (their chilli lime chocolate is a bestseller), have lunch at The White Swan and admire the beautiful range of handcrafted Pashley bicycles at Blackwell & Sons.
Also 15 minutes from Martinborough is Featherston, which has such a plethora of bookshops it is an internationally recognised "Booktown".
For more New Zealand travel ideas and inspiration, go to newzealand.com