It's a brave man that would put his new New Zealand pinot noir up against one of the most famous brands in the world. It takes an even braver man to do the exercise blind. But when you are the man that is respected throughout the country as one of the leading winemakers of the variety, and have had the passion and the dedication to pursue the Holy Grail for almost the last 20 years, it really is no surprise.
"It is the winemaker in me that has to put the wines blind," said Larry McKenna whose wine, the Kupe by Escarpment Single Vineyard Martinborough Pinot Noir 2003 is one of the trio in the glasses in front of me.
"When you taste the wines blind you are able to think about them, think about what is quality in Pinot Noir and in particular Pinot Noir from a place," he said. "This is an exercise in terroir and more importantly, the release of a single vineyard wine ".
Larry McKenna has lived and breathed Pinot Noir since he arrived in Martinborough in 1986 as the new winemaker for Martinborough Vineyards. Some of the Pinot Noirs he made then won gold medals and trophies both locally and internationally. They continued to win until they were no longer entered in competitions.
Larry left Martinborough Vineyards in 1999 to develop a new vineyard south east of the famed 'Martinborough Terraces' in a new place called Te Muna which, when translated from Maori to English, means 'secret' or 'special' place. After much searching Larry was sure that this valley would be the future of the Martinborough region's pinot noir success.
It was here his Escarpment Vineyard was developed, atop a steep escarpment of deep gravelly soils. And on part of the vineyard was an experiment. The own-rooted pinot noir vines that Larry had bulked up in a nursery in the back garden of his house, were planted at 6,600 vines per hectare. The aim was for each vine to produce no more then one kilogram of fruit and one bottle of wine per wine. "It's all about shoot management," said Larry as we walked through the vineyard some three years before.
So three wines were lined up. They were Yabby Lake Pinot Noir 2003 from the Mornington Peninsula in Victoria, Australia. This vineyard is owned by Robert and Mem Kirby, who co-own the Escarpment Vineyard with Larry and Sue McKenna. The vineyard is a similar age to the Escarpment Vineyard and Larry made the wine the same way, using 50% new French oak for the maturation.
There was the Kupe by Escarpment Single Vineyard Martinborough Pinot Noir 2003, made entirely from second crop fruit from the close planted vines.
And for good measure and honesty, there was Domaine de la Romanée-Conti Échezéaux 2001.
Although the wines were tasted blind and were not unmasked until well into the tasting and after my notes were written, they are named in this article.
Yabby Lake Pinot Noir 2003 is a youthful deep purple red with a deep core and crimson purple rims. Plummy fruit and lots of cedary new oak on the perfumed nose together with spice and herbs and a lovely savouriness to the flavour with purple things abounding, sweet spice, and an earthiness to the silky textured tannic finish. There's a mintiness that comes through on the end to linger on the aftertaste. "Mint is part of the Australian terroir and a legitimate part of the wine," said Larry.
Domaine de la Romanée-Conti Échezéaux 2001 (poured from bottle #7812), is garnet red with quite a deep core, a good youthful colour but with none of the purples that prevail in the other two. Earthy aromas and sweet earthy flavours with savoury, slightly stewed red fruits and orange pomander acidity mingle with the fairly dominant oak, but the fruit has the richness and quality to soak the oak up and it is soft and integrated compared to the youthful oak of the others. It has big tannins for a Burgundy and with 100% new oak there is plenty of winemaker influence in this sumptuous wine, though its sweet earthiness and savouriness frutiness in comparison to the primary fruit of the others indicate its origin. It's utterly complex and of the three was the best match to the food served later.
But the Kupe By Escarpment Single Vineyard Pinot Noir 2003 did itself proud. It is intensely coloured deep crimson purple-black with crimson rims and a deep black-red garnet core in a well-filled glass morphing to a gemmy rubellite colour when the glass is nearing empty. It is bright and youthful with more colour and depth than the Yabby Lake, which is deep and dense in its own right.
Very softly aromatic on the nose - while the Yabby Lake smelt of oak, this does not. It is perfumed with florals and spices and the spice carries through to the palate where it is joined by voluptuous fruit and smoky savoury oak, the oak quite dominant at first until it is swamped by the fruit. Earthy with a great intensity of plum and cherry fruit infused with clove and cinnamon spices and liquorice, the texture is plush with quite firm grainy (crushed velvet) tannins and a long, sweet fruited, dry spicy finish. There's good acidity with a hint of liquorice chocolate on the aftertaste while amongst its youth and perfume it has an earthiness that is most typical of Martinborough of the three wines.
I find out later that this was indeed the Martinborough wine (one of them had to be) and after the tasting I was given a bottle to take home. I opened it for a few friends to try, something different for 5 o'clock drinks, and more specifically for me to see how it developed over a couple of days.
It was interesting to see the reaction of one of the 5 o'clock drinkers, who in the midst of conversation, as the wine enveloped their senses, lost the train of what they were saying to utter, "My, this is good wine".
Forty-eight hours later, the tannins are rich and plush, there's a touch of mocha and good acidity that gives the peacock's tail flare to the finish aided and abetted by the more cherry guava-like and roasted tamarillo flavours that have emerged. I just love the way an anise character comes through and could imagine accompanying the wine with some fennel influenced food. Mind you the braised leg of duck topped with a peppered seared breast of duck with kaffir lime polenta & baby bok choy, served with a rich sauce (at The Grove restaurant in St Patrick's Square in Auckland) was quite sublime.
Larry said that the fruit from this closely planted part of the vineyard stood out head and shoulders above anything else he was involved with from the 2003 vintage. Many parts of the region had frost, but these vines escaped the damage of Jack.
"This is the wine that starts to speak the Escarpment story, single vineyard, recognised from the ground up, given every priority in the vineyard and no jiggery pokery in the winery," he said.
It certainly has an aura of unfathomable quality about it and like Kupe the navigator, after whom the wine is named, this wine could well be leading New Zealand pinot noir in a new direction. It's just released and will cost about $60 a bottle in New Zealand.
For more on Escarpment, the wines and the legends, check out www.escarpment.co.nz.
© Sue Courtney
3 April 2005