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Martinborough Pinot Noir

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Not long ago I was in New Zealand, and got a chance to visit a number of winemakers in the Martinborough region. Martinborough has a simple problem—it sounds a lot like Marlborough, the much larger and more well-known region on the South Island that provides the template for New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc. Consequently people get them confused.

So, a quick Martinborough primer. It's on the North Island, though it's the southernmost wine region on that island. Various wines are produced there, but the region's strength is Pinot Noir; along with Central Otago, it's one of the best Pinot zones in the country. And it's tiny, less than three percent of New Zealand's total wine growing area.

I spoke with Escarpment Vineyards owner/winemaker Larry McKenna about the difference between Martinborough and Central Otago Pinots, and he replied as follows: "Central has longer days, more U.V., more light, and gets wines that are very deeply colored and very fruit driven, but that lack some structure and complexity. Whereas Martinborough is more structured, more textured, perhaps longer-living, and certainly more complex." (Of course, a Central Otago winemaker might take issue with that.)

Certainly McKenna's wines fit his description. I was impressed with his basic 2007 Escarpment Pinot Noir ($38, when it gets here...), which has dark cherry-berry fruit and a note of smoky lapsang-souchong tea ("tarry tea" was how Adrian Baker of Craggy Range described this characteristic Martinborough Pinot note to me) that runs through the finish. McKenna also makes three single-vineyard Pinots; of them my favorite was the 2006 Escarpment Te Rehua, spicy and smoky with black cherry fruit and a hint of rhubarb.  (He also made a terrific 2007 Escarpment Pinot Gris ($25, when it gets here...), a full-bodied white with lots of melon and spicy citrus notes, that's barrel-fermented in 5- to 10-year-old oak.)

McKenna echoed a lot of what I'd heard about the differences between the '06 and '07 vintages, pretty much across the board for New Zealand's regions. "2006 was ideal really, a good hot summer, fouled a bit in the end with rain; but if you want something typically Martinborough, 2006 is a good benchmark. 2007 had poor flowering, about half the normal amount of fruit, then a hot, dry summer. The fruit ripened tremendously," meaning that '07 was really, really ripe. Which is true; I tasted a lot of '07 New Zealand Pinot that might have been from California's Central Coast.

I'll skip Dry River and keep it for a separate post, and move on to Ata Rangi. There, the 2006 Ata Rangi Pinot Noir ($45, find this wine) also showed that distinctive smoky tea leaf note, with a touch of menthol on top of its dark berry fruit and some earthy depth. This was a lovely wine, with a sexy, round mouthfeel and a long juicy finish that resolved into polished tannins. Top quality New Zealand Pinot Noir.

The 2007 Ata Rangi Pinot Noir had that same note of tarry tea, but here the fruit was much darker and more brooding, potent and almost black; black cherries with a light citrus zest bitterness. Impressive, too, but this is a wine that needs time (and since it's not here yet, that works out well).

It was up in the air if Ata Rangi's importer was going to bring the 2008 Sauvignon Blanc (about $20) into the U.S., but I sure hope they do, because it's a hell of a Sauvignon for a relatively modest price. 15% of it is barrel-fermented in old wood, the rest sees lees-stirring in tank, and its got a wealth of ripe grapefruit character and an evocative grassy note that eschews the over-the-top green-pepper character of a lot of NZ Sauvignon.

Then, Palliser Estate, where winemaker Allan Johnson said, "A lot of our Pinots in New Zealand are quite lush, but I like to see a little phenolic backbone." There was certainly phenolic backbone in his 2006 Palliser Pinot Noir ($30, find this wine), which had dry tannins, sweet raspberry fruit, and a kind of iron note in the finish. A taut little number, all wiry and intense, but in a good way. Johnson has a deft hand with whites as well as reds, and if you're not in a Pinot mood, his gooseberry-grapefruity 2008 Palliser Sauvignon Blanc ($17) is a juicy, engaging New Zealand Sauvignon at a good price.  

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