Sunday, 9 September 2012

Taste Martinborough - Redefining Wine Royalty

In many winemaking countries, Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay are seen as the King and Queen of grapes. They are possessed of certain noble traits, such as the ability to relate easily to people and are quite adapt in acclimatising themselves to different environments. Like all royalty they have an air of sombre dignity, producing wines of superlative quality and ageability. 

However, there are some in the royal family who do not fit the typical mould. Feisty and strong-charactered, Sauvignon Blanc tired of the rigid trappings of her native France and established her own court in New Zealand back in the 1970s. The winemakers in New Zealand allowed her to express herself fully, and soon the world was falling in love with her forward style. Youthfulness and intense varietal character are the hallmarks of a Kiwi Sauvignon Blanc, and even those unfamiliar with the wine regions of New Zealand would be able to pick out the snow pea, grass and gooseberry flavours of this wine. 

For some time now, the search has been ongoing to find a suitable consort for Sauvignon Blanc, a red varietal to complete the vinous offerings of New Zealand. Winemakers believe they may have found an answer in Pinot Noir. Unlike the hardy and popular Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir is a dreamy poet. He can be selective and temperamental, and if the climate and soil are not to his exact liking, the result can be a disastrous harvest.  Fortunately, he took a shine to the Martinborough region, and it is from here that New Zealand Pinot Noir has earned the highest international acclaim. 

I had an opportunity to sample these wines at the Taste Martinborough Food and Wine Evening organised by The Local Nose. The tasting was held at Buyan and accompanied with a selection of appetisers such as Pirozhki (Russian Pastry with Meat and Cheese Filling) and Stchi (Russian Cabbage Soup). The list of participating wineries reads like a Who’s Who of top Martinborough producers, with names such as Ata Rangi, Craggy Range, Martiborough Vineyards and Schubert. The wineries differ vastly in size, with Ata Rangi and Cambridge Road representing the small but established players alongside larger producers such as Te Kairanga, Martinborough Vineyards and Craggy Range. Rounding off the list is a new crop of boutique wineries which include Haythornthwaite, Brodie Estates, Schubert and Vynfields. 

Martinborough Pinot Noir tends to be light to medium bodied, well-structured and with more fruity than floral notes. Alcohol levels range from 13-14%, but are well integrated so that they add flesh and body without detracting from the balance of the wine. A pleasant discovery was the range of other varietals at the tasting such as Syrah, Chardonnay and Gewurtztraminer, highlighting the diverse offerings of the region. 

The growth of Pinot Noir in New Zealand over the past few years has been nothing short of remarkable. It is now the second most planted varietal in New Zealand after Sauvignon Blanc, covering around 4800 ha. With its expressive varietal character and silky texture, it is easy to see why the local populace has seen fit to elevate Pinot Noir to the throne. As wine writer Jancis Robinson commented, “The best (NZ Pinot Noir) are nowhere near as good as the best red burgundy, but the worst are so, so much more delicious than the worst burgundy.”

Winery profiles and tasting notes:

Established by Mark and Susan Haythornthwaite in the early 1990s. The first plantings were in 1992 with Pinot Noir, followed by Pinot Gris and Gewurtztraminer. Each wine is named after a family member or friend. 

Haythornthwaite Susan Gewurtztraminer 2008 – Enticing nose of starfruit and ginger. Off dry, with notes of honey, lime, pineapple and lychee that linger through to the long finish. 

Haythornthwaite Pamela Gewurtztraminer 2011 – Varietal character of rosewater, spice and lychee. Medium dry, with some heft on the palate although it doesn’t cross the line into cloying. 

Haythornthwaite Catherine Petit Pinor 2006 – The name Petit indicates that it comes from younger vines. Perfumed aroma, with notes of earth and forest floor. Light bodied with ripe medium- tannins, red fruits, beef extract and black cherry. 

Te Kairanga
Established in 1984, Te Kairanga was the largest vineyard operator in Martinborough when it was bought by American billionaire Bill Foley in 2011. 

Te Kairanga Sauvignon Blanc 2010 – Typical Kiwi Sauvignon Blanc. Gooseberry and grass notes with an interesting squeeze of starfruit on the palate. Bright and lively.

Te Kairanga Chardonnay 2010
– Primary fruit characters of melon and apricot. Slightly muted on the nose. Vanilla and oak dominate on the palate. Creamy texture. 

Established in 1998 by Kai Schubert and Marion Deimling, both graduates of the famed Geisenheim University in Germany. Having tasted the wines several times over the years, I would venture to say that they are consistently impressive. 

Schubert Marion’s Vineyard Pinot Noir 2010 – Intense aromatics of red fruits, with charred oak. A crunchy character to the fruit, backed with refreshing acids. Medium+ alcohol but with masses of ripe fruit to balance it out. Long finish. 

Schubert Block B Pinot Noir 2010 – Made from plantings of newer Dijon clones. Raspberry nose, with a mineral undercurrent. Nervy and taut on the palate with earthy notes. Long and complex. 

Cambridge Road
The first organically managed vineyard in Martinborough, established in 1986. Proprietor Lance Redgwell now farms the vineyard biodynamically. 

Cambridge Road Pinot Noir 2009 – Earthy nose, reminiscent of clay, with raspberry. Some spice on the palate, with crunchy red berries. Light bodied with ripe medium- tannins. Elegant with great purity. 

Cambridge Road Syrah 2010 – An unusual blend of 91% Syrah and 9% Pinot Noir. Cool climate Syrah character was evident in this wine, with notes of blackcurrant, pepper and game. Slightly medicinal. 

Owners John Bell and Kaye McAulay embarked on a renovation of the vineyards in 1998, uprooting existing vines and replanting them with Pinot Noir. They did keep some of the Riesling as well as an unidentified varietal. Kai Schubert and Marion Deimling double up as winemakers for Vynfields. 

Vynfields Riesling 2010 – Minerally nose with lemon sherbet and lime. Slight bitterness on the palate with sharp acidity. 

Vynfields Mad Rooster 2010 – Made from an unknown grape that was present in the vineyards when John and Kaye took over. An earthy, almost sweaty nose with sour cherry fruit. Fresh acidity lending structure to the wine. Intriguing. 

Vynfields Pinot Noir 2009 – Pronounced intensity nose of boiled sweets, perfume and violet notes. Ripe, bright cherry fruit on the palate with a silky texture and a lasting finish. 

Ata Rangi
Justifiably Martinborough’s most acclaimed producer. “You can’t go wrong with Ata Rangi,” was a comment I overheard at the tasting. Their reputation is hard-earned, being one of the first wineries to set up in the region back in the 1980s. Founder Clive Paton along with wife Phyll and sister Alison laid much of the ground rules for growing Pinot Noir in New Zealand. 

Ata Rangi Crimson Pinot Noir 2010 – The name of the wine refers to Project Crimson, a conservation trust set up to preserve New Zealand’s pohutukawa and rata trees. Vibrant and approachable, the wine has an alluring aroma of fresh red cherries and woodsmoke. The palate is framed by lively acidity, supple tannins and concentrated fruit.

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