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Wines From Martinborough – Vintage Trade Day

By April 16, 2013No Comments

The wineries of Martinborough, as with any vignoble, have had a tradition of fostering good relations with the trade from the nearest main centre of population, in this case, Wellington. It’s a no-brainer, as the wine and hospitality trade and media are usually the keenest to promote and be associated with the local winegrowing area. I was fortunate to be included in a group of 50 Wellington and Wairarapa wine and hospitality trade invited to experience the annual ‘Vintage Trade Day’ in Martinborough this year. The group was split into teams of up to 10 people, each visiting three wineries that are part of the ‘Wines From Martinborough’ association.

The purpose of ‘Vintage Trade Day’ was to show the diversity within the association. Wineries visited ranged from small and hands-on to medium-sized operations and larger businesses with a full production and a global reach. The wineries were situated in different parts of the district as well. The activities for the day were centred on practical harvest experience, a tasting of current release wines from the 13 participating wineries (from the 27 in the association), followed by a dinner at Murdoch James’ ‘Bloom’ restaurant. It is an excellent way for attendees to get to know some of the people and wineries better, and for the wineries to make a stronger connection with people who are most likely to be their champions.

The timing for the ‘Vintage Trade Day’ could not be better. It appears likely that 2013 will be a superior if not outstanding vintage for Martinborough and much of the country. The extended summer which became drought conditions is considered ideal for many of the grape varieties. The fruit was in excellent condition and spirits were high. Many of the wine producers in the Martinborough region were on the last stages of picking, though the slightly later Te Muna Road region had more fruit still to come in. A cold front forecasted had growers onto the job of picking before the rain. Wineries were picking, crushing, pressing and fermenting Pinot Noir. The participants of Trade Day were on hand to take part as the vintage progressed. I recount my experiences and post some photos taken. www.winesfrommartinborough.com

Big Sky
Katherine Jacobs and Jeremy Corban are true amateurs, loving what they do. Although Jeremy is a scion of the pioneering Corban family, his brother being Alwyn of Ngatarawa Wines in Hawke’s Bay, both Katherine and he come from professional backgrounds in fields other than vineyards before Big Sky. They set about learning the theory and practical side, with Katherine studying viticulture and winemaking at EIT as well as working vintages in France.  Jeremy’s 20 years of family vineyard and winemaking background as well as a science background was a head start too. The couple purchased an established vineyard in Te Muna Road set up by Ian Campbell, who planted Sauvignon Blanc, ungrafted, in 1989, and clone 115 Pinot Noir in 1999. The vineyard has the backdrop of Kupe’s waka, but the expansive sky above is what the vineyard is named after.

A Big Sky and the Canoes of Kupe

The early years saw Katherine and Jeremy as grape growers, selling their fruit primarily to Ata Rangi. 2013 is a watershed year for them in that regard as 80% of the crop will go into their own label, with the rest being sold to Ata Rangi, a complete reversal. Everything is tended by hand, and they call upon family and friends to supplement the contract pickers to bring in the 18 tonnes of Pinot Noir from 4ha. The day we were there, the last few rows of Pinot Noir were being picked, and our band of Trade Day attendees helped with it. The 0.81 ha of Sauvignon Blanc was due for harvesting after. Big Sky is taking some Abel clone Pinot Noir from Jeff Barber’s block, also on Te Muna Road, this adding to the nuance in the wine as well as upping the quantity.

Picking healthy bunches of Clone 115 Pinot Noir

The wines to date have been vinified at the Te Hera winery of John Douglas, just a few hundred metres away. Katherine and Jeremy personally make the wine there, manhandling all the fruit and overseeing all aspects of the winery work. Aware of the benefits of greater control, Katherine discussed the vision of having their own winery on site in the near future, but at this stage, she’s very thankful for the help and support of all their neighbours on Te Muna Road and in the Martinborough district. There’s a collegial atmosphere which is positive, enthusiastic and endearing, very much as Katherine and Jeremy are.

The welcoming Katherine Jacobs, Big Sky

Katherine cooked and served a hearty lunch, and three wines were served, one each from the three wineries our group were to visit this day. A subtly-flavoured, elegantly weighted and satisfying Martinborough Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc 2012, a taut and concentrated, intense Nga Waka Riesling 2005 showing classical toasty secondary complexity, and a Big Sky Pinot Noir 2011 which possessed elegance and suppleness with a deep core of dark fruits unfolding delicious spicy elements. www.bigskywines.co.nz

Nga Waka
Nga Waka is one of the most respected wine producers in Martinborough. Roger Parkinson has a serious approach to his grapegrowing, winemaking and business, being professional, scientific and totally logical about all aspects of his operation. But he loves it and is having fun and the time of his life, as you can tell from the glint in his eye and cheeky grin.

Nga Waka was set up properly from the start, and it shows. Coming from a career diplomat’s family, Roger was exposed to fine wine early on in life, and with family support (and cajoling?), purchased their piece of land in 1986 to set up a vineyard and winery. Of course, much has grown from the early days of an old tractor shed and the original 5 ha on the Martinborough Terrace. Nowadays there a compact and efficient-flowing winery building, equipment shed and barrel room, and a total of five vineyard blocks including the Home Block around the town.

Roger’s approach is extremely efficient with control all the way, this stemming from his Roseworthy training and real-life experience. His standards are high, and the wines reflect this very much. The 10 or so ha of vines requires the input of Mike Kershaw, who with over two decades of viticultural experience in the district, delivers first-class fruit. The vines on the Home Block have significant age and are ungrafted, so a programme of replanting is in action, with Pinot Noir the variety replacing the Sauvignon Blanc which a number of plants are suffering from eutypa.

Roger Parkinson with eutypa-affected old-vine Sauvignon Blanc

Roger took our group through the next step in the winemaking process after picking. In the winery we saw the Home Block Sauvignon Blanc being pumped off solids. Roger was a little emotional as this was the last fruit from the original vines. We tasted the unfermented juice, sweet and fruity-grapey, and also from a tank in the middle of its fermentation, which was more to my taste with its vinosity and identifiable alcohol!

Roger Parkinson plunging Nga Waka Pinot Noir 2013 cap

The main task experienced was plunging the vats of Pinot Noir. All of the Pinot Noir ferments are kept separate as long as possible to provide the best options for blending. Thus the lots are small and kept in very manageable plastic bins for the fermentation and maceration before pressing and into barrel. We took turns at working the vats at different stages, seeing the different densities of the cap, plunging them, while Roger took the essential temperature and pH readings.

A sweet finale to a great Nga Waka visit

We finished our time tasting (drinking) a delicious dessert wine from last year’s more challenging harvest, a Nga Waka Botrytis Bunch Selection Riesling 2012 with 11.0% alc. and around 160 g/L rs. The combined beautiful Riesling varietal clarity with decadent, clean, noble botrytis. Decadent, but with refreshing cut, this was a sweet treat to send us on our way. www.ngawaka.co.nz 

Martinborough Vineyard
This winery is one of the pioneers of the district. It began in 1978 when Derek Milne, a soil scientist, surveyed the district for the DSIR and suggested it particularly suitable for grapegrowing. Taking his own advice he purchased land the next year and planted vines in 1980. As they say, the rest is history. Nowadays, the company has around 30 ha of vines owned in sites around the town and at a site south of the village on clay influenced soils. The winery crushes around 300 tonnes annually, around two-thirds of this being Pinot Noir followed by Sauvignon Blanc, and then the rest really a minority. Martinborough Vineyard is also one of the district’s largest operations, along with Palliser Estate and Te Kairanga. Craggy Range, the other large vineyard player trucks their fruit to Hawke’s Bay for making.

A vat of Pinot Noir skins to dig out – Martinborough Vineyard

Although sorting, pressing, fermenting and plunging were going on. Paul took us to a further stage in the winemaking process and we tasted current vintage wine that had just been placed in barrel. A Sauvignon Blanc was varietally expressive and aromatic on nose and already soft in texture, though crisp with good acidity. A Pinot Gris 10 days after ferment had savoury stonefruit characters and decent weight, though still possessing the lifted esters of new ferment. Two samples of Chardonnay demonstrated the effect of wood: the seasoned oak wine focussed on stonefruit flavours and a rounded firmness and density, whereas a new barrel sample much crisper, zesty and spicy-nutty with richness and penetration.

Barrels at the ready – Martinborough Vineyard

Paul Mason among Martinborough Vineyard library treasures

After a trip to visit the underground cellar with a library of mouthwatering back vintages to the mid-1980s, we headed off to the cellar door where we were served a number of older vintage wines that are currently available for purchase. Only a winery with the history and size can do this. A Martinborough Vineyard ‘Jackson’s Block’ Riesling 2006 had intensely concentrated but lusciously refined toasty notes. A beautiful, aged dry Riesling. The Martinborough Vineyard Chardonnay 2005 was rich, broad and fully mature with butter toast and biscuit, mealy, nutty fruit depth. The Martinborough Vineyard Pinot Noir 2006 showed the keeping ability of a wine from an outstanding year. Still primary fruit flavoured, this had succulence, lively mouthfeel, superbly balanced tannins and acidity, and waves of nuances that were beginning to appear. We finished with a rarity, a Martinborough Vineyard Syrah/Viognier 2010, co-fermented with 4% of the white. Lifted spices and white pepper and a smooth textured, fine-grained palate make this a must-try. www.martinborough-vineyard.com

Tasting and Dinner at Bloom
The day ended with a tasting of current release wines from 13 of the ‘Wines From Martinborough’ association, followed by a three course dinner at Murdoch James’ ‘Bloom’ restaurant. The restaurant is a short drive south of the village, but well-worth the visit for excellent food. The staff and kitchen capably served around 70 people with order and precision and in a very friendly manner.  www.murdochjames.co.nz

Here is a listing with just one wine from each exhibitor that I thought looked good from what was on offer:

  • Martinborough Vineyard ‘Jackson’ Riesling 2012 – refined and smooth textures, dry and pure
  • Dry River Pinot Gris 2012 – beautifully textured, near unctuous, honey, spices and pears
  • Poppies Pinot Gris 2012 – soft, gently luscious, with delicacy
  • The Elder Pinot Gris 2011 – precision and delicate linearity of stonefruits
  • Ata Rangi ‘Craighall’ Chardonnay 2011 – layers of flavour with detail unfolding
  • Margrain Chardonnay 2010 – tight and concentrated citrus and nutty oak
  • Nga Waka Chardonnay 2012 – youthful with plenty of depth of citrus, mealy, toasty flavours
  • Big Sky Pinot Noir 2011 – tight and spicy dark red berries and plums, stylish
  • Coney ‘Pizzicato’ Pinot Noir 2011 – bright, juicy, spice notes, very approachable
  • Escarpment ‘The Edge’ Pinot Noir 2012 – fruity, juicy with ripe fleshy dark berry fruits
  • Julicher Pinot Noir 2010 – softening, but with good core and density of sweet fruit
  • Te Kairanga ‘Runholder’ Pinot Noir 2011 – elegantly sweet and accessible with aromatic lift
  • Murdoch James ‘Blue Rock’ Syrah 2011 – classic spices, pepper, nutty mineral complexities

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