NZ 2010: Martinborough

(by susie)

Driving into the wine country of Martinborough there was a subtle, almost imperceptible shift in atmosphere.

We had entered another world – a laid-back milieu of boutique wineries and small, sleepy towns that seemed to belong to a bygone age.

Our first stop in the region was Greytown. We’d been told to try The French Bakery. A white, wood-board building with smart grey signage: it looked promising from the outset and we weren’t to be disappointed.

Pete took one bite of his warm Parmesan and broccoli quiche and declared it the ‘best I have ever eaten’ which, coming from a quiche obsessive, is praise indeed.

The speed with which the large slice of bitter dark chocolate tart was consumed by the three of us also left no doubt as to its gastronomic brilliance.

Feeling full and very content, we set off for the town of Martinborough, where we had arranged to visit two of our favourite small producers: Dry River and, our overnight stop, Ata Rangi.

For a place which arguably produces some of New Zealand’s finest wines, Dry River is unassuming in the extreme.

There is no shiny new winery, no cellar door tasting facility, and no shop. This comes as no surprise, however, when you consider that all of the two thousand cases Dry River produces annually are sold on allocation to loyal customers – and if you don’t take up your allocation for more than two years running you are politely told that it will be offered to someone else. (NB: If you’re UK-based, Dry River’s main agent is Justerini & Brooks, or Raeburn in Scotland.)

All of which probably explains why winemaker Poppy Hammond seemed to have forgotten our visit. But Poppy is utterly delightful and, although clearly busy, spent a good hour with us both in the vineyards and the tasting room.

One of the most impressive aspects of the stunning wines she produces is the low alcohol levels she manages to achieve in such concentrated and complex New World wines. If you are as intrigued by this as we were then click on the video clip below to find out more.

It’s essentially to do with the trellising system (Scott Henry) and plucking the large, sugar-producing leaves around the bunches at flowering, as Poppy explains. This requires skilled labour and lots of it, which is expensive. What it demonstrates, however, is that phenolic ripeness can be achieved at lower sugar levels in the right climate if you’re prepared to invest the time and money required for all the hard work.

Dry River grows several different grape varieties: Pinot Noir, Syrah, Pinot Gris, Chardonnay, Gewürztraminer, Viognier, Riesling and, the latest addition – a small amount of Tempranillo (grafted onto 15 year old Pinot Noir vines) which is due to give a crop for the first time next harvest.

There has been no Sauvignon Blanc since the ’06 vintage when the diseased crop was grubbed up and not replaced. (This proved controversial with the many fans of this wine – Hew Blair, senior buyer at Justerini & Brooks, among them. Almost all Dry River’s bottlings have cult followings.)


Dry River Pinot Noir 2008 (Bottle no: 1711) – less than 500 case production – 12.5% – A bright, purple colour and nose of rich blackberry and cherry fruit are underscored with light, earthy aromas. Still very young and with a delightful perfumed florality on the mid-palate. Very harmonious, bittersweet and gently spicy with superb length. Drink 2-10 years. Score 8.75/10

Dry River Syrah 2007 (Bottle no: 3003) – Lovat Vineyard – 12.5% – From one of New Zealand’s finest recent vintages, this wine is sensational. Deep purple in colour, its purity of flavour is outstanding. Aromas of crushed black pepper, violets and smoky bacon are matched by fresh acidity, fine structure and incredible (spicy) texture on the palate. Drink now – 10 years. Score 10/10

We arrived at Ata Rangi to the warmest of welcomes from owners Clive Paton and his wife Phyll.

Again, that utterly infectious, laid-back Martinborough attitude made us feel like old friends. We were first shown to our summerhouse studio apartment which sat nestled in the shadow of Clive and Phyll’s own home and was surrounded by Clive’s pots of native Rata trees, which he is on a mission to preserve.

Such is Clive and Phyll’s dedication to this conservation drive, they’ve even started up a Pinot Noir label from which funds are donated to the Crimson project. See this video for Clive’s explanation:

We had a brief tour of the winery and a tasting with Clive and winemaker Helen Masters. Ata Rangi are currently riding high as their Pinot was one of only two in the country to be awarded the highly prestigious “Tipuranga Teitei o Aotearoa” award at the recent Pinot Noir Symposium in Wellington.

(Yes, it was Greek to us as well – but essentially it means they were one of two producers, along with Felton Road, to be named as the “Grands Crus” of New Zealand Pinot Noir.)

And deservedly so: Ata Rangi’s Pinot is a consistently superb wine and the 2008 we tasted at the winery was no exception.

Tasting Highlights:

Chardonnay Petrie 2008 – Nutty, intense lemon-rind nose. Gorgeous texture and beautiful, citric-infused acidity. Almost a New World / Burgundy cross with great length and wonderful elegance. Drink now-5 years. Score 7.5/10

Ata Rangi Pinot Noir 2008 – Seductively scented, plummy and spicy on the nose. Underlying earthy, gamey notes add to its complexity. Although the wine is concentrated and structured it is also elegant and shows a fleeting florality across the mid palate, along with fine tannins and great length. Drink now – 7 years. Score 8.5/10

We were later invited to Helen’s house for a BBQ supper (see video link below of Helen introducing our wonderful meal). The assembled throng included her artist husband Ben and their children Stella and Harvey, Clive and Phyll, and Clive’s sister Ali who is also an integral part of the business.

I’m not sure I’ve ever tasted better barbequed leg of lamb but I’ve no doubt that was partly to do with the company – and the wine. We drank several bottles of older Ata Rangi wines and it’s almost impossible to pick out a ‘wine of the night’ such was the quality of the selection.

The 05 Pinot Gris was, however, amazing with Helen’s home-cured ham – all honey and spice with intense minerality and a deliberately Alsatian feel. Phyll’s Doris plum and almond tart was also a winner with the lusciously tangy Kahu 05 botrytised Riesling.

Pete and I later debated the merits of the elegantly mature 2003 Pinot Noir versus the more youthful 2006. While Helen thought the 2003 had developed faster than it should due to the cork (this was the last vintage of the Pinot Noir under cork), Pete liked its developed, earthy character. I preferred the brighter vibrancy and clearer fruit of the 2006. Both were fantastic with the lamb, though.

We left both Helen’s house and Martinborough far sooner than we would have ideally liked – but an early ferry to the South Island and the delights of Marlborough were beckoning.

In summary, the winemakers of Martinborough do things their own way and, as a result, it’s almost impossible to pin down a ‘Martinborough’ style. But, if you push me, I’d say these guys make serious, grown-up wines – styles that aren’t immediately obvious (certainly not compared with the rest of New Zealand) but most definitely repay time, attention and contemplation.

It’s fair to say we tasted some of the most impressive and exciting wines of our whole trip in this unique little region.

We’re especially taken with the Pinot Noir, and will look forward to drinking a lot more in the future. If we can get on those allocation lists…