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Larry McKenna and the 2011 Escarpment Pinot Noirs at Glengarry

By April 11, 2013No Comments

There was a plenty of interest in the tasting of the new release Escarpment Vineyard Martinborough wines, including the 2011 ‘Insight’ and ‘Kupe’ Pinot Noirs presented by proprietor and winemaker Larry McKenna at Glengarry’s Thorndon Quay branch. Extra places had to be laid out by Nikki Astwood for extra last-minute attendees to be squeezed in. And the night delivered on many levels. Not only did the range of new releases show well, but a selection of older wines which were presented alongside the 2011s gave a greater understanding of the wines and their aging properties. Glengarry provided the library stock and lifted the game by having the wines served in appropriate Riedel glassware. And Larry demonstrated why he is regarded as one of the leaders in making New Zealand Pinot Noir with his in-depth discussion on a very diverse range of topics. The attendees rose to the occasion with many questions and opinions that made the night a fascinating and enjoyable one – one that was so interesting that I indulged myself by listening rather than taking my usual full notes. I must attend more of these tastings. www.glengarry.co.nz

Single Vineyard Expressions Finding their Place and Price
Among the subjects raised was the concept of differing prices for the individual single vineyard wines under the Escarpment Vineyard label. When Larry originally released the ‘insight’ wines, the ‘Pahi’ (formerly ‘Voyager’, ‘Kiwa’ (formerly ‘Moana’), and ‘Te Rehua’ to add to the flagship ‘Kupe’ Pinot Noir with the 2006 vintage, he set the three new single vineyard wines all at the same price – below that of ‘Kupe’, but above that of the regional blend. Larry’s intention was to see how the market would react to the wines and set the prices for future releases accordingly, as indicated by consumer reaction and demand. It’s the model that Burgundy works on where the wines from one site are more highly valued than others, and the prices for such sites are set to reflect that preference. Clearly the differences are both stylistic as well as quality based. Consumers will pay more for a wine that is perceived to be ‘better’, and of course winegrowers should receive more for their ‘better’ wines. It’s partly supply and demand, but with the New World and in Larry’s case there’s also the ‘chicken and the egg’ scenario!

At present, the prices for the Escarpment Pinot Noir wines have stayed at their relative positions, and the three ‘Insight’ wines are all on level pegging. Larry points out that interestingly, the ‘Kupe’, while priced the highest, is also the first to sell out. He didn’t divulge the order of the rest, but I deduce it would be the ‘Te Rehua’, ‘Kiwa’ with ‘Pahi’ (and the regional blend) at the lower and slower end. It hasn’t always been that way, as initially the ‘Voyager’ (now ‘Pahi’) was very popular, maybe at the top. But the effects of virus has meant a lighter style of wine coming under this label, with the affected plants now grubbed up, and the wine based on the fruit from vines on other sections of this same vineyard. I could see that Larry would dearly love to install the differentiation process, but in his words he has “chickened out”. I must agree, for the New Zealand market at this stage, it would be too bold a move. Maybe the keener overseas buyers and burgundy aficionados would understand the thinking better.

Such differentiation would be a gradual and on-going process, and it recognises the influence of market forces and the actions and desires of the consumer. It’s an example of the considerable thought that Larry has about his wines and the bigger, global picture. www.escarpment.co.nz

The Escarpment Vineyard Tasting
The tasting was based on the new release 2011 Pinot Noirs including the three ‘Insight’ and ‘Kupe’ wines. I have already conducted full ‘Feature Reviews’ on them (click here to see). The new Escarpment Chardonnay 2011 was tasted, as well as cellared stock from Glengarry. I did not take full notes this night, but I offer my impressions.

Larry McKenna and his winemaker Huw Kinch have been making the Chardonnays more elegant and tight, as is the current trend. The Escarpment Chardonnays still carry plenty of weight, and have always been in the white burgundian mould, with nutty characters rather than having sweet tropical fruit expression. The Escarpment Chardonnay 2011 (17.5/20) is indeed a tighter, more elegant style than what has been released previous. Citrus, stonefruits and minerals, quite restrained. Oaking is quite discreet, and there is a crisp, acidic aspect which lends freshness. By comparison, the Escarpment ‘Kupe’ Chardonnay 2011 (18.5/20) was considerably richer, more weighty, and with many layers of flavour and complexity built in, and unfolding in the glass. The oaking was more prevalent, but the balance very good. I saw this as shining particularly well, and better than a month ago. Interestingly, both wines are clone 95, the regular Escarpment from ‘Te Muna Road’,and younger vines, the ‘Kupe’ from the McCreanor property in Princess Street from 13 y.o. vines. Of real interest was the Escarpment ‘Kupe’ Chardonnay 2008 (18.0+/20), much more golden, broader, with richer, rounder flavours and mouthfeel. A wine with depth, weight and density. Very nutty flavoured, buttery notes, ripe, and more textured too.

While Larry McKenna and most of the wine media have said 2010 may be the best expressions of Escarpment Pinot Noir to date, I’ve found the complexity of savoury and dried herb characters and greater structure a little too much and thus a tad disconcerting. I delighted in the lighter, more aromatic, floral and acid-driven nature of the new 2011s. It was reassuring to see the Escarpment Martinborough Pinot Noir 2011 (18.5-/20) show this way, with its vibrant floral violetty notes and fine, firm linearity. Perfume and fragrance are features here. There’s a significant 55% whole bunch, but it doesn’t stand out, and is surprisingly integral. But I was even more pleased to see how the Escarpment Martinborough Pinot Noir 2010 (18.5+/20) had come on. Sweeter and riper, with dark bramble intermixed with plummy fruit and background savoury complexities. Softer, richer and with succulence. This has come together very well.

The wines took a step up with the first of the two 2011 ‘Insight’ wines paired. They were at opposing ends of the style spectrum, demonstrating the active concept of terroir working in Martinborough. The Escarpment ‘Pahi’ Pinot Noir 2011 (18.0+/20) lighter ruby-red with a little garnet showing. Beautifully fine and delicate, resting on fragrance of dark cherry fruit, with an elegant and slender palate. There’s a succulence and slipperiness, and a greater weight presence than the regional blend, but tonight the acidity was brisker than I might have expected, hence a 4-star rating. The Escarpment ‘Kiwa’ Pinot Noir 2011 (18.5+/20) was darker, more youthful in appearance and considerably denser in bouquet as well as on palate. Deeper fruitiness and more complexity of character with savoury dark fruits, dried herbs, noticeable whole bunch layering and lift, and some more structure to the mouthfeel. This had its funkiness very much in balance.

The ‘Te Rehua’ wine is quickly becoming my favourite of the ‘Insight’ wines, and on occasion surpasses the ‘Kupe’, depending on at which stage of their lives I taste them. This time, the Escarpment ‘Te Rehua’ Pinot Noir 2011 (19.5/20) looked as good as it did a month or so ago. Slightly lighter than the ‘Kiwa; in colour this showed a brilliant combination of primary fruit and funky interest in wonderful balance. Floral fragrance, sweetness and fruit richness, with underlying layers of detailed savoury flavours, and excellent concentration. Quite complete even at this primary stage. The Escarpment ‘Te Rehua’ Pinot Noir 2008 (18.0+/20) was very much ‘Te Rehua’ in personality, but here, the secondary gamey complexities had the upper hand over the fruit. This had a great deal going on, with waves of dried herb, savoury vegetal and forest floor, along with sweet game meats all infused with bramble and fungal elements. Acid tension noticeable, but also a drying aspect to the mouthfeel. The complex development was as expected, but the robustness lent a side that wasn’t pretty anymore. Others liked this more.

The final pairing was of ‘Kupe’ Pinot Noir, the flagship. It’s the flagship as it is Larry’s combination of his preferences that deliver quality. The Te Muna Road site with is geology identical to the Martinborough Terrace and slightly longer hang time there. Abel clone, close-planted. The style of blacker fruits with great structure and richness. The opportunity to push the boundaries with whole bunch. It’s about 60% in 2011. Larry’s careful with the oak, but the fruit and wine can handle more than the ‘Insight’ wines. The Escarpment ‘Kupe’ Pinot Noir 2011 (19.5+/20) looking even better than a month ago. Black-red with purple hues, densely packed with ripe black fruits along with subtle mineral and violet fragrances, complete in structure and clearly with much more to deliver. Complex funky nuances and whole bunch notes are there, but in support of the fruit. The best wine of the night. The Escarpment ‘Kupe’ Pinot Noir 2008 (18.5-/20) surprisingly lighter than expected, less weighty and structured than the ‘Te Rehua’ 2008. In reality a wine of finesse and style, with greater subtleties. Bur with the trademark alliance of fruit and structure, the complex savoury and funkiness second to those components. The French word would be ‘puissance’. The question I’d ask as the site and terroir was evident, “Did Larry attempt to make this more refined – say by earlier picking?” If so, the ‘Kupe’ traits still shone, as you’d expect whether winemaking or vintage had an influence.


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