Philip Day reviews Escarpment Pinot Noir 2015, Martinborough, New Zealand
This detailed review of Escarpment Pinot Noir 2015, Martinborough, New Zealand includes history, viticulture and an overview of Escarpment wines.
Derived from French words for ‘pine’, alluding to the grape variety having tightly clustered, pine cone-shaped bunches of fruit and ‘black’, Pinot Noir has been mostly planted in cooler climates in many diverse regions around the world, that include France, Spain, Germany and Italy as well as New Zealand (Central Otago, Martinborough, North Canterbury and Marlborough), Australia (South Australia, Adelaide Hills, Tasmania and Yarra Valley), South Africa (Elgin and Walker Bay) and the states of Oregon (Willamette Valley) and California (Los Carneros, Central Coast and Russian River American Viticultural Areas) in the United States.
The grape is chiefly associated with the Côte-d’Or of the Burgundy region of France where it is grown to create light to medium bodied, fruit-forward red wines. Pinot Noir is also the primary varietal used in the production of Champagne (in which it is usually blended with Chardonnay and Pinot Meunier) and in sparkling wine production in other wine regions
Pinot Noir is often considered the toughest grape to grow but the effort to do so is often well worth the constant care and investment. It is a temperamental grape that demands optimum growing conditions, preferring warm days consistently supported by cool evenings.
The Pinot vine is typically less vigorous than either of the Cabernet Sauvignon or Syrah varieties, producing small conico-cylindrical (shaped like a pine cone) grape clusters and smaller leaves.
In the vineyard Pinot Noir is sensitive to wind and frost, cropping levels (it must be low yielding for the production of quality wines), soil types and pruning techniques. Its thin skinned fruit makes it susceptible to bunch rot and similar fungal diseases. In the winery it is sensitive to differing fermentation methods, the type of yeast strains employed and is highly reflective of the terroir in which the grapes are grown, with different regions producing very different wines from exactly the same grape variety.
Owing to the demanding growing requirements for Pinot Noir, it is produced in much smaller quantities than other popular red wines. As a consequence its price is often a little higher than for other red varieties.
Over the past twenty years, an increasingly evident, style of Pinot Noir, especially from California and New Zealand has led to a more powerful, fruit forward and darker wine that has become considerably more popular among consumers, while also benefiting from a trend toward more restrained, lighter in style and less alcoholic wines.
An excellent introduction to some of the very best of tomorrow’s definitive New World Pinot Noirs would be those originating from the Escarpment Vineyard, Martinborough, New Zealand where respected winemaker Larry McKenna has applied his distinctive skill over the last thirty years to what he does best: making premium wine. The results speak for themselves as he has succeeded in creating is some of New Zealand’s most layered, flavoursome and complex wines.
McKenna’s wine has been referred to by various wine writers and authorities as everything from a Pinot Noir ‘legend’ and ‘maestro’ to the ‘Prince’ or ‘Godfather of Pinot Noir’. When, in 2014, he was inducted into the New Zealand Wine Hall of Fame, he was acknowledged as the winemaker who introduced quality Pinot Noir to New Zealand and in doing so, helped the district of Martinborough in the south of North Island become known as ‘Pinot Noir country’.
Situated just five kilometres east of Martinborough village, Escarpment’s twenty-four hectares of distinctive terraces stretch out along the banks of the Huangarua River. The Aorangi Ranges, the very hills made famous, according to Maori legend, by Kupe the great Polynesian voyager who discovered New Zealand (Aotearoa), form an impressive backdrop to the vineyard.
It is related that Kupe left his three canoes, Nga Waka, on top of the Aorangi Ranges, giving rise to the now familiar landmark of the district, which overlook the vineyard, the ‘Nga Waka-o-Kupe’ or the three flat-topped hills, which resemble unturned canoes. The warrior Kupe and his story provided the inspiration for the vineyard’s distinctive brand and logo.
Born and raised in Adelaide, Australia Larry McKenna graduated from Roseworthy Agricultural College in 1976 and prior to establishing his own vineyard he gained nearly three decades worth of wine making experience. After an initial period of travelling through Europe sampling and learning about the wine culture, together with fellow Roseworthy alumnus, John Hancock, he gained valuable wine making experience at Delegat’s Wine Estate in Auckland, New Zealand.
Leaving Auckland in 1986, Larry took up the position of CEO/Winemaker at Martinborough Vineyard in the Wairarapa region. From 1986 to 1999 he grew wine production at this company from 20 to 160 tonnes and firmly put Martinborough Vineyard and himself on the world map as one of the pre-eminent New World Pinot Noir producers and winemakers.
Escarpment Vineyard was established in 1998 as a joint business venture between Robert and Mem Kirby (owners of Australia’s Village Roadshow Group) in conjunction with Larry and Sue McKenna. Collectively, these four directors bring to Escarpment a world of experience, skill and understanding to the nurturing and making of fine, deliciously sublime wine.
The impetus behind establishing their vineyard came from a mutual love for the Pinot Noir varietal. After meeting by chance in 1998 through Dr Richard Smart the viticultural consultant – at the time Larry was consulting on the same new project: ‘Yabby Lake’ in Victoria which also involved Robert and Mem Kirby. Then, Robert Kirby, offered Larry a joint venture partnership to create his own label based in Martinborough, which was something that Larry had been wanting to do for a while, all that was needed was a financial backer.
Taking the decision to establish their own vineyard was one thing, finding that special piece of land that offered the essential ingredients required for optimal grape growing and wine making was another. Although they considered several other wine growing areas in New Zealand, Larry and Sue kept returning to the Martinborough area. It was the area they both felt they knew intimately having been part of grape growing and wine making there for many years. The more they undertook their research, the more they were convinced that the Martinborough area offered the rich mix of elements they required to grow and make fine New World Pinot Noir wine.
When they discovered the Te Muna river terraces across the other side of the hill they knew this spot was just what they had been looking for. The land was available, it was just the right size for their purposes and most importantly it formed part of the Martinborough Terraces. These are alluvial gravel terraces, laid down by the Huangarua River to the north side of Martinborough and the Ruamahanga River to the West, were the most prized soil type that in the area.
Essentially it’s the same river terrace exploited by other successful winemakers in Martinborough – the same soil type and basically the same climate if perhaps slightly cooler more suited to growing Pinot Noir.
Thus in late 1998, ‘The Escarpment’ on Te Muna Road was acquired and planting started in 1999.
Larry had learnt a great deal about growing Pinot in central Martinborough from 1986 but to supplement his knowledge of Pinot Noir he also visited the varietals home in Burgundy on several occasions.
One major difference Larry recognised between how the grapes were grown in France and Martinborough, was the use of high density planting, a concept he intended to establish at Escarpment.
Robert shared Larry’s enthusiasm for the concept and together they set about establishing in earnest a definitive New World vineyard, which resulted in the creation of one of the most significant vineyard developments in the New Zealand district of Martinborough.
‘Te Muna’ in Maori, means ‘secret’ or ‘special place’ and to the people at Escarpment that is exactly how they feel about the land and what it means to live, grow and make wine there.
The decision about a name for the vineyard took several weeks to materialise and it was not until Robert Kirby’s brother-in-law, David Glass suggested the idea of ‘Escarpment’ following an evening stroll along the eastern boundary of the property one dusky evening. Inspiration came to him in a flash on seeing an expansive kilometre-long escarpment dropping sharply down to the river below.
The rest as they say is history.
Martinborough Pinot Noir
Larry & Sue McKenna and Robert & Mem Kirby
Total: 19 hectares (47 acres)
Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc and Riesling
The Edge Series (entry level wines), The Escarpment Range and The Martinborough Insight Range (single vineyard super premium wines, namely: Kupe, Kiwa, Pahi and Te Rehua)
Much of Larry McKenna’s success in wine making has come from a deep seated passion for producing the very best wine out of the grapes he has to work with. No wonder he is recognised and respected as one of New Zealand’s pre-eminent Pinot Noir winemakers.
His solid reputation comes from a deep understanding of Pinot Noir and for obtaining the best out of the variety that many cite as being typically the most stubborn and capricious grape variety, that demands so much of both vine-grower and winemaker.
Larry McKenna believes in sharing his knowledge and understanding with fellow winemakers and therefore has adopted a collaborative approach to his wine making, to ensure collective learning and continued development and success of New Zealand’s Pinot Noir wines.
He has played an integral role in helping shape Pinot Noir’s development in New Zealand, by organising a number workshops and conferences to permit an open exchange and dissemination of knowledge and good practice, activities which are valued by both emerging wine makers and established ones.
The relaxed and unassuming style Larry is known for, is an approach similarly applied to his wine-making. He works with the grapes to develop distinctively superior wines that are faithful to their character, quality and vintage, rather than try to force a wine into doing something completely out of keeping with its characteristics.
Incidentally, Larry McKenna applies the same skill, precision, understanding and integrity he lavishes on Pinot Noir to ensure that wines made from the other varieties of grapes he grows: Pinot Gris, Chardonnay, Riesling and Pinot Blanc stand nobly alongside his Pinot Noir bottlings.
Located in the southern part of the North Island of New Zealand, the wine-producing area of Martinborough comprises a small town and its surrounding environs, which are home to approximately 1,500 inhabitants and some of New Zealand’s most highly respected wineries.
Martinborough enjoys a relatively dry climate due to the rain shadow of the surrounding hills. (A rain shadow is a dry area on the leeward side of a mountainous or high-hilled area, where the mountains block the passage of rain-producing weather systems, casting a ‘shadow’ of dryness behind them.)The area is climatically quite similar to the Marlborough wine-growing region on the north-eastern tip of South Island. Both benefit from high sunshine hours, low rainfall and cool nights that assist in the ripening the grapes and adding character to the wines.
Martinborough’s relatively mild climate and excellent soils make it the perfect location for the production of balanced, elegant wines made from Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.
The majority of the viticultural areas of the region lie on a raised plateau of alluvial gravel that has been forced up over time by tectonic movement, often referred to as the ‘Martinborough Terrace’. Successive flooding of the Huangarua River has created the alluvial gravel terrace. The soils are free-draining, which is excellent for viticulture because they limit the hydration of the vines, which leads to stress in the growing vines, thereby encouraging them to devote their energy into producing small, concentrated berries rather than leafy foliage, which increases the quality of the grapes and ultimately the wines they go into.
Although the township of Martinborough was established in the 1870s to service the surrounding farmland, it wasn’t recognised as a prime site for viticulture until a scientific report published in 1978 made favourable comparisons between the climate of the region with that of Burgundy in France. It was only after this that a few pioneering viticulturists began to buy land around Martinborough to plant vines.
Fifty years on, the bustling township has several dozen wineries in its vicinity and wine production and wine tourism are major contributors to the local economy.
Of all of New Zealand’s land devoted to vineyard, Martinborough accounts for only three percent. However, it is still widely considered to be one of the country’s prime wine regions, given it is the location of some of the most highly regarded wineries in New Zealand. Its main claim to fame is the exceptional quality of its Pinot Noir wines, whose style is regarded to be more complex than those originating from the other Pinot Noir producing region: Central Otago on South Island.
Larry McKenna, who many have referred to as the ‘Prince of Pinot’, has ensured that Escarpment is included as one of the success stories of the Martinborough region. Together with his three other partners in the business, their aim has always to craft the very best of tomorrow’s definitive New World wines.
The 24 hectares of Escarpment vineyards were planted on an extension of the famed Martinborough Terrace land, whose alluvial soils stretch out along banks of the Huangarua River in the Te Muna valley. The river carved the valley terraces in the landscape over millennia leaving a steep, stony natural escarpment. This factor together with the backdrop of the Aorangi Ranges offered all the right attributes to make it one of the best sites for Pinot Noir production.
Not only did McKenna find the terraces ideal for grapes, but also the natural climate of the region. The Te Muna valley usually favours long, cool, dry autumns that allow the grapes to hang on the vines long after they have been picked in other regions. The good variation between day and night time temperatures is key to the long ripening, so that the grapes retain much of their natural juicy acidity, while they ripen to perfection.
The Pinot Noir vine clones have been matched to their soil conditions. They are trained low and organic practices are employed to keep away bugs and pests. At harvesting time, the grapes are picked by hand and back in the winery, the wine is processed in the Burgundian way, with minimum intervention.
Similarly, the cellar of the winery wouldn’t look out of place in Burgundy as evidence of modern technology is kept to a minimum as this is clearly a cellar that makes wine by hand.
The Burgundy connection continues with the way the wines are designated by site. Instead of making a top selection from an estate’s best barrels, a practice many wineries employ, McKenna keeps the grapes from each plot of vines separate and bottles them, so that they reflect the personality of the place that grew them.
He explained approach this recently: ‘Over the last 30 years the vines have put down their roots and are now expressing the individuality of the site.’ He further stated: ‘Another benefit of vine maturity is that the grapes ripen earlier, while still retaining their balance and flavour. It means that alcohol levels are lower, and the wines are more elegant.’
In addition to Pinot Noir, McKenna grows several other grape varieties at Escarpment which are transformed into excellent Pinot Gris, Chardonnay, Pinot Blanc and a spectacular Late Harvest Riesling.
The majority of Escarpments grapes are grown on site and are accredited with ‘Sustainable Winegrowing New Zealand ®’ a programme to promote New Zealand as a leader in green farming practices. The current winery now has the capability to process around 250 tonnes of fruit and the company is in the process of developing a Cellar Door and Restaurant in order to showcase the region.
The vineyard is also in the process of converting to full organic status, a process begun 2 years ago but the company does not intend to apply for organic status until it has attained a higher standard than currently achieved.
As part of their journey to achieve full organic status, currently the company has established the following: the temperature of the warehouse is cooled and controlled naturally, as are levels of humidity; the majority of the water used by the company is acquired from collected rain water (in the case of very dry weather it is supplied from its own local bore); all effluent is treated on site and irrigated back onto a stand of native trees and a system of ongoing compost creation is employed which is spread back onto vineyards.
The winery operates under Biogro ™ standards employing only all naturally occurring yeast and indigenous malolactic bacteria and intensive hand work is employed in the vineyards helps to create ideal canopies which are less prone to disease, together with operations like shoot thinning, leaf plucking, removal of lateral growth and bunch thinning.
Escarpment offer three distinctive brands of wine: The Edge Series which represent their entry level wines, The Escarpment Range and The Martinborough Insight Range, which are single vineyard super premium wines, namely: Kupe, Kiwa, Pahi and Te Rehua, where the wines produced are reflective of their soil type, topography and vineyard profile.
The intention is to reflect practices in Burgundy where its wines are marketed by their vineyard designations rather than by variety and consequently wines originating from the greatest sites receive the most attention. The premium Martinborough locations also deserve to be acknowledged and their wines honoured. That is why these four premium wines are branded ‘The Martinborough Insight Series’, they represent an insight into the very terroir of Martinborough.
The Edge brand, referring both to New Zealand’s position on the edge of the world and to the Escarpment vineyards being on the edge of the sloping escarpment on the Huangarua River, champions New Zealand through the use of indigenous iconography. It references the Kupe narrative of the Escarpment Range and advances full flavoured, high quality wines at mid-price point.
Escarpment Pinot Noir 2014 or 2015 (ABV 13.5%)
In my opinion this is the perfect wine to begin an exploration of the Escarpment range. It has dark cherry and herb aromas with a luxurious, rounded palate, ripe, textured tannins with a soft, smooth fruit-filled finish. Enjoyable now but will age gracefully for another 5-10 years. Perfect with lamb or spicy vegetarian dishes, for something different, try with crispy or pulled pork.
The Edge 2015 (ABV 14%)
Another ideal introduction to the wines of Escarpment, this is the baby brother of the main range, with terrific super-smooth deep cherry and plum fruit and soft, ripe tannins. More fuller bodied than you might expect with a long lingering finish. It is immediately accessible but should reward you with delicious new flavours if carefully kept for a year or two. A suitable accompaniment to full flavoured fish, lamb or other roast meats.
Kupe Single Vineyard Pinot Noir 2015 (ABV 13.5%)
My favourite in the range of premium wines for its deep flavours and structure. Made from the Abel clone, low trained and with low yield, this is a tight-grained wine. In fact the vines themselves share the same rootstock and vine spacing as those used at Domaine de la Romanée-Conti. It has been fermented in wooden French cuvées, hand plunged and aged in 50% new French oak barriques for 18 months. It is a medium to full bodied wine, possessing a great concentration of fruit and spice on the palate. Notes of savoury herbs cinnamon and spice blended with ripe dark cherry fruit help the wine to achieve a long, complex finish.
Fabulous concentration. Try not to drink it for 5 years at least. A perfect choice with mature beef or venison.
Pahi Single Vineyard 2015 (ABV 13.1%)
An elegantly silky style of Pinot, mainly from old vines planted 30 years ago, this has fresh-tasting red cherry fruit, with a dash of herbs and ending with notes of violets. Some may find this release too delicate in its nature. It will continue to develop over 10 years, but you don’t have to wait too long to enjoy this one with game or salami.
Kiwa Single Vineyard Pinot Noir 2015 (ABV 13.4%)
This bottling has a little more depth than the Pahi, made from another 30-year-old block of vines, which has been matured in 40% new French oak barriques for 18 months. It has aromas of black cherry fruit mingled with raspberry, herbaceous and wild herb characters to give it defined savoury spice characteristics.
The flavours are deep, fresh and elegant, with a long, textured and balanced finish with an attractively fresh acidity. It would pair well with game dishes. For enjoying now and over the next 5-8 years, when the wine will start to develop its secondary characters.
Te Rehua Single Vineyard Pinot Noir 2015
For many, this is the most luxurious of the Insight range of wines, It possesses both a deep colour and flavours of ripe black cherry and black-berried fruits, along with layers of herbs and spice and a hint of dark chocolate in the finish that makes this is a wine made for the long haul. It is a medium-full bodied red with a moderate length of sweet dried fruits and an acidity that lifts the fruit aromatics and enriches its sweetness.
Ready to drink now, it has all the charm of a good Pinot, with a depth and character to pair perfectly with roast meat. Like the other Pinot Noirs in the range, Te Rehua could be aged for another 5-10 years.
Although Escarpment Wines specialise in Pinot Noir, they also produce Chardonnay, Pinot Blanc and Pinot Gris wines worthy of note, while the spectacular late harvest Hinemoa Riesling makes for a perfect dessert accompaniment.
Escarpment in the news
In August 2007, French researchers announced the sequencing of the genome of Pinot noir. It is the first fruit crop to be sequenced, and only the fourth flowering plant.
Recently (2014) Larry was inducted into the NZ Wine Hall of Fame and received further recognition as a recipient of the George Fistonich medal for services to the NZ Wine Industry.
Raymond Chan (Wine Reviews) named Escarpment Vineyard as his Winery of The Year 2015.
Postal Address: PO Box 15 Martinborough
Location: 275 Te Muna Rd, Martinborough 5741, New Zealand
Telephone: +64 6 306 8305
Fax: + 64 6 306 8315
Philip Day is an early-retired academic in linguistics who has published many articles.
A North-Midlander (The Potteries) by birth, he currently lives close to the Lancashire Pennines which he regularly explores with his Patterdale terrier, Max.
In particular he has a keen interest in European fine wines and good food and regularly contributes articles for Escapementmagazine.com.