Thursday, 5 May 2011

Martinborough Pinot Noir: Hidden treasure

Martinborough is the smallest wine region in New Zealand. The area under vine is about 3% of New Zealand’s total but wine production is only 1%. Although the journey is only a one hour drive from Wellington, it is a winding road up the mountain and down into the valley, with numerous twists and turns. No wonder Martinborough is easily overlooked by wine lovers.

If you think New Zealand Pinot Noir is Central Otago, think again. Most vines in Martinborough are Pinot Noir, although the quantity is nowhere near Central Otago’s. It all started in the late 1970s when a few brave souls followed the advice of a soil scientist, converted farmland into vineyards, and proved that Martinborough is indeed ideal for viticulture. Today there are some 58 growers in Martinborough. Sizes range from the smallest with less than 2 ha under vines, to the biggest (still fairly small compared to Marlborough) with 85ha.
The Martinborough Terrace, where most vineyards are.

Martinborough’s Pinot Noir is not a small brother of Central Otago at all. In fact, they are pretty much at opposite ends of the flavour spectrum. The terroir of Martinborough is unique: free draining gravel soil that allows vine roots to grow deep in search of water and nutrients, a long and mild growing season that favours phenolic development and tannin ripening, the planting of the Abel Pinot Noir clone ‘smuggled’ from Domaine de la Romanée-Conti in Burgundy (Martinborough’s producers will proudly tell you that this clone does not grow in Central Otago), the respect that winemakers show the vines (I was surprised most winemakers choose spontaneous fermentation), all resulting in a Pinot Noir that is concentrated and structured with multiple flavours of red fruits, savoury notes, spices and ripe tannins.

To me Central Otago's Pinot Noir is a lively athletic wine with energy, while Martinborough’s is a thoughtful intellectual with depth. See if you agree with me.

During my two days' visit organised by Wines from Martinborough, I visited eight wineries and talked to a dozen producers, While each produces Pinot Noir with different characteristics, they share the same enthusiasm for making wines that best express the terroir, which is the main thing that sets them apart from the big boys—their wines are made from the heart.

Pinot Noir is by far the most planted vine in Martinborough (47% of the total), followed by Sauvignon Blanc (35%). There is also a small amount of Chardonnay, Pinot Gris, Riesling, Syrah and Cabernets.

Martinborough is very compact and most wineries are within the 2km square from The Square in the town centre. The Toast Martinborough Festival is held every year in November and visitors just walk from winery to winery for tasting. Check it out when you have the opportunity.

Most vineyards are within the 2km square from the town centre

After non-stop tastings for two days, here are some of my favourites:
Structured tasting of 18 Martinborough wines: Riesling, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Syrah

Ata Rangi 2007 Pinot Noir: Perfumy, blueberries, savoury, mushroomy, complex with velvet tannin and a lengthy finish. Helen the winemaker said it is the texture and structure in the wine that they are after, rather than just pure fruit.
Hong Kong distributor: Altaya
Cambridge Road Pinot Noir Animus 2008: The spiciest Pinot Noir I have ever tasted. Lance said it was slightly oxidative during the vinification process but I think it added complexity to the wine.
Martinborough Vineyard Terrace Pinot Noir 2009: Spicy, dense, structured with a good length. Winemaker Paul’s favourite is his Riesling. He only has one block and he made three labels from it.
Hong Kong distributor: Northeast

Civilised harvest–a commercial espresso machine in the winery of Martinborough Vineyard
Te Kairanga Runholder Merlot/Cabernet Franc: Perfume, savoury, complex and good length.
Hong Kong distributor: Boutique Wines

The Cabbage Tree Semillon 2009: Melon and peach with creamy mouthfeel, and it is special - the only Semillon in Martinborough not planted for commercial reasons. It is just that owners David and Winifred like drinking Semillon.
The cabbage tree at The Cabbage Tree Vineyard

Pallister Estate Pinot Noir 2009: Raspberry fruit, deep, structured and concentrated, good integration with oak and a good length.
Hong Kong distributor: Watson's

Vynfields Reserve 2007: Blueberries, spicy, vibrant, silky tannin and a good length. By the way, owners Kaye and John are believers in biodynamic viticulture.
Hong Kong distributor: Northeast

Al fresco lunch at Vynfields

Escarpment Kiwa Pinot Noir 2009: Well integrated and structured, with a nice balance of fruit and spices.
Hong Kong distributor: Northeast

Dry River Syrah 2006: Mulberry, sweet fruit with a hint of pepper. Soft tannin. Most Syrah from Martinborough is quite peppery but the warm 2006 season pushed the Syrah into the ripe sweet fruit spectrum.
Hong Kong distributor: Altaya

Nga Waka Home Block Chardonnay 2007: Intense aroma of spices, honey and butter. Rich yet surprisingly elegant on the palate.

Schubert Syrah 2008: Structured and concentrated. Pepper, savoury, herbal and gamey with ripe tannin and good length.
Hong Kong distributor: Kedington Wines

Kusada Pinot Noir 2009: Well balance of fruits and tannins with good length. Can probably keep for another 4-6 years.

The ladies trio: winemakers Poppy (Katy) Hammond of Dry River, Wendy Potts of Te Kaigarani and Helen Masters of Ata Rangi

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