Gerry Gunnigan writes...
We hosted another really special tasting event yesterday as Clive Paton and Helen Masters of the great Ata Rangi estate in Martinborough, New Zealand presented a vertical tasting of 12 vintages of their flagship Pinot Noir.
To give a bit of background first - Clive was one of four pioneering vinegrowers who planted vineyards in Martinborough back in 1980. The others were Dry River, Martinborough Vineyards and Chifney. Clive had read a scientific report that identified Martinborough as a suitable location for wine production. So, as he says himself, he had a mid-life crisis at the age of 28, bought some land on the outskirts of the village and planted vines. Helen joined the operation in 2003, and is chief winemaker.
Martinborough has a number of geographical features that make it very suitable for grape growing. It is situated close to the southern end of a 100km long valley on the North Island that opens out into the sea at Palliser Bay. Keep going in a straight line south/south-west of Palliser Bay and only the Banks Peninsula east of Christchurch lies between it and Antarctica. A cool Antarctic wind means there is significant diurnal shift (warm days, cool nights), which helps preserve fruit intensity and ensuring a long, even ripening season.
Mountains on either side of the valley moderate the rainfall on Martinborough, with an average of only 700mm per year. The soil consists mainly of free-draining gravels.
All of these factors combine to give a near-ideal terroir for growing Pinot Noir. This variety can be very fickle. It doesn't like too much heat, nor too much cold. It doesn't much like getting its feet too wet, and it needs good airflow to stop disease and rot setting in. Martinborough ticks every one of these boxes.
My first exposure to the wines of the Martinborough was in the early 1990s, as the manager of a branch of Wine Rack in London. We were the New Zealand specialists of the day in the High Street, stocking in excess of fifty different labels from across the country. From Martinborough, we listed Martinborough Vineyards and Palliser Estate. Enchanted by these great wines, I made sure that I visited the village on my one and only trip to New Zealand in 1994. Sadly, when I got there, on Saturday 19th March 1994, everything in town was closed. I didn't come away entirely empty-handed though, as I later bought a bottle of Ata Rangi Celebre in a wine store in Wellington, and brought it home with me.
Our tasting today was of twelve vintages going back to 1999. I always think that for Pinot Noir to be really interesting, you have to take the rough with the smooth. A growing region with little vintage variation will usually produce Pinot Noir that is consistent and pleasant, but never truly great. For greatness the grower must be challenged, year in and year out. Each vintage will have its own personality. Sometimes it will be immediately silky and smooth, other times it will have firm tannins and acidity that demand longer ageing for the charms to reveal themselves. We saw that today, where different weather patterns over the various years left their thumbprint on the wine. Yet throughout, there was a consistent style that marks this as a great wine.
Martinborough can see considerable variations in weather from year to year. Early season frosts or rain can cause problems initially, but then all can come together with a few weeks of warm sunshine at harvest time. Or in the case of 2009, when an uncharacteristic heat spike in late January caused some worry of vine stress, but rain in February steadied the ship. There were dreadful years like 2012, the worst since 1992, cool and wet, only saved by a warm April getting the grapes ripe in time for harvest.
Then there were years that were near ideal conditions like 2006, 2008 and 2013, where the weather was near-perfect for flowering, fruit set, ripening and harvest.
My own personal favourites were the 2006, 2010 and 2013. One thing that struck me about almost all of the wines was how young they appeared - even the 2003 and 2004.
The 1999 was a rare treat. The third vintage, along with 1993 and 1994 to win the IWSC Pinot Noir Trophy. Still holding up well, but slightly oxidised. This was the only wine under cork. Ata Rangi switched over to screwcap closure in 2002.
Clive and Helen's visit to Ireland was very brief, but they sure made an impression on the attendees at today's tasting. They're not trying to make Burgundy in Martinborough, but to express the unique terroir of this part of New Zealand as best they can. They now have 35 years of experience doing this, and we can see this in the sheer quality of the wines, year after year.
Many thanks to Clive and Helen for coming all the way from New Zealand to present this tasting. Also, to our hosts at ely Wine Bar, Erik, Michelle, Ian and all the team for providing a great venue and a lovely lunch afterwards.