Wine Review: 2006 Rockford SVS Hoffmann Shiraz and 2006 Rockford SVS Flaxman Valley Shiraz

Wine Review: 2006 Rockford SVS Hoffmann Shiraz and 2006 Rockford SVS Flaxman Valley Shiraz

For those with an interest and passion for Australian wine generally and shiraz from South Australia particularly, these are interesting and exciting times. Wineries are taking a deeper interest in the subtle differences that occur within the regions that represent the focus of their work. At the same time, a more focused understanding of the subregions within these appellations are increasingly showcased in new releases that are limited in production and availability but unlimited in education and enjoyment. Some wineries are taking the final step and going even further by bottling wines from single sites to showcase their unique attributes.

This more mature and discerning look at a wine region is an exciting development that mirrors the way Burgundians look at their villages and crus. The ability to show the diversity of wines within many of South Australia’s wine regions is crucial in fighting the stereotype that all Aussie shiraz is big, bold and interchangeable. Plus, it’s just plain fun to explore and understand the differences, some drastic and others more nuanced, that exist within wine regions that we are just beginning to understand.

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Rockford Winery’s Cellar Door

Rockford Winery is one of the Barossa Valley’s cult wineries known as much for their rather rustic, or some would say romantic, approach to winemaking as for their wines, particularly their Basket Press shiraz. A visit to the winery is required to bear witness to the winemaking methods of the past and see how they are still harnessed to make world class wines today.

The Basket Press shiraz is a tribute to the many growers that owner Robert O’Callaghan believes are the foundation of the winery’s purpose as well as the cultural heritage of the Barossa Valley. As such, the wine is a classic representation of how wines were made in the past, a blend of grapes from growers all over the valley. And he claims that this “provides consistency and reliability that is not possible from a single vineyard.”

While single vineyard shiraz bottlings have a lengthy history in Australia going back to 1952 and the first bottling from the Hill of Grace vineyard by the Henschkes, the focus on wines from various subregions within districts like the Barossa Valley is a fairly recent phenomenon. Wineries like Yalumba (2005), First Drop (2005), and St. Hallett (2009), were among the first to release a range of wines, typically 3-5 different wines, that highlighted the subregional differences of the Barossa much as AVAs like Oakville and Rutherford perform the same function for Napa Valley. Today, most websites increasingly highlight the names of growers that supply fruit from the many small towns that are part of the Barossa’s matrix of vineyards.

A recent visit to Rockford’s cellar door provided a chance to taste a few of the winery’s 2006 single vineyard releases, a shiraz from the Hoffmann vineyard in the Ebenezer region and another bottling from the Flaxman Valley, a small subregion emerging from the diverse microclimates that comprise the Eden Valley. The “SVS” wines are typically available only at the cellar door and are produced in amounts of 100-300 cases and released after 6-8 years in bottle. The vineyards also very from year-to-year but the Hoffman and Flaxman bottlings have been made most frequently.

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2006 Rockford SVS Flaxman Valley Shiraz

Both wines showed particularly well with the broad, soft textures and diffused flavors of dried cherries atop soft earth notes that can only come from older Rockford wines. Most importantly, the wines showed their origins clearly. The Hoffmann shiraz was a bit more compact in shape and bolstered by fine tannins as one would expect from Ebenezer. The Flaxman cuvee is based on fruit from the same Chris Ringland vineyard that is the foundation for his acclaimed shiraz and possesses the ripe blackberry core that is the trademark of the site.

For being such staunch traditionalists, it came as a shock to me to find out that Rockford’s first SVS shiraz bottlings came from the 1996 vintage, almost a full decade before other wineries followed their lead. At that time in the US, the debate about Barossa shiraz was more about American vs. French oak. Understanding region and site was way off in the future. It seems that in their quest to honor the traditions of the Barossa Valley, they played a major role in creating a new one. Hat’s off to that!

Wine Review: 2016 Te Mata Gamay Noir

Wine Review: 2016 Te Mata Gamay Noir

The gamay craze has sure captured the attention of wine scribes and hipster winelists of late. And some of this is deservedly so given the price of burgundy these days and the tendency of the best cru Beaujolais to resemble their pinot noir brethren, both in style and price. (It also might have to do with the increasing investment of Burgundy’s wineries in Beaujolais as well.) Much of the heightened promotion of gamay also comes from Beaujolais’s use of natural wine production techniques that are increasingly part of the region’s winemaking regimen.

It’s interesting to note that the domination of gamay production that Beaujolais enjoys has not been threatened much by wine regions in other countries. Unlike their pinot noir brethren whose global monopoly of production has seen challenges from regions across the globe, gamay the grape is pretty much entirely associated with Beaujolais the region.

A long time long ago, a retired banker by the name of Charles Shaw imported some of the more authentic gamay noir au jus blanc in his attempt to make a serious gamay in Napa Valley. It was quite tasty and a good representation of the varietal for those who appreciated the grape back then but the real stuff in California today is a rare find. A look at winesearcher yields less than a dozen producers and the grape is clearly less important (36 tons picked in California 2016) than its brother, the mal-named “Napa gamay” (1700 tons in 2016) which is actually valdiguié. Amazingly, there are 20 producers in Oregon, enough that a gamay festival is scheduled very soon.

So whats with these upstarts in the southern hemisphere producing a gamay that is actually appearing on the shelves and winelists in the US market? Yes, New Zealand, and Australia for that matter, are cranking out some serious examples of the grape. Yes, there are about 7.3 hectares of gamay in NZ with only two wineries of note so were not talking much but something is obviously brewing down there. (Australia has over 25 producers planted in all types of growing regions across the country).

The gamay producers of New Zealand and Australia producers are not just glamming on to the latest trends (though many are known to do so). The grape has a history that extends some 20+ years in both countries, just another example of how many interesting wines from both regions we don’t encounter from our perch in the States.

Te Mata’s Gamay Noir has a lengthy pedigree with the vines planted in hills north of Napier. The grapes were brought over from France by the Buck family back in 1995. The wine seems to have had a bit of a low profile in the past, I don’t recall tasting it until the last few years when it seemed to appear out of nowhere and announced itself as ready for the spotlight.

And ready it is with a bright ruby red color, and a light-bodied, zesty red fruit core that’s supported with crunchy acids. It’s the kind of wine that gives you the impression that a waxed mustache and a tattoo sleeve will appear once you’ve ingested it, it’s that good… and hip… The 2016 reflects the vintage with its’ more elegant weight while the 2015, a wine that can still be found in market, will exhibit a bit more concentration with spice notes and deeper red fruit flavors on the backpalate. The fresh crispness remains as will the ‘stache, the ‘tats and the great value. The list price is under $20.

Gamay-NV-95x300As a point of reference, New Zealand’s other gamay comes from Central Otago’s Rippon Vineyard and is worth the search if you can find it (it is one of the first wines to sell out each year and is not in the States as of yet). Nick Mills’ version of gamay is as one might expect since it is made in an unabashedly natural way. These are old vines as well, planted some 25 years ago. Not sure if there’s a shared story with Te Mata but worth investigating. A classic Rippon gamay is powerful and concentrated with savoury textures surrounding a core of bright red fruits, a revealing contrast with the Te Mata. This version is what more naturally made gamays should aspire for with its clarity and precision.

Now about those Aussie gamays…

 

Wine Review: 2009 Ostler Pinot Noir “Caroline’s”

Wine Review: 2009 Ostler Pinot Noir “Caroline’s”

Standing behind the table and pouring wine at a consumer table has to be one of the more thankless tasks in the entire wine industry. In addition to the classic salesmen promoting their winery’s portfolio, this front line of wine promotion is often manned by representatives of marketing associations designed to shine a light on the wines of a particular country or appellation. As a fan of New Zealand and Australian wines, I often deal with the government organizations that are charged with introducing their country’s wines to the US market.

David Strada is the man on the frontlines for New Zealand Winegrowers and is often found at consumer wine events focused on pinot noir… Which is where I found him last weekend manning a table at the annual World of Pinot confab in Santa Barbara. As in previous events like these, David brings along an assortment of currently released Kiwi pinots from various regions (the 2014 Quartz Reef Pinot Noir from the Bendigo subregion of Central Otago was most impressive). But it’s always good to check out his selection as he often makes a point of pulling a bottle or two with a bit of bottle age and he did not disappoint with a 2009 Ostler “Caroline’s” Pinot Noir that piqued my interest.

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Yes, this is a post about Ostler but only had one picture of that so putting in a Quartz Reef pic as it is in the post.

The pursuit of limestone-laden soils by pinot noir producers has a long and well-established history. Naturally occurring in Burgundy, New World pinot enthusiasts have had to do the hard yards to go out and find the stuff. The search for limestone soils provided the foundation story behind Josh Jensen’s Calera Winery back in the 1970s. In New Zealand, the limestone influence is easily found in the Weka Pass subregion just north of Christchurch where Bell Hill and Pyramid Valley have both made some compelling wines that reflect their soils.

The latest focus in New Zealand for the limestone inclined is the remote Waitaki Valley where vines were first planted in 2001. The region is a few hours east of Central Otago where the exceedingly marginal climate makes it difficult to grow grapes. Indeed, the region has already seen numerous wineries pull out of the region because of low yields and the expenses incurred by growing grapes in such an isolated area. Today, Waitaki is largely planted by small, independent growers, larger outfits having decided the risk of frost and inconsistent yields make it too risky to.

The chalky minerality that can come from limestone soils was easy to notice in the first pinots noirs from Waitaki and those wines immediately garnered considerable recognition. But coming from the 2004 vintage and from very young vines, the palates were also a bit attenuated and lacked the fruitweight to balance the intense mineral-laced spine and tannins.

That was not the case with later vintages as wines from brands like Valli and Forrest began to justify the hype. Clearly, a bit of vine age helped out the wines here. And thanks to a great write-up from Matt Kramer in the Wine Spectator, the 2010 Ostler “Caroline” Pinot Noir, got some sales traction in the US market. At the time (the spring of 2013), it was markedly better than the previous vintage, especially if you were preferred that haunting limestone scent and texture in your pinot.

But what a difference a few years makes. That ripe and clunky ’09 Ostler had softened and revealed a pretty elegance that must have been buried under the fuller-bodied wine of a few years ago. More elegant, even ethereal in texture, the limestone element was clearly in play now and the wine was all the better for it. But most importantly, I was glad I gave that wine a second chance and so I must take this opportunity to say thanks to those who provide them. Thanks, David!

Commentary: Who Should Judge Australian Wine Shows

Commentary: Who Should Judge Australian Wine Shows

Australia has been blessed with a surfeit of great wine writers. There’s plenty of them, each with their own voice. Some may be more professorial, others like news reporters. But taken as a whole, reading about Australian wine from the perspective of the country’s writers is reflective of the wine industry’s strength.

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Judge’s badge from Queensland Wine Show

One of my favorites is Philip White, a highly opinionated writer based out of Adelaide. Whitey, as he known in Australia (and to distinguish him from Tim White, another critic who also rarely hides his demeanor), does not suffer fools gladly. Bureaucrats, politicians and blowhards are all in his line of fire. Yet he has unrestrained passion for wine and the people who make up the industry, both present and more importantly, the past. His blog, Drinkster, is must reading for those who want to read wine writing at its fiery best.

A recent post, however, brought me to a crossroads. In it, Philip decried inviting members of the trade from other countries to participate as guest judges in Australian wine shows. As he says:

The Royal Adelaide Wine Show. Bloody Royal. Every major Australian capital city has one.

This writer lost interest in these royal plonk races many years ago. Not only cynical and exhausted by the notion of such giant wine competitions being run beneath a letterhead bearing the crown of the Germano-Greek family which rules Britain, like many others, I’m also tired of the guest preachers and teachers the Royal Show controllers ship out here to pat us on the head before giving us a lecture about how to make wine after three or four days tasting it with us.

They mount a huge self-congratulatory luncheon to hand out the bling and this star guest gets up and teaches us all a lesson.

And then, almost invariably, they tell us how little we should expect to be paid for it.

I mean, they go home, Poms, mainly, whisper in a few ears and have their buyer mates import their favourite discoveries, having screwed the Australian maker/supplier through the basement floor of the profit division. If you’re lucky, unlucky or whatever, they’ll write about their “discovery” and recommend it in a newspaper or shiny magazine or a blog or something.

In other words, guest judges are invited to Australia and end up only insulting the hosts with no change in Aussie wine sales upon their return.

It was one thing to have Whitey promote this but others picked up on his idea. Tom Carson, winemaker at Yabby Lake in the Mornington Peninsula, is also an influential judge in the Australian show system serving as Chair of Judges at the Melbourne Wine Show which awards the Jimmy Watson Trophy. His tweet below concerns two of Australia’s top wine shows (“Melb” is the Royal Melbourne Wine Show, “Nat” is the National Wine Show in Canberra):

Great read, some salient points to consider…’Royal’ Melb, QLD and Nat have dropped international judges, Melb since 2014

Finally, Tony Keys, who writes a weekly trade review on his website, threw his support behind Philip’s opinion.

White also despairs at international guest judges at wine shows. Why are they required? Again, Australia has more than enough quality talent to judge its and any other countries’ wines in a show.

Critics have leveled many complaints against wine shows generally and the Australian wine show system specifically. They are numerous and many have some validity but that’s not the topic here. But the contention that the Australian wine industry is best served without judges from other countries is just plain wrong.

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Shiraz class lined up at the 2015 Royal Queensland Wine Show

The primary benefit for a visiting judge is to see how wine shows are conducted. In my experience, the judges are qualified, medals and trophies truly awarded to wines that deserve them and the entire show is conducted professionally. The tasting abilities and skills necessary to be a wine judge require considerable knowledge and the confidence to support the wines you believe are worthy.

In addition to bearing witness to the show itself, there is the incredible chance to gain an in-depth understanding of wine categories that would be impossible to do at home. To taste through dozens of Hunter Valley semillons at once or a few flights of fortified wines could never happen in one sitting in any country. Wine shows allow tasters to discern the different levels of quality within a category and learn about them from very educated people in the Aussie wine trade. That level of knowledge is just not available outside of Australia.

This deeper insight is also complemented by the ability to get a broader vision of the Australian wine industry itself. When awarding medals or trophies, discussions on winemaking styles and philosophies can be quite vigorous. The ability to participate in these debates with such a broad cross section of the Australian wine trade is of incalculable benefit to understanding the industry itself. For example, the appearance of sulfides in chardonnay is a popular trend in Australian chardonnay these days. Over the last few wine shows, I have been able to learn how and why this style came about and to develop and present my own personal critique to against this development fellow judges. It would be impossible to come to this understanding tasting chardonnays here and there in America.

The benefits of participating in wine shows is not just limited to the judging experience itself. The time set aside for dinners, drinks and recreation nurtures relationships that can allow for a deeper understanding of Australian wine. Meeting winemakers, distributors, even wine writers, can provide insights into better tasting skills, a view of new trends and the development of friendships, all of which would be difficult to accomplish alone.

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Meeting of judges at the 2012 Hunter Valley Wine Show

Perhaps what is really needed is not the elimination of guest judges but simply inviting better judges. Wine judging in Australia is fairly technical and intense so this is not the place for someone who has never judged before. A familiarity with Australia’s wine regions and styles might also benefit the judging process. And the dreaded after-dinner speeches might be more informative if those invited are selected because they have something interesting to say.

But what is really troubling is that three notable members of the trade are in agreement that international judges are not needed. True, the awards can be easily handed out without inviting outsiders and I do not doubt that the tasting skills of visiting judges may not match those of Australian professionals.

Nevertheless, shutting out international visitors from judging wine shows will only deny Australian wine enthusiasts the unique opportunity to immerse themselves in the country’s wine industry. And somehow, that just seems a bit, well, un-Australian.

Wine Review: 2004 Clarendon Hills “Hickinbotham” Grenache

Wine Review: 2004 Clarendon Hills “Hickinbotham” Grenache

At a masterclass on his wines a number of years ago, Clarendon Hills owner and winemaker Roman Bratusiak was asked what seemed to me to be an innocent question. “When you are at home,” she queried, “what Australian wines do you drink.” Roman, who is known for his somewhat brusque demeanor, huffed and said, “I don’t drink Australian wines. I drink Burgundy.” And that where things were left. With the 16 ton weight pervading the room.

Besides ruffling the feathers of the poor gal who innocently asked the question and leaving those in attendance wondering what kind of person would harrumph like that, the reference to Burgundy resonated for some time. His comments came to the forefront a few years later when I made my first visit to Clarendon Hills. When our group headed off to dinner, he brought along two cases of some pretty nifty wines (the second case contained duplicates in case of cork taint). They were all burgundies. You can’t fault a man for being true to his word.

That declaration about burgundy really got ahold of me the next day tasting through some barrels and current releases. Over and over again, I was impressed with the sense of restraint, the compact shape of the fruit, the emphasis on structure. More importantly, they stood in stark contrast to the descriptions offered by Robert Parker. These were not high-octane, gloppy wines devoid of focus. Here was length and line, classically compact in shape. Let there be no mistake, his wines were concentrated and intense but not what I expected given how Parker had often described his wines.

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Old vine Hickinbotham Grenache (picture from winery website)

Indeed, there was a Burgundian sensibility being expressed here. The use of French oak and little of it new. The search for expressions of terroir in the hills of McLaren Vale and bringing these subtle nuances to the forefront. Small volumes of wines made from individual plots of old vines, bottled separately.

These thoughts came back to me as I recently ensured that a bottle of 2004 Clarendon Hills “Hickinbotham” Grenache would fulfill its intended purpose. McLaren Vale grenache is one of the ultimate expressions of the grape to be found anywhere. It’s here where the classic chocolate-laced kirsch aromas and flavors are revealed in abundance. Mouth-filling yet showcasing that pinot-like presence on the palate, grenache from the Vale is usually a bit more substantial than what is found in the Barossa.

The Hickinbotham Vineyard is located over 800 feet above sea level in the rolling hills north of McLaren Vale village. The altitude helps to moderate temperatures a bit during the hot summers providing that finesse that is typical of fruit from the area. Roman’s parcel of grenache was planted in 1920 and these old vines contribute to the power lurking within the wines from this vineyard.

Older bottles of Hickinbotham Vineyard shiraz and grenache have proven to be among the most rewarding and cellar worthy wines in the Clarendon Hills portfolio. What made the 2004 Hickinbotham Grenache true to form was that classic kirsch bouquet, open and fragrant with woodsy spices lying underneath. The palate had softened yet still maintained that lifted, primary fruit. The wines from this vineyard, no matter the varietal, always have a firm, structural foundation and this wine followed that rule if a bit softer and broader now thanks to its age. The final observation fell to the wine’s balance and elegance, how after 13 years, this was a wine true to Roman’s approach. Here’s to Burgundy!

Thanks to Dino Stephanos for sharing this wine with me.

 

Wine Review: 2015 Felton Road “Block 6” Chardonnay

Wine Review: 2015 Felton Road “Block 6” Chardonnay

Felton Road has become one of Central Otago’s leading wineries in the US market thanks to the ceaseless promotion of their wines across the world’s major wine markets. Critics and writers can do much to enhance a winery’s reputation (and Felton Road has certainly done well in that regard) but you’ve got to pull the cork (or twist the cab in the case of these wines) for the trade and consumers to show there’s some proof to the pudding.

What’s most exciting is that the winery has become one of leading proponents of bottling individual vineyards separately creating, in essence, premier cru sites among the plantings they have dealt with over the past 25 years. Bottlings from their Calvert and Cornish Point vineyards complement the original plantings at the Elms vineyard and show distinct differences even though the sites are only a few miles apart.

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Felton Road winemaker Blair Walter at the winery

But what has been really intriguing to those involved in the more geeky side of wine is their early commitment to drill down even further and to bottle individual blocks from their vineyards. Felton Road quickly noticed that certain blocks of their pinot noir plantings performed exceptionally well in their blending trials and began to bottle them separately. The Felton Road “Block 3” and “Block 5” Pinot Noirs have quickly become iconic wines and show the completely different profiles that can come from vineyards not that far apart. The winery has essentially completed the arc from making village-level wines to discovering and bottling their interpretation of grand cru-level cuvees. This is essentially a window into how New Zealand’s pinot noir industry is maturing.

When it comes to chardonnay, Felton Road’s history has seen them release three chardonnays over the years: a Bannockburn regional cuvee, a more-focused bottling from the first vines planted at the Elms Vineyard and their single site Felton Road “Block 2” Chardonnay which was first produced in 2001. Recently, winemaker Blair Walter found that the chardonnay vines from their Block 6 had matured in such a direction that the 2015 wine deserved to be bottled separately. And tasting through a bottle of the 2015 Felton Road “Block 6” Chardonnay indicates that this new bottling will be a perfect addition to the winery’s portfolio.

The grapes for both cuvees are from the Elms Vineyard, the winery’s original plantings from the early 1990s. Both vineyards have similar soils and are planted to the Mendoza clone, the more popular selection used throughout New Zealand until the Dijon clones began to arrive. Block 6 has a more northerly slope (perfect for catching the sun’s energy) and higher elevation than its sibling which faces east.

The new wine is a perfect foil for the winery’s “Block 2” Chardonnay. That chardonnay celebrates a more Chablisienne style with a taut, leaner palate framework, some toasty oak on the edge and a firm fruit presence. It demands introspection as well as some aeration or cellaring to really show itself.

The “Block 6” still retains that Felton Road classicism in terms of the shape of the palate and its emphasis on fruit over oak. But here, there are more tropical notes on the nose and the medium-bodied palate, a statement originating from the Mendoza clone. The bouquet is a bit more outgoing with spice and a whiff of mead mingling with the riper fruit components and chalk-laced citrus to focus the finish.2017-02-05 11.57.25.jpg

Overall, the Block 6 possesses just a bit more plumpness to the palate and softer textures which will provide for more immediate appeal while the firmer Block 2 charts its own path. But the path that is exciting is the confidence the winery is taking to bottle wines from the best parcels of their original plantings. It will be exciting to see what happens as they drill down further on their other vineyards as the future unfolds.

Notes From Martinborough

Notes From Martinborough

No trip to New Zealand to attend the Pinot Noir Conference would be complete without a visit to Martinborough where the country’s pinot thing really started. And it proved to be a worthwhile visit as the region looks ready and re-energized to reclaim the spotlight it once owned as the country’s most acclaimed region for pinot noir. Much like what happened in Australia’s Yarra and Hunter Valleys, an infusion of new winemakers and wineries has brought new ideas and approaches to winemaking and marketing to the region, essential as Central Otago and Marlborough seem to dominate the headlines when it comes to kiwi pinot. Here’s a look at what’s happening in Martinborough.

What’s in a Name

Martinborough has always had a small problem due to the name of the region. There has always been a bit of confusion with Marlborough, the more well-known neighbor across Cook Strait. Martinborough, along with Masterton and Gladstone, also make up the larger collection of wine regions that comprise the Wairarapa district. The fact that its named Wairarapa does not help much either as it can be easily confused with the Waipara wineries outside Christchurch. So what is a wine region to do?

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The new logo

As in similar circumstances, the region’s wineries have created a new marketing association called Wellington Wine Country, Wellington being the country’s capitol some 90 minutes away from the winemaking action. And as always with this type of rebranding, the new name leaves a bit to be desired,  most notably requiring the trade and consumer to know that Wellington has something to do with Martinborough and vice versa. But it’s likely the powers that be have done some research before rolling out the new name so there’s little use arguing about it. What’s best is with the name agreed upon, it appears that everyone is ready to take this new energy and spend it on promoting the region’s wine. And that will benefit everyone.

Martinborough Drills Down

Pinot noir has always been about the search for site, the one place where climate, dirt and grapes combine to create a sublime wine. In New Zealand, wineries first had to sort out how to make pinot and what regions worked. Over the past 25 years or so, the regions have finalized their identity and style and now subregional differences are becoming apparent. Today, a thorough understanding of them is necessary in order for the trade to effectively sell them to retailers and consumers.

The logical progression sees winemakers now identifying increasingly finer differences in their vineyards. NZ’s top producers are now bottling wines from single vineyards that show an even more drilled down look at the nuances of their terroirs. Here is another reason why NZ wine can be so exciting, watching wineries begin to find the grand cru locales in their regions.

While this look at site basically started in New Zealand with Fromm’s “Clayvin” Pinot Noir and Felton Road’s “Block 3” and “Block 5” Pinot Noirs, Martinborough has really brought this trend to the fore with an exciting array of new wines that show the next evolutionary step in New Zealand’s winemaking.

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2013 Ata Rangi “McCrone” Pinot Noir

Ata Rangi has always believed their estate pinot noir to be the best representation of their winery and did not see a reserve bottling as part of their philosophy. However,they have recently begun promoting their Ata Rangi “McCrone” Pinot Noir as an expression of a differing site nearby their own vineyards. Dry River has also had the same philosophy yet bottled an old vine cuvee as “Dry River Estate” in 2013 and a “Craighall Vineyard” in 2014. However, it’s Larry McKenna who has really embraced this trend with four separate bottlings from the Martinborough Terraces to complement his “Kupe” Pinot Noir from the Te Muna subregion. For pinot geeks and New Zealand wine enthusiasts, this drilled down look at growing and making pinot noir promises to provide for some exciting wines to drink in the near future.

Getting Older Now

With many vineyards planted in the 1980s, a chunk of vines on the Martinborough Terraces are starting to enter a new phase in their life. Now that they are between 25-30 years of age, the behavior of these vines has changed in ways that have been unexpected. As Larry McKenna at Escarpment explained it, no one knew what might happen as the vines got older. This is the first time New Zealand’s winemakers have experienced this stage of a vine’s development so they are now forced to adjust their past practices to account for the changes in the fruit they are harvesting.

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The first row of pinot noir planted in Martinborough at Martinborough Vineyards

Winemakers are now noticing that grapes can be picked at lower sugars allowing them to make wines with lower alcohols. In the vineyards, grapes are now ripening more evenly and there’s less variation within bunches. Differences between clones are lessening and the feeling is that the site’s true terroir is showing through. The finished wines are now showing less primary fruit and tannins softening bringing savory flavors and textures to the fore.

And this is another exciting insight about winemaking in New Zealand, the opportunity to encounter new and unexpected things as a vineyard gets older, something rarely experienced in the Old World. In Burgundy, the understanding of how a vine ages is passed down from generation to generation so the grower has a better idea of what to expect from a vine as it ages. Some vineyards are a mix of different ages interplanted together so the vine’s behavior at certain age groups is hard to notice. But in New Zealand, winemakers are “Hanging 10” as the vines express themselves in unexpected ways. Makes things exciting for everyone.

Looking Forward

Martinborough probably sees more vintage variation than other pinot noir growing regions in New Zealand. Lower yields are the biggest problem thanks to winds that pick up during spring flowering causing few berries to set. Indeed, the vines struggle all year against strong breezes making it difficult for the vines to grow large bunches. Nasty weather as fall arrives with wet and cold does not help things either.

So it was good to see the region enjoying a succession of good vintages after some difficulty in 2011 and 2012. While the successful 2013s have been in the US market for some time, pinot enthusiasts should keep their eyes peeled for the pinots from 2014 and 2015 that will be released in the upcoming months.

What proved most exciting was a return to form for Craggy Range with their 2014 Pinot Noir from the Te Muna subregion. Having crafted a lighter, more ethereal style that was a marked change from their initial releases, the latest vintage forms a bridge between both styles that will see fans of juicy, textured pinots reaching for their wallets. The layered, dark red-fruited palate is textured and harmonious with a long, soft finish. Craggy Range’s 2014 “Aroha” Pinot Noir, a reserve bottling from two specific plots in the Te Muna vineyard, remains the winery’s wine to secure if you prefer a more delicate statement

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2015 Escarpment “Te Rehua” Pinot Noir

The Escarpment series of vineyard designated pinots from the Terraces shows an exciting light on individual vineyards from the Martinborough Terraces. While Larry McKenna’s close planted Kupe vineyard in the Te Muna subregion could be considered his most important bottling (probably because he planted it!), his other cuvees can give that wine a run for the money as happened with the 2015 Escarpment “Te Rehua” Pinot Noir. Here’s a complex, multi-faceted wine that showcases the power and structure of the Terraces (and in screwcap for the first time as well!). To be released next year, it continues to secure it’s place as the top bottling after the Kupe Pinot.

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2015 Kusuda Pinot Noir

Cult winery Kusuda shows no indication of losing its reputation as the Martinborough estate with the most buzz. Hiro Kusuda continues to show grace under pressure as the hordes descended on his table at Wellington to try his wines. The wines (there was some syrah floating about) maintain that rare balance of intensity and finesse with the 2015 possessing a bit more restraint than other wines talked about in this section. A 2008 vintage showed the benefits of holding on to some wine so should you find any of the 2015 (they are unavailable in the US market), make sure to put it away for short bit.

Finally, Dry River Winery continues its run of deeply fruited pinot noirs with their 2015 Dry River Pinot Noir. Showing a shade more finesse and softness during the past few years, the palate is still more compacted than open requiring some cellaring time to truly reveal itself. Yet, there’s no doubt that there some immediate appeal that makes popping a bottle sooner than later an inviting proposition. The problem is that in 2015, thanks to the region’s variable weather, there isn’t much wine to be found so be proactive if looking for your favorite Martinborough wine with that vintage on the label.