I had only met Hiroyuki Kusuda a couple of times ever since he started making wine from the 2002 vintage in Martinborough. On those occasions, I never really talked in any depth about what he was doing. And although I had tasted several of his wines during that time, I had never looked hard and seriously at them. It has been my loss, especially as he and his wines have received great praise by the likes of Bob Campbell here in New Zealand and Jancis Robinson internationally. My chance to correct this came with a visit back home by Linden Wilkie of The Fine Wine Experience, a New Zealander based in London and Hong Kong, who runs tastings and dinners of ultra-fine wines. Linden, whose family knew my family in Dunedin days, expressed his desire to visit several top wineries in Martinborough, Kusuda Wines high on the list. Besides his interest in the wines, his only other connection is that he, and his good friend Neal Martin, writer for The Wine Advocate, have Japanese wives!
Hiro is a driven individual, totally focussed on seeking purity of fruit character in Pinot Noir. He came to New Zealand, after tasting an Ata Rangi Pinot Noir 1992. Being employed by Fujitsu, then the Consulate General of Japan, but always keen on wine, especially the Rieslings of Germany, he changed his career path, probably to the dismay of his wife Reiko and parents, and went to Geisenheim University to study oenology and viticulture. Captured by the beguiling nature of Burgundy, and tasting the Martinborough wine, he realised his dream of making his own Pinot Noir with purity could be achieved in New Zealand.
The Kusuda wines have been and continue to be made from fruit sourced from different sites in the Martinborough district and vinified at the Schubert winery in Greytown. In 2002 and 2003, Hiro Kusuda leased Muirlea Rise for the wines. In 2004, he purchased Pinot Noir from Schubert. No wine was made in 2005 due to loss of crops due to rain. 2006 saw Pinot Noir from Pond Paddock, an arrangement that continued to 2009. Hiro purchased the Murdoch James’‘Saleyard’ Syrah that year too, and made wine from it. This 1.1 ha site has Syrah vines dating back 20 years of age. In 2008, he made a one-off Bordeaux varietal wine from Benfield & Delamare fruit. In 2009, he made his first Riesling, made from Pond Paddock fruit. For 2010, Pond Paddock fruit formed the base of the Riesling and Pinot Noir, Hiro supplementing the volume with Stonecutter Pinot Noir and Julicher Riesling. In 2011, Pond Paddock provided all the Riesling and Pinot Noir. In 2012, Hiro is leasing Martinus for Pinot Noir and purchasing Riesling from Cirrus.
A key feature to achieve quality is the extremely meticulous if not fanatical sorting of the fruit, at harvest and especially on the berries before vinification. The Claremont Motel in Martinborough has Kusuda Wines as their most important client during vintage as hordes of pickers pay their own way from Japan to say they’ve been able to work with one of Japan’s most highly regarded winemakers and contribute to the quality! Some stay for two days, others for a month or more. It takes 2-3 days for 10-15 people to sort through one tonne of Pinot Noir, depending on the health of the fruit. From around 10-15 tonnes of fruit, the annual output is less than 1,000 cases. In 2007, there were only4 tonnes processed! 70% of the tiny Kusuda production goes to Japan, where it has a cult following. The remainder is sold evenly in Australia and locally.
Hiro graciously took Linden and myself through a tasting of his wines. All were presented in the appropriate stemware, and there was no sense of urgency. Two Rieslings, essentially from the Pond Paddock vineyard on Te Muna Road were presented. The Kusuda Riesling 2011, at 10.5% alc. and 7 g/L rs tight with subtle exotic jasmine florals, beautiful linearity and racy acidity, yet with underlying fruit extract. About 300 dozen made. Next was the Kusuda Riesling 2010, 11.5% alc. and 6 g/L rs. More shy and restrained in aroma and flavour, still tightly bound, and clearly more fruit extract, with a fine phenolic line. Seemingly brooding, this should open up with bottle age. Approx. 215 dozen made.
One wine that interested me was the Kusuda Merlot/Cabernet Sauvignon 2008, made from Bill Benfield and Sue Delamare’s fruit, and made on site with Bill. 64% Merlot and 36% Cabernet Sauvignon, with a touch of Franc included, this is 13.0% alc., the wine aged 22 months in 30% new French oak. Elegant as the Benfield & Delamare wines were, ripe with classic green olive and tapenade complexities, still vibrant and full of vitality, this may be a wine to add to the collection for followers of the site. Around 300 dozen made.
The Kusuda Pinot Noir 2010 is the current release, made from fruit from Pond Paddock on Te Muna Road supplemented with grapes from Stonecutter. 14.0% alc, a cautious 5% whole bunch, the wine spending 15 months in 24% new French oak. This features bright, lively aromatic, truly perfumed violetty fruit with a little oak spicing, sitting on an elegance, fine-textured palate. This has an underlying power, but finesse and fruit vibrancy are the qualities that make this a winner. Only 400 dozen made. The Kusuda Syrah 2009 is another wine showing finesse. From the Cambridge Road site owned by Kusuda. A touch of reduction on bouquet, which will surely become integral with secondary savoury elements in time, this is still tightly bound and restrained in expression on palate. Juicy black fruits, pepper and spices supported by very fine and supple extract. One can sense the layers waiting to unfold. 14.5% alc., the wine aged 21 months in 30% new oak, and around 375 dozen made.
We finished the tasting with two 2006 wines that demonstrated consistency of quality as well as evolution of the style. The Kusuda Pinot Noir 2006 from Pond Paddock fruit, 14.0% alc., the wine aged 14 months in 40% new oak, just starting to show some secondary forest and game complexities, but still with bright, rich, sumptuous fruit, quite densely packed, but with a suppleness and more than a suggestion of elegance. I liked this very much, but Hiro, now in hindsight, would have picked a few days earlier to retain greater elegance, acidity and purity. 300 dozen made. The final wine was the Kusuda Syrah 2006, the first vintage from the Murdoch James site, purchased fruit. 13.7% alc., the wine aged 18 months in 40% new oak. Just over 300 dozen made. Both Linden and thought this wine pretty well perfect. Beautifully perfumed with floral and animal notes unfolding in layers, along with a little oak toast. Exceptionally rich and lush, with exotic spices, pepper and liquorice. Yet backed by excellent acidity. I could sense that Hiro was pleased we found great favour with this wine, but as a first effort, I knew Hiroyuki Kusuda would want even greater elegance and cut, as well as purity of fruit.
Already, the Kusuda wines are exceptionally fine. The precision and fastidious attention to detail can partially be attributed to Japanese culture and upbringing that appreciates simplicity, order and beauty. However Hiro Kusuda has the individuality, desire and tenaciousness to take his wines to another level. He will succeed, and I’m going to enjoy following him while he does it. www.kusudawines.com