Wine Wairarapa descended upon Wellington early last week, a regional winemakers’ group representing wines from Martinborough, Masterton and Gladstone. They took over the mezzanine level of the St James theatre and invited industry folks and punters alike to come and meet the winemakers and taste their wares. Collaborative marketing events like this are really useful in getting a better sense of a place and also allow you to discover the wines of those tiny producers you might not otherwise have come across.
As part of the trade event, wine writer and author of Pinot Noir: The New Zealand Story, John Saker presented a Masterclass on Pinot Noir and the wider Wairarapa region. He was joined by a small winemakers panel of John McNab of Fairmont Estate and Paul Mason of Martinborough Vineyard. Saker has been writing on wine for 18 years or so, while the other two make the wine we were there to taste.
The Wairarapa is home to vibrant aromatics, cool climate syrah, elegant chardonnay and tropical sauvs. But it’s pinot noir that’s the flagship varietal of the region, so much so that the Wairarapa Wines boast that they are the original home of pinot in New Zealand.
About Pinot Noir
To kick off the Masterclass and before we got into the region or the wines, we were introduced to pinot noir, the grape variety.
DNA shows that Pinot Noir sits about one generation away from wild vines, making it one of the oldest varieties available. Unlike many ancient varietals, pinot wasn’t brought up through the Rhone by the Romans, instead it migrated from Germany to Switzerland to France.
A very old vine, it has parented many, including Chardonnay, Aligote and Gamay. And a highly genetically unstable variety, it has also spawned many mutations, including Blanc, Gris and Meunier.
Notoriously tough to grow with its thin skins and tight bunches, pinot noir can only be made well in a handful of places. Outside of its historical home in Burgundy, world class pinot noir has also been made in Oregon and, of course, New Zealand. Northern California, Tasmania and the Mornington Peninsula in Australia are a few more names set to join that illustrious list.
As pinot noir started to show promise outside of Burgundy, Burgundian producers overflowed with generosity, support and encouragement for the likes of New Zealand, a reaction that was completely out of sync with Bordeaux and Champagne, both of which opted for a strangle hold on anything they see as their own.
Pinot Noir in the Wairarapa
The wines of the Wairarapa are not ripe or decadent, instead they’re defined by a clear tension running through them. They show a mix of red and black fruits with a lifted bay leaf and allspice character in a clearly feminine style. The structure of the wines is their chief glory. The inbuilt tannin structure gives the wine length.
The geography of the land goes a long way towards making these wines what they are. With the Tararua Ranges to the west and the Rimutaka Ranges to the south-west the region is the driest in the North Island. Large bodies of water to the south and east helps to bring long, warm days and cool nights, this high diurnal range help to build flavours slowly, resulting in complexity and fruit intensity. The winds in the region help keeps vigour under control giving low-yielding vineyards of high quality fruit.
But it’s not just the geography, it’s also the people. Makers of Pinot Noir need to be inquisitive, curious, not driven by money and they need to leave their ego at the door. John Saker quoted British wine writer Oz Clarke who declared: “No mean-spirited bastard ever made a decent pinot noir.”
Good people plus small plots is the recipe for making good pinot noir. And now we taste!
Four wines were arranged blind. Two from Martinborough, one from Gladstone, one from Masterton. The question was bound to be asked: can anyone tell which is which?
Winemakers like subregions as it gives them a point of difference when marketing and selling their wines. Consumers like that it gives them a way of escaping sameness in their selection. It also follows along from the model laid out by Burgundy and the level of subregional detail they go into.
But both Paul Mason and John McNab agreed that they wouldn’t be able to pick the sub-region in a blind tasting like this. Throughout the wider region individual producers are still getting to grips with their own wine and there are too many variations in winemaking styles and growing practices to look at the wines through a regional or sub-regional lens. It’s just too soon to talk about sub-regions in the Wairarapa.
But it’s not too early to talk about vine age and the assumed age or youth of the vines was picked up on across the panel of experts. Three of the four wines came from older vines and showed the complexity and structural ease that are a condition of older vines. The trouble there is that consumers might not understand the connotation of 30 year old vines the way they might if they’re told the wine is from Martinborough.
The winemakers on the panel believed that the majority of the vines in an area needed to be over 15-20 years before anyone could get a good look at regions. To help put it all in perspective, the story of a Burgundian producer was recounted. This producer classified all of his vines under 45-years as young vines, making the whole of the Wairarapa young.
Martinborough Vineyard Pinot Noir 2011 (Martinborough)
Cherry and Christmas pudding spice, the Martinborough Vineyard pinot is vibrantly aromatic. The palate is dominated by more savoury notes and spice, grippy tannins and clear strong acids. An impressive and well made wine with great structure and balance. Not quite as pretty as some of the others, but it has all the hallmarks of a wine to put away and look at again later in its 8-10 year cellaring life.
Escarpment Kiwa Pinot Noir 2011 (Martinborough)
Structure and elegance, this well-crafted wine is a real treat. The Kiwa had the darkest colour in the flight and also exhibited a darker fruit profile with a clear bay leaf and herbal undertone. Hugely graceful, plenty of depth and complexity and so very feminine, this is classic Martinborough. Well balanced, this wine supports the assertion that the structure of the wines from the Wairarapa are their chief glory.
Fairmont Estate Pinot Noir 2011 (Gladstone)
Great intensity of fruit on the nose with a pleasant mix of red and black berries, a sprinkling of all spice and the sweet vanillian qualities of the 5-10% new oak. The palate is rather subtle and far more savoury. Of the three from old vines the Fairmont shows the lightest body and tannin, winemaker John McNab quantifies this as having taken tannin from the fruit, rather than from the oak. A really lovely nose and a rather delicate palate.
Matahiwi Holly Pinot Noir 2011 (Masterton)
Rich and ripe with a luscious fruit forward nose showing plenty of red and black cherry notes. The wine is made from young vines and while it may lack the sophistication of its older peers, it is far more approachable now. There’s a lovely savoury quality on the palate with bright, attractive red fruit flavours and a nice thread of acid to carry the fruit.
Beyond the Masterclass
Tastings like this always go by in a whirl. When you’re presented with 27 producers and over 100 wines it’s just not possible to see and do everything. Anyone who has been to a tasting like this before will likely come with a strategy: tasting only whites, hitting all the big names, spend time talking with the little known producers, nothing but pinot; of course some will stick with a random scatter gun approach and get to what they can and miss out on what they can’t.
The time is limited and the Masterclass took up a big chunk of my tasting time and so my focus was on the producers I was less familiar with. Living in Wellington I’ve been over the hill a time or two and each time I’ll drop in on the likes of Schubert, Ata Rangi, Margrain, Cambridge Road, Martinborough Vineyards and Poppies. I know their wines and wanted to discover something new. To keep me moving through, I would try and limit myself to just one wine from each producer I talked to.
Some of my highlights include the Porter’s Estate Pinot Noir 2012, a rich, feminine, fruit driven wine with an elegant mix of red and black fruits. The Porter’s Reserve Pinot Noir 2012 is a rarity, the wine has only been made twice in 20 years. With 18 months in oak, low sulphur and a wild ferment the resulting wine is far raunchier than the house style seen in the Estate, the wine exhibits plenty of spice and a truffley quality.
The 99 Rows Pinot Noir 2012 is the entry level label of Julicher Estate. On the day this lighter style wine was drinking really well in its fruity and easy way. This is an everyday pinot at an affordable price point.
I was excited to have another look at the wines of Te Kairanga under the guidance of winemaker John Kavanagh. The 2013s are the first vintage that he crafted from start to finish and they definitely didn’t disappoint. The Te Kairanga Riesling 2013 was definitely a stand-out as a classic, fresh example with light florals, it was bright and summery. The Te Kairanga John Martin Pinot Noir 2013 was elegance in a glass, with plenty of red berries and a good weight and body. I was really impressed with both.
From certified organic producer Urlar there was the Urlar Pinot Gris 2013 a really unexpected style for a New Zealand Pinot Gris. Dry and savoury, richly textured with a great palate weight – chardonnay heavy – this wine is food-friendly by design. Plenty of white florals dance across the palate, but it’s the weightiness and texture that really pulls you in.
Another organic producer, the Vynfields Riesling 2013 never disappoints as an off-dry wine with great lime and honeysuckle aromas and a pleasing thread of acidity running the length of the wine. The Schubert Con Brio 2009 is a Merlot-dominant blend with some Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah, the three varietals were aged separately in 40% new oak for four years before blending. The wine will benefit for some bottle age, but it’s one I look forward to seeing again.
There were far too many producers I just couldn’t make it to and too many wines I didn’t get to try. Thankfully there’s always next year to try again.