The Martinborough district has a wealth of top-flight Pinot Noir producers, and what is particularly gratifying is that they all have their own take on what makes quality. Larry McKenna is considered by many to have arguably the most significant impact on the global stage for New Zealand Pinot Noir, though no doubt he would count a number of others including Clive Paton, Blair Walter, Rudi Bauer and Hatsch Kalberer as having just as an important influence.
For me, Larry has developed a unique and individual style that reflects not only his philosophically minimal intervention approach to winemaking inputs, but also the terroir of his vineyard sources and district regionality. His wines have always shown the Martinborough regional personality of complex and savoury fruit flavours allied to significant structure. Over the years, I have seen how he has increasingly enhanced how these characteristics are manifest, whilst being sensitive to seasonal variations. In strong growing seasons, he has not been afraid of extraction and structure, and matched these traits with relatively high proportions of whole bunches in the fermentation, and corresponding new oak. It can take an open and experienced mind and palate, to appreciate the volume and layers of Larry’s wines, but most tasters will instantly see the quality. It’s often a matter of style preference that determines one’s degree of liking of the wines. I for one love them.
Larry has an enviable track record for outstanding Pinot Noir. His Martinborough Vineyard bottlings were leaders of the district. Now, his Escarpment Vineyard wines continue the standard, and his single vineyard bottlings distinguish sites and demonstrate terroir. I visit Martinborough regularly at the end of summer to taste the Escarpment Pinot Noir barrel samples of the previous vintage with Larry and his winemaker Huw Kinch. I never cease to be amazed by the consistent character of each of the different single vineyard wines.
I visited in mid-November last year, a bit earlier than usual, and caught up with developments with the white wines as well (click here to see my report). Larry and Huw are keen to develop the character and style of the white wines, employing varying degrees of skin contact. Chardonnay is a particular focus, and for 2016, a portion of the wine has been kept on skins in an amphora. It was time for my ‘usual’ visit, and on this occasion I was given barrel tastings of Chardonnay as well as the Pinot Noirs. My notes follow. www.escarpment.co.nz
Larry McKenna and Huw Kinch – Escarpment Vineyard
2016 Chardonnay ‘Barrel’ Samples
The Escarpment Vineyard Chardonnay has been a challenge to match the Pinot Noirs in quality for me. Part of the issue is that there is one fruit source, the Te Muna Road vineyard, and one clone, that being 95, to make the wine. It then comes down to different ferments and barrels, the appropriate ensuing inputs, and the selection thereof, to create layers of interest and complexity. Last year, new clones of Chardonnay, including 548 and Musque were planted to provide a broader base of material. For 2016, there will be a portion of the Chardonnay wine aged on skins in an amphora. Here is what I tasted:
Clone 95, Te Muna Road, batonnage and partial MLF
Pale golden yellow colour. The nose shows positive nutty aromas, a touch of aldehydes at present, unfolding stonefruit notes, the oaking quite subtle. Tight and elegant, but with good intensity of citrus and white stonefruit flavours, quite crisp and acidic, with nutty flavours interwoven with minerals. Overall, this shows artefact more than fruit purity, and will be a complexing component.
Clone 95, Te Muna Road, batonnage and partial MLF, from the end of the press cycle
Pale straw-yellow. The nose shows rich and ripe citrus fruit, with a degree of opulence, enhanced by the oak, but still with freshness and clarity. Quite rich and plush, with mouthfilling flavours and good body and presence. Lovely accessibility and poised with bright acidity. Subtle complexing mineral nuances. Considerable class.
Clone 95 Chardonnay, Te Muna Road, picked earlier, ‘Luke’s Experiment’
Very pale straw with green hues. Very tight but fresh. Some cooler fruit aromatics, a tad on the greener side. Showing flintiness and minerality. Quite firm on the palate, a leaner and firmer flow. The acidity is more prominent. Less attractive fruit, more complex nuances. If incorporated in the final blend, it would be a small portion only. Made with input from Luke Lomax, winemaker at Yabby Lake, Mornington Peninsula.
Clone 95 Chardonnay, Te Muna Road, aged 9 months on skins in amphora
Very pale straw colour. Soft, full nose with white stonefruits, nuts and quince, some pepperiness, showing typical skin contact savouriness. Rich fruited, with stonefruits, quince and nuts, along with surprisingly fine textures. There is still some comparatively greater grip noticeable. Lovely freshness. There has been considerable care taken to protect this from oxidation and spoilage. The clarity and vinosity, along with varietal expression show this, but it is a little tangential. The final blend will probably have less than 10% of this individual component.
2016 Pinot Noir Barrel Samples
2016 is the fourth high quality vintage in a row for the Martinborough district. We are seeing an unprecedented run of years that can only be positive for the wine producers in maintaining market supply and strengthening the reputation of the vignoble. The only spoiler for Escarpment Vineyard in 2016 was the reduction of yields due to frost in the Te Muna Road area. However, the wines look very smart.
Clone 667 Pinot Noir, Te Muna Road, 50% whole bunch
This is to go to the Escarpment Martinborough regional blend. Black-red colour. The nose has a deep core of ripe and concentrated black fruits, unveiling black-red florals. This has density, the whole bunch quite integrated. Sweetly ripe black fruit flavours on the palate, with balanced, significant structure from fine tannin extraction, and lovely fresh acidity. Quite accessible already, in a ‘masculine’ way.
Abel clone Pinot Noir, Te Muna Road, 50% whole bunch
Black-red colour. Quite elegantly expressed on nose with a tight, fine heart of black fruits with savoury notes. Is this the Abel clone and/or whole cluster? Strong and vigorous on palate with a firm, tight core and line. Plenty of drive and acidity. The structure a prominent feature. This will be a strong base for a very impressionable wine.
Kiwa Vineyard, clones 5, 6 and 13, 50% whole bunch
Dark, deep, ruby-red colour. This is surprisingly elegant, but voluminous with complex savoury dark-red fruits and with game and dried herb detail. Rich and luscious, and softly presented with stylish elegance, red fruits intermingling with complex dried herb and savoury stalk and earthy elements. But lovely, lacy acid freshness underlying. Showing typical ‘funky’ Euro-style Kiwa vineyard complexity, but retaining a prettiness.
Te Rehua Vineyard, a diverse range of clones, 65% whole bunch
Dark ruby-red colour. This has a beautiful array of aromatics, with dark-red to black fruits, fragrant violet florals that unfold to prominence. The whole bunch integrated and lending subtle herb lift. Rich and sweet on palate, mouthfilling black fruit flavours entwined with floral lift. The aromatic nature is the feature, but considerable fine-grained, flowery tannins unfold and grow in presence. This has impressive Pinot Noir florality and a showcase for New Zealand. This is sensational today.
Kupe Vineyard, Abel clone, planted 2000, 70% whole bunch
Black-red colour. This has elegantly concentrated black fruits entwined with a complex amalgam of dark herbs, whole bunch fragrance and stalky lift, forming a complete expression. Surprisingly elegant in proportion, but showing a tightly concentrated core. Layers of ripe black fruits with integrated dark herb and mineral notes. The whole bunch totally in tune. This is very Kupe in expression, the extraction very fine-grained, and in balance without overtaking the mouthfeel. This is a more elegant Kupe for sure, but archetypical in flavour.