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?

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.

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.

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

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.

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.

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