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Palliser and Porters – Large and Small in Martinborough

By January 17, 2012No Comments
As with most wine growing regions, Martinborough has large and small players who add to the fabric of diversity. Both types of operations are necessary to bring interest and life to the area, making any visit a more complete one. The larger wineries can have economy of scale operating, and efficiencies can bring higher quality. If such a player is not careful, they can make wine that lacks that extra dimension of lift that takes them out of the ordinary. The boutique winery often has the ability to focus and work in detail, at a level that is just beyond the normal running of business. Such self-sacrifice and going past the ‘call of duty’ can result in exceptional wines. However, smaller wineries can be under capitalised, and lack of the basics can mean that potential is not met. Two players at the opposite ends of the spectrum in Martinborough – Palliser Estate and Porters Pinot are quality producers, utilising their resources fully and maximising the advantages of their sizes. It was a pleasure to visit both recently.
Palliser Estate – Rock Solid and Making Rocking Pinots
It is a common fact that Palliser Estate’s financial position is rock solid. This has allowed them to weather the economic downturn much more easily than others in this country. Palliser Estate has always maintained a realistic and accessible pricing structure that has provided good cash flow, and given consumers a consistent and affordable product, this creating strong brand loyalty. Richard Riddiford, the ‘don’ of Martinborough heads the Palliser Estate operation, and his business acumen and protective stance to what Palliser Estate, and indeed Martinborough as a region has achieved has been a model that many others could emulate for success.

Competition results have been a boon for Palliser Estate recently, the second tier Pencarrow Martinborough Pinot Noir 2010 winning the Champion Wine of the Show trophy at the 2011 Air New Zealand Wine Awards. This label is no stranger to top results, the 2009 also winning gold at the ANZWA. As can be expected, there has been criticism of a second label winning such a prestigious gong, very much as the 2011 Dashwood Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc took gold and trophy at the same show, ahead of its more highly regarded Vavasour stablemate. There have been murmurings that the ‘Pencarrow’ wine really isn’t that good. That it doesn’t have the finesse, balance and complexities that make a truly great Pinot Noir. That the fruit character is all wrong, and any number of other faults and problems. Is this the classic Kiwi ‘tall poppy syndrome’ and petty jealousies operating? Why can’t we all celebrate such a good result? The wine was judged by a number of highly experienced personnel to be worthy of being rated the best.

It’s that bottle, at that time, by those judges – is a common response to such questions. The truth of the matter is that it is all very complex how such results are decided. Factors that come into play are that it is a ‘blind’ judging process, and with it, sequential tasting effects, palate acclimatisation and consensus judging all have their part to play. Also stylistic preferences and interpretations play a large part, and we all know how much Pinot Noir can vary in style. Pinot Noirs with up-front fruit and balanced, supple structures, that are flavoursome and show accessibility are sure to tick all the boxes. Serious wines that are too sturdy or extractive, and wines that need searching through delicacy for character miss out. Consumers benefit from the show winning style, and often with wines such as the Pencarrow, they also win out on price, surely a good thing? If you ask the Palliser Estate winemaking team which of their Pinot Noirs is better – the ‘Pencarrow’ or the ‘Palliser Estate’? – the answer is unreservedly the latter. It’s a matter of aspiration, and such things are more easily assessed in ‘open’ wine tastings where detail and expectation can be taken into account.

A quick tasting of a selection of 2011 Pinot Noir barrel samples demonstrated a range of wines that showed the importance of selection and blending when it comes time for differentiating wines in terms of aspiration. It never fails to amaze me how much variation there is between barrels that are from the same vineyard, from the same clones and in similarly coopered wood. The variables that operate in expression are near infinite and can be impossible to predict. Winemaker Allan Johnson’s right hand person, Pip Goodwin showed the following unfinished wines.  Many of them came from Palliser’s top quality site the ‘Pencarrow’ vineyard, also called ‘East Base’ by the team:
  • Martins Block, 667 – vibrantly fruity, bright, floral with jam notes, quite lush
  • East Base Block, 667 and 777, vines 8-15 y.o. – dark floral fruits, shy, velvety texture
  • East Base Block, 667, new oak – spicy, fruit a little dominated, but real structure
  • East Base Block, mixture of rows – savoury, hard line, but with juicy fruit, elevated acidity
  • East Base Block, Scott-Henry – good tannin component, dense in texture
  • East Base Block, various rows – crisp acidity and fine tannins, layers of game-like flavours
  • East Base Block, 777 – soft textured, MLF milk chocolate notes
  • Wharekauhau Block , 114 and 777 – intense fruit, spicy in nature, seriously firm tannins
  • Wharekauhau Block, Abel clone – complex and distinctive savoury dark fruit, structured
Besides the considerable variation, I could sense that the fruit quality was good and healthy, and aromatics would come through well. It would be difficult to see how the different labels would eventuate, but knowing the experience that Allan and Pip have, typical and excellent wines will result. One outcome of the tougher market times is that as with many wineries, there is a greater reliance on one’s own estate fruit and less uptake of contracted fruit. Another is the proportion of flagship wine to second tier has been reduced, the second label benefitting from the greater amount of top quality fruit supplied. As noted above, consumers are benefitting. www.palliser.co.nz  
Porters Pinot – The Smallest Winery in Martinborough?
John and Annabel Porter took the dream of their own vineyard and wine label to reality by initially planting 600 vines in a small vineyard opposite Palliser Estate on Kitchener Street in 1992. But to get to a commercial size of sorts, this was expanded to 4 ha. It was planted with selected Pinot Noir cuttings as good as they could source, from the likes of Ata Rangi and Martinborough Vineyard being the main sources. The provenance and thus identity of these vines is thoroughly mixed and difficult to identify as to clone. Pinot Gris was sourced also along the lines of finest productive quality and now makes around 5-6% of the production. The plants are ungrafted and some virus is present. The Porters call this the ‘Old Block’. The Porters purchased another 2.4 ha, an old Lintz vineyard, sited next to their house, in 2009. Planted to Abel and French clone Pinot Noir, the 12 y.o. vines are grafted and close-planted, and this is called the ‘House Block’.

The Porters were taken by the Pinot Noir wines that were emanating from this rural area from an early stage and commissioned the assistance of various winemakers in the making of the wines. Of particular help was Larry McKenna, but over the last 10 years, John has been the hands-on winemaker. Interestingly, the Porters prefer a ‘feminine’ style of Pinot Noir, quite the opposite of what many are trying to achieve. The wines of Volnay and Chambolle-Musigny appeal, and these are models as much as if anything could be. The average production is 600-700 dozen, and the wine is made in what could be the smallest winery in Martinborough, behind the Porter’s house, next to the ‘House Block’. The wines are labelled and sold under as Porters Estate, and now, a ‘Reserve’ Pinot Noir from the 2009 vintage is to be released to mark John and Annabel’s first 20 years. (A review of this wine can be seen by clicking here.)

John graciously took me through a tasting of some barrels of 2011 Pinot Noir. It was fascinating to compare two samples of the one wine, one barrel with sulphur added, the other without, as a trial investigating minimal intervention. The sulphured wine, pale, tight, rather delicate, but pure; the unsulphured wine much sweeter, more lush and generous, and with more colour. A sample, also unsulphured, from a barrel made from fruit picked half-way through the harvest, 10/5 clone from the ‘Old Block’ very fine, sweet, with crisp acidity and long lingering flavours.

A first-fill barrel sample with Abel and Pommard clone fruit was round and full, near chunky, marked by oak spice, and extremely long. This would be a significant blending component. And to contrast, a sample from an old 300 L barrel, very subtle and elegant, gentle and ethereal. With the finest velvety tannins. This latter wine was one that did it for John. The care with which John took in making these wines was obvious, and those who prefer delicacy and an ethereal intrigue will be advised to seek these wines out. www.porterspinot.co.nz  

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