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Raymond Chan Wine Reviews ‘Winery of the Year’ 2015 – Escarpment Vineyard

By December 7, 2015No Comments

The ‘Winery of the Year’ award is my way of recognising the best performing wine producer who has submitted wines to Raymond Chan Wine Reviews for independent assessment in ‘Feature Reviews’ over the year from the start of December the previous year to the end of November in the current year. The criteria for the award are based on the qualities and significance of the wines in terms of excellence as seen in my descriptions and ratings, as well as how the wines have appealed to me on a subjective and hedonistic level as a wine enthusiast and consumer. In addition, the award can take into account innovation and style, and the progress the producer has made in making fine New Zealand wine, as well as the setting of standards for this country’s industry. Taking these factors into account, I presume that readers who follow Raymond Chan Wine Reviews will find great enjoyment in the wines made by the ‘Winery of the Year’ too. The nominated wine producer is sent a commemorative engraved brass plaque.

Winery of the Year – Escarpment Vineyard
The Raymond Chan Wine Reviews ‘Winery of the Year’ for 2015 is awarded to the Escarpment Vineyard, the vineyard and winery of Larry McKenna in Te Muna Road in Martinborough. Larry McKenna is no stranger to top awards and accolades, as he has an illustrious history of winemaking, especially with Pinot Noir since he moved from Auckland to what was the relatively unknown village of Martinborough in 1986. Larry, then at Martinborough Vineyards, along with Clive Paton of Ata Rangi, and Dr Neil McCallum of Dry River were the triumvirate that brought Martinborough and indeed New Zealand to the world’s attention as a vignoble capable of producing world class Pinot Noir wines.

In 1998 Larry and his then-wife Sue teamed up with Robert and Mem Kirby of Australia to set up a new venture, named the Escarpment Vineyard in the promising Te Muna Road area south of the Martinborough township, releasing his first Escarpment Pinot Noir with a 2001 vintage. Te Muna Road shares the same soils as the Martinborough Terrace, and its location and slightly higher altitude lends slower and later ripening, and a greater range in diurnal growing temperatures, resulting arguably in greater aromatics and finesse. Te Muna Road is burgeoning with plantings by well-known producers based in town and also successful producers such as Julicher Estate, Redbank, Big Sky, Te Hera, Pond Paddock and Craggy Range who are located there. Larry’s intuition, experience, skills and expertise has led to the Te Muna Road area adding considerably to Martinborough’s and New Zealand’s Pinot Noir reputation.

If one thinks that Larry McKenna is single-minded about the promotion of the Escarpment Vineyard and Te Muna Road, you could not be more mistaken. While Larry is a passionate advocate for the Martinborough district and the Wairarapa in general, he encourages the making of top-class Pinot Noir throughout New Zealand, including Marlborough, Nelson, Waipara and Otago, realising that our expression of diversity, regionality, site and terroir is crucial to the success of the variety on the world stage. Of course, if you ask him, he’ll say that New Zealand’s best Pinot Noirs come from Martinborough!

Wines of Great Complexity and Structure
Burgundy and Pinot Noir enthusiasts understand the incredible range of expression that are the result of site, terroir and the winemakers’ hand, and embrace the differences. Larry McKenna’s winemaking philosophy is to hand-craft wines of interest, complexity, texture and structure. He is extremely sensitive to the fact that his Pinot Noirs must also express origin and a sense of place. To me, his wines show fully ripened dark red and black fruit characters which are framed by significant and considerable tannin structure. He carefully monitors the times on skins and is not afraid of what may be regarded as high proportions of whole clusters. Larry may well be one of the most adventurous winemakers in the proper use of whole bunches. Indigenous yeast fermentations and oaking are important elements, and the judicious use of all these components is judged with what the growing season has provided. Clearly the wines have the structure and ability to age well.

The other important aspect of the Escarpment wines is how they reflect their origins. With the 2003 vintage, he introduced his flagship ‘Kupe’ single vineyard Pinot Noir, from close-planted, low-trained Abel clone vines. I was one of the guest pickers harvesting the grapes. This has proven to consistently be the most powerful and concentrated and complex of his Pinot Noir wines. It can handle and receives the highest proportion of whole clusters, the 2013 vintage with 70%, as well as the most oaking. In 2006 Larry introduced three other single vineyard expressions, demonstrating the different terroirs in Martinborough. Called the ‘Insight’ range, they literally provided an insight into the characteristics of established old vines from sites, these being the ‘Barton’ vineyard in Huangarua Road, this wine called ‘Te Rehua’, the ‘Cleland’ vineyard on Cambridge Road, this labelled ‘Kiwa’, and the ‘McCreanor’ site on Princess Street, named ‘Pahi’. From their inaugural vintage, they have displayed the same behaviour and wine style every year made, giving proof to the expression of terroir in Martinborough. I should note that on Jack McCreanor’s passing, the ‘Pahi’ vineyard has been sold, so Larry is seeking fruit from another ‘A Grade’ vineyard.

World Class Pinot Noir
The Escarpment Vineyard Pinot Noirs must be considered some of this country’s very best. Larry has ensured all of his Pinot Noirs are of this standard, and because of this, I’ve always featured the Escarpment Vineyard as a contender for my ‘Winery of the Year’ award. However, it was the stupendous quality of the 2013 vintage wines that saw the Escarpment Vineyard come through as my winner, despite some extremely strong competition from wineries in Hawke’ Bay and Central Otago, both these regions experiencing stellar vintages as well.

For the 2013 wines, I rated the Escarpment ‘Kupe’ Pinot Noir 20.0/20. It is full, complex, structured and complete, and it pushes the boundaries. I rated the ‘Te Rehua’ Pinot Noir 19.5+/20, this having a beautiful aromatic and rich fruit quality. The ‘Kiwa’ Pinot Noir is a more complex and ‘funky’ style, some see as European in character, and I rated it 19.5/20. I love this wine. And the ‘Pahi’ is the most elegant, perfumed and refined, undeniably gorgeous, and I scored it 19.0/20. The Martinborough regional blend Pinot Noir earned an 18.5+/20. This is fully representative of the Martinborough district as a whole, and carries the signature Escarpment robustness and complexity. Unfortunately the scores do not tell the full story, and one must drink the wines to experience and appreciate their proper nature and glory. They are all magnificent and very individual wines.

The 2013 wines have received critical acclaim from all quarters of the globe since I first published my reviews in July, earlier this year. The praise comes from commentators of much greater repute than I could ever have, so I am pleased to be in their company in seeing these wines of world class.

The Bigger Picture at Escarpment
In 2012, the Kirbys decided to put their share of Escarpment Vineyard up for sale. It was an unsettling time for Larry and indeed followers of New Zealand Pinot Noir, not knowing the future for one of this country’s best labels. While there were a number of interested parties, the Kirbys have now decided to reinvest back into the Escarpment Vineyard, and there will be increased ferment space and more warehousing, along with plans to finish off the winery.

Much of the recent work at the Escarpment Vineyard has been in the vineyards, and there is the intention to head towards organic viticulture following a number of trials over the years. Rowan Hoskins, son of Nick Hoskins who has had a major input in the establishment and development of many of the vineyards in Martinborough, is the incumbent Escarpment viticulturist. While we tend to associate the Escarpment Vineyard solely with Larry McKenna, Larry is quick to give considerable credit to his winemaker Huw Kinch who joined the company in 2008. Huw is fully involved in all the vineyard and winemaking decisions with Larry, and they work most effectively as a team. The other essential person at the Escarpment Vineyard is Catherine Ellis, the global business manager, of Borneo-Chinese descent, coming from Australia, with extensive contacts throughout Asia. Larry’s son Ryan has taken a step into the wine industry too, now having completed several vintages in various parts of the world. It appears that Larry may have a natural successor…

Typical of the contemporary winemaker, Larry McKenna and the Escarpment Vineyard are fully immersed in traditional and modern marketing, with very active Facebook and Twitter accounts. It doesn’t take much to keep up with the news at the Escarpment Vineyard. www.escarpment.co.nz

Contenders for ‘Winery of the Year’ 2015
This year has been the most difficult so far in selecting my ‘Winery of the Year’. The superlative 2013 growing season enabled producers throughout the length of the country make stunning wines. Keeping in mind that only producers who submit their wines for ‘Feature Review’ are eligible for the award, there were still too many to choose from! The North Island experienced a particularly favourable vintage in 2013 and also in 2014. From Waiheke Island, Man O’ War and Mudbrick were my two standout producers. The Millton Vineyard’s ‘Clos de Ste Anne’ releases were the best wines from Gisborne this year. There was a wealth of treasures from Hawke’s Bay in 2013, this vintage being touted as one of the very best ever. All at the top level here were Craggy Range, Trinity Hill, Elephant Hill, Mills Reef and Squawking Magpie. The Martinborough region saw Ata Rangi and Dry River put their hands up as contenders.

For the South Island, the quality of the 2013s was clear. 2014 also supported with its quality, and we are seeing some superb early release 2015 wines. Neudorf, a previous ‘Winery of the Year’ stood out as the best Nelson region winery. In Marlborough, Te Whare Ra, last year’s ‘Winery of the Year’ released exceptional wines, as did Dog Point and Greywacke. Further south, in the Waipara Valley, former ‘Winery of the Year’ Pegasus Bay was a standout, but equalled by Greystone. And in Central Otago, my last year’s runner-up, Valli Vineyards was joined by Gibbston Valley as a contender for the 2015 ‘Winery of the Year’. Each of these producers submitted such a strong range of wines that would have made them worthy winners.

This year, as it is too difficult to choose, I have decided not to have a runner-up to ‘Winery of the Year.

Other Outstanding Producers
As is customary, I also highlight other outstanding producers who have sent superb wines for ‘Feature Review’. It could be interpreted that this group is a step down from the ‘Contenders’, but I should point out possible mitigating circumstances. A number of producers choose not to send in their best wines; others may intermittently submit wines or only make a small number of wines, thus the sample size is not large enough to make a proper judgement call. In any case, I consider them worthy of attention, with the potential to be selected as a future ‘Winery of the Year’.

Vinoptima in Gisborne has always made standout wines. From Hawke’s Bay, the wines from Alpha Domus, Black Barn, Esk Valley, Mission, Vidal and Villa Maria are top class. It will be good to see a return by Kidnapper Cliffs from Te Awa, and it appears to be coming. One should keep an eye on Ant Mackenzie and Rod McDonald. In Martinborough, Palliser Estate can never be underestimated for the quality of the wines made by Allan Johnson. From Nelson, Waimea Estates always has some superior offerings in its portfolio. I haven’t seen anything from the new Mahana Estate brand yet, but the wines made by Shane Munn were very exciting.

There’s a long list of wonderful Marlborough producers, and I rate Fairbourne Estate, Framingham, Fromm, Lawson’s Dry Hills, Mahi, Saint Clair, Spy Valley, TerraVin (now merged with Highfield) and Two Rivers. From the Waipara Valley, Black Estate is showing great promise too.
Central Otago has much smaller sized producers, requiring a longer period of assessment. There are a number of exciting new labels which got my attention, however. In this year’s list are Akitu, Doctors Flat, Grasshopper Rock, Lowburn Ferry, Maude, Misha’s Vineyard, Mondillo, Mount Edward, Rockburn and Two Paddocks.
The previous winners of ‘Winery of the Year can be accessed by clicking here.

The Top Wines of 2015
Here are the outstanding New Zealand wines I have tasted as ‘Feature Reviews’ during the period of start of December 2014 to end of November 2015. The following wines are presented according to variety or style. On occasion where there are ties in the scoring, I have listed more than one in that particular category. Not every varietal or wine style merited listing. The wines celebrate diversity and excellence throughout the country.

Favourites of the Year from the Wine2Trade Portfolio
Wineries that are distributed by ‘Wine2Trade’, the company that Raymond Chan Wine Reviews’ operates under, are not eligible for the ‘Winery of the Year’ award. (Click here to see these wineries.) In way of compensation, I will list separately my ‘Favourites of the Year from the Wine2Trade Portfolio’ in 2015 and these can be seen by clicking here. Click here to see my favourites from 2014.

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