One of New Zealand’s premier Pinot regions, Martinborough is becoming more accessible as producers introduce less expensive second and third wines, writes BOB CAMPBELL MW

The weather certainly feels Christmassy as I drive through gently falling snow across the Rimutaka Ranges between Wellington and Martinborough. It is only a month or two until Christmas but this is the southern hemisphere. We don’t do snow at this time of the year. Our Santa Claus wears shorts and sandals.

Two days ago I made the reverse trip in torrential rain. A four-wheel-drive vehicle in front of me aqua-planed on the surface water and flipped. In the one-and-a-half-hour drive I’d passed nearly a dozen cars destined for panel-beater or wrecker’s yard. I arrived in Martinborough shortly before the river flowed over the only bridge into town. There was no way out for the next 12 hours.

Ironically, one reason the pioneering winemakers of Martinborough chose the region was because it had the lowest rainfall of any area in the North Island. It also had a reliably cool climate ideally suited to varieties such as Pinot Noir, Sauvignon Blanc and Riesling, together with free-draining gravel soils of only moderate fertility. Most of the land was flat, and the country’s second largest city was so close that some residents chose to commute between the big smoke and their unspoiled haven across the hills.

Neil McCallum of Dry River was one of five winemakers who by 1986 had planted vineyards in Martinborough. ‘From the available data, the low rainfall area was limited to a tiny locality roughly 5km in radius, and a study of soil maps revealed that the deep, free-draining gravels they sought within this were restricted to an even smaller part.’

To protect the integrity of this clearly defined viticultural sweet spot, wines made from grapes grown inside the area were given a seal of origin by the Martinborough Winegrowers’ Association. By 1991 the area was named ‘The Martinborough Terrace Appellation’ to distinguish it from other terroirs being explored nearby. Martinborough was the first New Zealand wine region to clearly define and protect its viticultural boundaries, which contained only 600ha (hectares) of viticultural land according to McCallum’s estimate.

By the early 1990s Martinborough had a reputation worth protecting. The area was then regarded as New Zealand’s Pinot Noir capital, a status that has since been challenged by Central Otago, though the regional styles are distinctly different. Martinborough Pinot Noir tends to be denser (although that may be a function of older vines) with slippier textures and fruit flavours that suggest black plum. Central Otago wines are typically more vibrant with flavours that are closer to red and black cherry plus a dash of wild thyme.

Unlike Central Otago, Martinborough has many strings to its oenological bow. You don’t have to look far to find some of the country’s best Chardonnay, Riesling, Pinot Gris and Sauvignon Blanc. Where red wine is concerned, Pinot Noir reigns supreme. But you’ll also find good Syrah and Bordeaux blends – though perhaps not in every vintage and always in tiny quantities.

Martinborough’s boundary is a 10km radius from the town square. It includes the original Martinborough Gravels area, which in Italy would probably receive ‘Classico’ status, as well as the new Te Muna district, an outcrop of the Martinborough Gravels with stonier soils and a marginally cooler climate.

Martinborough makes a minuscule amount of wine even by New Zealand’s moderately minuscule standards. About 3% of the nation’s grapes are crushed there between March and May. It has a far greater share of the country’s top wine, however, although that fact is slightly obscured by the reluctance of many Martinborough winemakers to enter their wines in competitions or even to send writers review samples. Most sell the lion’s share of their production at the gate or by mail order to enthusiastic customers who keep coming back for more.

Martinborough’s reputation is in the main driven by larger producers such as Palliser, Te Kairanga, Martinborough Vineyard and Craggy Range with the help of high-profile small producers like Ata Rangi and Dry River. Its reputation has also been boosted by Taste Martinborough, an annual event that attracts wine enthusiasts from around the country. It’s a winery open day when each producer teams up with a restaurant and group of musicians to offer wine, song and good food. Tickets to Taste Martinborough sell out within hours of release. The 10,500 lucky ticket purchasers walk from winery to winery before settling on the one that offers the best food, wine and music. It’s a day of discovery that helps swell winery mailing lists.

Another recent development has helped soften Martinborough’s rather elitist image. Several producers have introduced a second (and in one case a third) label, offering lesser wines at lower prices. Some are clearly linked to the mother brand, such as Martinborough Vineyard’s Te Tera range and Te Kairanga’s Runholder, although the latter label sits between the flagship Reserve and Premium wines. Most disassociate the second label by using an independent brand. Examples include Pencarrow (Palliser), Walnut Ridge (Ata Rangi), and Struggler’s Flat (Craggy Range). These satellite brands make Martinborough wines more accessible to a wider market, as well as preserving the integrity of the flagship label.

Variation in vintage conditions is a fact of life. Phyll Patie of Ata Rangi once explained to me how Célèbre, its Syrah-Merlot-Cabernet blend, looks Bordeaux-like in a warm vintage and yet in a cooler vintage assumes a peppery Rhône-like character. Botrytised wines appear in wetter vintages while in hotter years wines such as Pinot Gris tend to carry more residual sugar. In recent years the vintages have been more erratic than usual. 2002 was the wettest summer on record, while 2004 had the wettest February on record. In times like these Martinborough’s drying winds and free-draining gravelly soils can save the day.

KEY PLAYERS

Ata Rangi

Ata Rangi is possibly the region’s most celebrated Pinot Noir producer. For around 20 years the winery has been making silken-textured Pinot Noir that’s New Zealand’s answer to Musigny. Although its reputation has been built on Pinot Noir, it has received considerable support from two intense, stylish Chardonnays, a robust Syrah-Cabernet-Merlot blend called Célèbre, a luscious Pinot Gris, a full-flavoured Sauvignon Blanc and a botrytised sweet Riesling when vintage conditions allow.

Winemaker/part owner Clive Paton believes that although they’ve had great success with Pinot Noir the style still has plenty of potential for further improvement thanks to vine age and their accumulated experience in both vineyard and winery. ‘We’ve learned a lot in the past two decades but we’re a long way from knowing how to get the best out of our vineyards.’

Dry River

If demand is any measure, Dry River is Martinborough – and New Zealand’s – most successful winery. Apart from a relatively small export allocation, all Dry River wines are sold by mail order within days of release. If you’re not on the ‘A’ mailing list, you’re more likely to be able to buy Dry River’s wines in the UK than you are in New Zealand.

Founder Dr Neil McCallum has focused his not inconsiderable intellect on the task of making long-lived wines for serious wine lovers. With almost fanatical devotion he has produced a range of sometimes unconventional (when measured using a local yardstick) wines that are consistently among the country’s best.

Any ‘A’ mailing list customer who fails to buy Dry River wines for two years is removed from the list. To yield a place on that exalted list a person must have become teetotal, very ill or, more likely, be dead.

Martinborough Vineyard

Martinborough winemakers can be thankful that the winery bearing the region’s name is a top performer. The winery was founded by soil scientist Dr Derek Milne and fellow wine enthusiasts after his research showed Martinborough had similar growing conditions to Burgundy – a classic example of money following mouth. In the late 1980s and 1990s Martinborough Vineyard led the way with a complex Pinot Noir that departed from the ‘fruit bomb’ styles of the region. Other wines of note include a heavyweight Chardonnay that has developed more finesse in recent years, a vibrant Riesling, a bold oak-aged Pinot Gris and tangy Sauvignon Blanc.

Palliser

New Zealand’s most successful Sauvignon Blanc, based on my reviews over many years, is not Cloudy Bay or Saint Clair (although both come close) – in fact it’s not even from Marlborough, often credited as being New Zealand’s Sauvignon Blanc capital. Palliser Sauvignon Blanc has consistently out-gunned its rivals in all but the most uncooperative vintages. It’s Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc in drag – bigger, bolder and brassier.

One of the region’s larger wineries, Palliser sources grapes from its own vineyards and from growers throughout the region. Wines include a Méthode Traditionelle sparkler that is often exceptionally good, a fruit-focused Chardonnay, a succulent Riesling, a Pinot Noir that is growing in stature and, recently, a luscious Pinot Gris.

A second label, Pencarrow, offers a parallel range of good-value wines that help to maintain a high level of quality in the mother label.

Te Kairanga

Te Kairanga was born when one of the founders purchased Martinborough’s first vineyard in a mortgage sale. Today it is the region’s second largest producer after Palliser Estate with just over 100ha of vineyard land plus supplies from contract growers. Pinot Noir represents around 60% of production with grapes sourced from many vineyards. A three-tier level of quality has Te Kairanga Estate Pinot Noir as the entry-level wine. Above that is Te Kairanga Runholder Chardonnay, introduced for the first time from the 2004 vintage. The flagship wine, Te Kairanga John Martin Reserve Pinot Noir (previously ‘Reserve’), is only made in exceptional vintages, with the first vintage being 2005. There are just two levels of Chardonnay, with Reserve at the top. Pinot Gris and Sauvignon Blanc are also made although these do not boast a Reserve label.

NEW FACES

Escarpment

Established in Martinborough satellite Te Muna by Larry McKenna. Pinot Noir is the star, occupying 70% of the real estate with the balance shared equally between Chardonnay, Pinot Gris and Riesling. The vines are close-planted at about twice the region’s average density.

Why Te Muna? ‘We share the same alluvial gravel soils as the Martinborough Terraces region but have slightly cooler weather conditions thanks to a marginally higher altitude,’ explains McKenna. ‘Our vines seem less vigorous than those grown on the terraces possibly as a result of stonier soils plus cooler, windier ripening conditions. Te Muna Pinot Noir seems to have more pronounced colour and more tannins although that could be partly due to young vines and new clones.’

McKenna’s first Pinot Noir from his new vineyard, Kupe 2003, strongly endorses his faith in the area. This first taste of success combined with McKenna’s past form has created high expectations for this new producer.

Craggy Range

Craggy Range established its wineries and much of its vineyards in Hawke’s Bay, in an investment rumoured to exceed NZ$70 million. At the same time it secured growers in Marlborough and planted 90ha in Martinborough to make high-quality Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir. Viticulturist and general manager Steve Smith MW chose Te Muna to plant a vineyard on two levels of river terraces that include a north-facing hillside area. There’s also a rugby field-sized reservoir to supply an elaborate sprinkler system for frost protection.

Smith found that his land had two distinctly different soil types. ‘The soils determined the varietal mix on our vineyard. One soil type perfectly suited Pinot Noir while the other is ideal for Sauvignon Blanc.’

The vineyard has exceeded Smith’s expectations. ‘I’m really excited about the quality of Pinot Noir we’re getting. Martinborough has demonstrated an ability to produce great Pinot Noir but the full potential of the region has yet to be realised. I’m also pretty enthusiastic about the potential of Sauvignon Blanc – our 2005 is a real cracker!’

Kusuda

Hiroyuki Kusuda is New Zealand’s first Japanese winemaker. He studied winemaking at the Geisenheim Institute in Germany where he met Kai and Marion Shubert. The Shuberts moved to Wairarapa, north of Martinborough, where they started Schubert winery. Hiroyuki worked with them for several vintages before starting his own label, initially using grapes grown on a leased vineyard.

Hiroyuki Kusuda is a recognised sake expert who devotes the same enthusiasm to understanding and making high-quality wine. His passion is Pinot Noir although he has also made Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah under his label. Kusuda wines are intense, complex, and exhibit a daring funkiness that I find very appealing. Most of his production is sold for high prices in Japan. Kusuda has an exciting future.