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Te Muna Road – A Roaming Road

By January 12, 2012No Comments

It is a sensitive subject whether to describe the Te Muna Road grape growing area of Martinborough a ‘sub-region’. The similarity it has with the Martinborough Terrace is unmistakable with identical soils and the influence of the Ruamahanga and Huangarua rivers. One might think the Martinborough district is too small and compact to be subdivided, and those who have a vested interest in the Te Muna Road area have much credibility being associated with the Martinborough Terrace. But it is acknowledged that there are differences, Te Muna Road being a little higher and cooler, to the extent that the growing cycle is anywhere from a week to a fortnight later than in town. However, veteran growers and winemakers agree that there are no distinguishable differences between the fruit and the wines of Te Muna Road and the Martinborough Terrace, especially as winemaker signature and site variations dominate any possible underlying ‘sub regional’ characteristics. The reality is that it is too early to make pronouncements on such matters, though we are allowed to delve in conjecture…

As Te Muna Road becomes more sealed, it is increasingly visitor-friendly. The largest player is Craggy Range, but there are no cellar door facilities there. The other producers that accept callers request that appointments be made, but I imagine that as time progresses, and numbers of wine explorers increase, all-day cellar doors will become a reality. At present, one could visit the likes of Te Hera, Escarpment, Julicher and Big Sky. (Unfortunately Pond Paddock has ceased production of its own label, though the grapes are being used.) And on my roam around Te Muna Road, there were a number of other people doing the same.
Te Hera – Building Structure
It’s all about building greater structure into the Pinot Noir wines at Te Hera Estate for John Douglas. John was the pioneer on Te Muna Road, planting his 19,000 Pinot Noir vines in 1996 and 1997, then adding in 900 Riesling vines in 2000. His 5.2 ha yields anything from 13 to 24 tonnes of grapes annually, and this is small enough for John to oversee every aspect, and indeed be completely hands-on crafting his wine. His little basket press is ideal for extracting juice with minimal phenolics, but it is fairly inefficient for quantity, which is in many ways ideal for John’s way of thinking. For Pinot Noir, indigenous yeasts, 5% whole bunch, 40% whole berries, no cold soaking, a saignée, fermentation up to 34-35°C and around a month on skins are the techniques used to make wines with structure.

It is interesting that for me Martinborough Pinot Noir wines are generally well-structured anyway, being closer to the likes of Cote d’Or burgundy, more so than the wines from other regions in New Zealand. I’d be worried about going too far pushing structure. But there seems no worry about over-extraction with the Te Hera wines, as demonstrated by a number of barrel-samples of 2011 Pinot Noir offered by John. Though there were variations, the theme was ripe, dark fruit and good body and texture in all that was tasted:

Clone 115 showed dark berry fruits and liquorice, slightly lifted, with fine, firm tannis. The 667 elegant in size, but beautifully sweet and aromatic with violetty florals. The ‘Mix’ (comprising 667, 114, 113, 777 and 5) was shy on nose initially, but opened to reveal distinctive spice, liquorice and dark plum flavours, with refined tannins. The 777 was juicy and concentrated, with complex spicing and dark herb notes. And the clone 5 was right down the middle, classical dark red berries and plums, sweet and lush, but with style and restraint. The ‘Blend of All’ was a black-fruited wine with subtle complexing herb, spice and liquorice nuances framed in a tight, concentrated palate. This was the possible Te Hera Estate ‘Reserve’ styled wine. The more accessible components will go in to make the more affordable ‘Kiritea’ Pinot Noir label. As the quantity and demand for the Kiritea has risen over the past few years, John logically calls Kiritea his ‘main’ label, and so it has become, offering great quality and value, at under $25.00 retail. The Te Hera, priced at $40.00 is truly a ‘reserve’ style. Both are worthy of seeking out. www.tehera.co.nz  
Escarpment Vineyard – The Single Vineyard Insight
After making wine in Martinborough for 25 years, you’d think Larry McKenna wouldn’t need to know what people think of his wines, but the opposite is the case. While Larry McKenna is arguably this country’s most accomplished Pinot Noir winemaker, and knows what direction he is heading and the styles of wine he wants to craft, he is very keen to hear what others think about his wines. Understanding the preferences and assessments of those who buy and drink his wines is an essential precursor for success, and I’m sure this is one of Larry’s philosophical tenets.

In his barrel room-winery building, samples of 2011 vintage wine were drawn from cask and delivered to waiting glasses. The ‘Kupe’ Chardonnay was very finely concentrated with pronounced citrus and mineral flavours and matching racy acidity. This is tighter and more refined than earlier editions, but still with plenty of the prerequisite power to make it special. The ‘Pahi’ Pinot Noir from 2011 will be the last made from the ‘back block’ vines, these vines now grubbed up after uneconomical performance from leaf-roll virus. Light and elegant, and beautifully floral with primary aromatics and a silky texture, this is a wine of delicacy. It will be very interesting to see future ‘Pahi’ wines made from vines from the ‘front block’. The ‘Kiwa’ Pinot Noir could be the stand-out wine according to viticulturist Dave Shepherd. 40% whole bunch, particularly noticeable on bouquet with its smoke and herbal complexities. On palate strikingly rich and succulent, with spices galore and fine-grained tannins. The ‘Te Rehua’ Pinot Noir was shy and clearly tightly bound up. But with significant concentration and pent-up flavours, just brooding. The ‘Kupe Pinot Noir had just been sulphured and was jumbled and a little murky on nose, but the layers of flavour, sweet richness, concentration and structure make it the most serious of all of the wines presented.

It was wonderful to get an insight of the 2011 ‘Insight’ single vineyard Pinot Noirs. The consistency of expression between these single vineyard wines never fails to amaze me. In very different vintages, their behaviour can be counted on, and these 2011s were true to form. As a vintage, they seem lighter than the 2010s and 2009s tasted recently, but they have great aromatic beauty and a finesse of structure allied to sweetness and florality. I believe that Larry McKenna has made some exceptional wines, and I told him so. Behind his searching expression, I could sense Larry smiling… www.escarpment.co.nz  
Julicher – Hard Work and Humility
Ask anyone in Martinborough about Wim Julicher and Sue Darling and they will say they are the most hard-working and humble people around. Establishing the vineyard in Te Muna Road in 1998, Julicher Estate measures 15 ha in vine, 10 ha to Pinot Noir, 3 ha in Sauvignon Blanc and 1 ha of Chardonnay and Riesling. The first vintages, from 2002 to 2004 were made by Chris Buring, at the Muirlea Rise winery. From 2005, Finnish star winemaker Outi Jakovirta took over the reins, at their own winery built on-site. Since then, the Julicher Pinot Noir 2006 and Pinot Noir 2008 took Champion Wine of the Show at the 2007 N.Z.International Wine Show and 2009 Air N.Z. Wine Awards judgings respectively. Along with a bevy of other golds for the second tier ’99 Rows’ Pinot Noir, one could say they are a success story. But Wim and Sue take nothing for granted and know they must continue to maintain standards, if not improve.

Wim and Sue give great credit to the fastidious and careful approach taken by their winemaker in achieving these wine show results. They also credit the work of Wil Manson, Outi’s assistant and the foundation of great grape resource delivered by viticulturist James Pittard. They rely on each of their team members’ expertise and abilities, but it is easy to see that the tidiness of vineyard, winery and plant stems from the example set from the top. So in essence, all of the wines reflect the attention to detail and orderly approach to the workings at Julicher Estate.

I was taken through a fairly comprehensive tasting of the Julicher range by Wim and Sue. As the wine flowed, so did the conversation, and the time passed effortlessly and most pleasantly. My notes read as follows: The Sauvignon Blanc 2010 was linear, nettly and minerally, quite dry and tight. It is one that will develop slowly, unfolding more all the time. The Sauvignon Blanc 2011 is softer, with a ripe tropical fruit profile, more gentle and accessible, quite the crowd pleaser. The Pinot Gris 2010, made from fruit from the Edwards vineyard next door is a minerally, stonefruit flavoured style with subtle richness, one that has stylishness. I was very impressed with the Riesling 2009, which is just beginning to show complexity with limes and toast interwoven harmoniously. It is a very good follow-on from the gold medal winning 2008. The Chardonnay 2009 is a bold wine, with strong citrussy fruit and matching oak. A wine that will handle rich and flavoursome foods easily.

Tasting the Julicher Pinot Noir is a lesson in benchmarking Martinborough. The house style is one of richness and layers of flavour that range from dark red berry fruits to plums with savoury earth and game layers, underscored by proper structure. The Julicher Estate and second tier ’99 Rows’ both share these traits, but the levels of aspiration are clear-cut. The Julicher Estate has the ability to age better because it is more complete. The ’99 Rows’ has a more accessible and up-front nature, and not quite the grip. However quality and enjoyment will be had by either label. 2009 was an extremely successful vintage for the two Pinot Noir tiers, the wines possessing succulence, texture and generosity from good ripeness. The 2010s are lighter for sure, but no less enjoyable, trading amplitude for finesse and elegance. The tasting finished with a Rosé 2011, with a surprisingly voluminous fruitiness on nose and palate, but a wine with prettiness and freshness. Every wine tasted delivered satisfaction – something that Wim Juicher, Sue Darling and their team continually strive to achieve. www.julicher.co.nz  

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