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The high sunshine hours and low autumn rainfall of the Martinborough region have been major factors in the international success of the small boutique wineries in this area. It is distinguished from other New Zealand wine areas by the high proportion of red-wine grape plantings and by its reputation for quality pinot noir. Most wineries are open for tastings while stocks permit, and some are open year-round. There are over 30 vineyards in the Martinborough area alone, and large tracts of grapes have also been planted at Gladstone and Masterton. The best time to visit is from late October to early March, when new wine stocks have been released. The best way to explore the area is to pick up a copy of the Classic New Zealand Wine Trail Guide (www.classicwinetrail.co.nz) from an i-SITE Visitor Centre. It links five of New Zealand's best wine regions, including the Wairarapa, and adds in sights, shopping, and dining opportunities so you can get the most from the regions it covers. To find out more about winemaking in this region, go to www.nzwine.com. Conducted group tours to area wineries can be made only by prior arrangement. Contact the Martinborough visitor center (tel. 06/306-9043), which can also supply the free brochure Martinborough & Wairarapa Wine Trails.

When it comes to selecting the best of the bunch, it's pretty subjective, but local opinion consistently swings in the direction of Dry River Wines, Puruatanga Road (tel. 06/306-9388; fax 06/306-9275), a small low-tech winery specializing in the Alsace varietals pinot gris, Gewürztraminer, and Riesling, as well as chardonnay, pinot noir, and sauvignon blanc. The majority of its wines are sold by mail order within a few weeks of release, so it's unlikely you'll find the place open.

Ata Rangi Vineyard, Puruatanga Road (tel. 06/306-9750; www.atarangi.co.nz), maker of an internationally acclaimed pinot noir, has been operating since 1980. It has an excellent tasting room for sampling the flagship pinot noir along with sauvignon blanc, chardonnay, and a summer rosé.

Palliser, Kitchener Street (tel. 06/306-9019; www.palliser.co.nz), is a leading force in this area. It features a purpose-built winery and a large barrel hall, and it has an excellent reputation for its award-winning pinot noir, chardonnay, sauvignon blanc, and Riesling. Wines are produced under the Palliser Estate and Pencarrow labels. Palliser is open daily for cellar sales.

Martinborough Vineyard, Princess Street (tel. 06/306-9955; www.martinborough-vineyard.co.nz), was one of the original four vineyards in the area and was set up by a group of six investors who bought 6.4 hectares (16 acres) in one of the few zones in New Zealand with similar climactic conditions to Burgundy. It's open daily from 11am to 5pm for tasting and is dedicated to producing pinot noir, chardonnay, Riesling, sauvignon blanc, and pinot gris. Its star is the award-winning pinot noir.

Te Kairanga, Martins Road (tel. 06/306-9122; www.tkwine.co.nz), open daily from 10am to 5pm, is one of the founding and most popular vineyards in this area. Established over 20 years ago, it now has six vineyards in the region, each with its own distinctive qualities, and it is a key venue in the annual Toast Martinborough celebrations. It produces a wide range of wines, including pinot noir, chardonnay, cabernet sauvignon, and sauvignon blanc.

Others worth visiting are the very pretty Gladstone Vineyard, Gladstone Road, RD2, Carterton (tel. 06/379-8563; www.gladstone.co.nz), which has weekend lunches from November to March; Margrain Vineyard, Ponatahi Road (tel. 06/306-9292; www.margrainvineyard.co.nz), with rather divine villa accommodations; and Walnut Ridge Vineyard, 159 Regent St. (tel./fax 06/306-9323; www.walnutridge.co.nz).

Martinborough Wine Centre, 6 Kitchener St., Martinborough (tel. 06/306-9040; www.martinboroughwinecentre.co.nz), represents 30 of the region's 40 vineyards. If you're short on time, or visiting out of the main wine season, this is the perfect place to get a comprehensive overview. Tastings cost NZ$10 to NZ$15 per person. A delightful cafe/delicatessen and retail store are on-site. Every Sunday from 10am to 2pm, the center stages the Martinborough Country Market - the perfect place for wines, breads, organic produce, fish, local cheeses, preserves, and much more. The Wairarapa Farmers' Market is held every Saturday from 8:30am to 12:30pm under cover at Solway Showgrounds, Judds Road, Masterton. If you're interested in wine tours of this region, leave your car in Wellington and leap on the train for the Tranzit Gourmet Wine Escape (tel. 0800/471-227 in NZ; www.tranzit.co.nz). You'll connect with a coach tour in the Wairarapa and have tastings at four vineyards, a vineyard lunch, and a visit to the Martinborough Wine Centre for NZ$182 round-trip per person from Wellington and Hutt Valley (NZ$213 with Wellington hotel transfers). Tours run daily. For a smaller, more personal outing, join Zest Food Tours  (tel. 04/801-9198; www.zestfoodtours.co.nz), for one of their excellent gourmet wine tours (NZ$245-NZ$380 per person), which takes you behind the scenes of top food producers.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.