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    Quirky New Zealanders Master Finicky Pinots, Target Burgundy

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    sang_garuda
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    Quirky New Zealanders Master Finicky Pinots, Target Burgundy

    Post by sang_garuda on Fri Oct 31, 2008 6:49 pm

    The Burgundies our pinot noirs resemble most are Volnay and Pommard,'' says Larry McKenna, one of New Zealand's star winemakers and co-owner of Escarpment Vineyard in Martinborough.

    Really? I'm taking a wait-and-taste attitude as his chocolate Labrador retriever, Milo, follows us into the concrete barrel room. It's built into the steep escarpment of gravelly soil for which McKenna's winery is named. Eco-friendly, the cellar has grass growing on top and fermenting tanks outside.

    The stocky, 56-year-old McKenna offers a savory 2007 pinot that's a thumbs-up bargain at $22 and four 2006 single-vineyard bottlings. I savor all, especially the layered -- yes, Volnay- like -- Moana, the silky, cherry-like Te Rehua and the spicy, complex Kupe (all $45).

    Before I climb into his white truck for a lift to my next stop, he gives me a local geography lesson, pointing out the low mountain ranges to the east and west that provide a ``rain shadow'' -- the clouds dump their cargo on the other side.

    ``The strength of Martinborough is our long dry autumn,'' McKenna says. ``Letting the grapes ripen longer with no temperature extremes gives us the texture, structure, ripeness without too much alcohol,'' he says. (That last point is often my complaint about California pinots.)

    On my tasting tour of New Zealand, I'm trying to discover whether there's anything to the talk that Martinborough's pinots are closer to France's fabled Burgundies than those from other regions -- California, Oregon and New Zealand's Central Otago.

    Mature Vines

    About an hour's winding drive north of Wellington on North Island, tiny Martinborough is part of the larger Wairarapa region and the first New Zealand area to specialize in this finicky grape. It has the country's oldest patches of pinot vineyards, and the mature vines, most producers say, are one reason the wines have so many layers of flavor.

    The 35 wineries here turn out to be small boutiques, most started by quirky people from non-wine backgrounds, giddy with ambition to make great wine. Back in the mid-1980s, when Australian McKenna arrived at pioneer Martinborough Vineyard, he was the area's first trained wine professional.

    The four earliest producers -- referred to locally as the Gang of Four -- include cult winery Dry River Vineyard, whose perfectionist winemaker, Neil McCallum, is given to viticultural musings.

    ``Are we trying for a Burgundy paradigm or terroir?'' McCallum asks rhetorically when I stop by the next day to taste several vintages of his pinot in his second-floor open office overlooking the vineyards.

    Terroir Obsession

    He's obsessed with the terroir view, the idea that wine should reflect the place where the grapes are grown and not try to ape the style of somewhere else. Of course, that's the quintessential view of Burgundians, too, but then they regard their patches of soil as superior to all others.

    Martinborough's top vineyards, McCallum reminds me, are all planted somewhere along the Martinborough Terrace, the high, crescent-shaped escarpment with 50-plus feet of gravel and rocks under it, thrown up over thousands of years by the meandering Huangarua River.

    McCallum, who has a Ph.D. in chemistry from Oxford, says he spent 20 years ``researching marijuana in Wellington,'' adding, with a wry smile, ``I was licensed to administer.'' His life with a new intoxicant, wine, started in 1979, when he planted his first vineyard.

    Exotic, Powerful

    His highly collectible pinots, with their dark cherry and spice flavors, rich, succulent texture and exceptionally long finish, are wonderfully exotic, a bit like serious, age-worthy Burgundies, though with their own powerful, muscular style. The 2006 is big and concentrated, the 2005 more savory and silky, the 2001 spicy and deep (all $80).

    Fortunately, most Martinborough pinots are $45 and under, some much less than that, and the current 2006 vintage is both balanced and rich. I taste several vintages of Ata Rangi at lunch with another pioneer vineyard owner, Clive Paton, his sister Allison and winemaker Helen Masters at Allison's quirky house in a pinot vineyard. The 2006 ($40) is my favorite, though the lighter, brambly 2007 Crimson ($20) is deliciously gulpable. At Martinborough Vineyard, the 2006 ($45) is sophisticated and harmonious. Palliser Estate's 2006 ($30) is savory and elegant.

    Te Muna Road, the location of McKenna's property, is the new hot spot. Steve Smith of Craggy Range Vineyards has 38 hectares, and the winery's 2006 Te Muna Road ($45) is dark and brooding, with a velvety texture.

    In New Zealand's glamorous Central Otago, where the scenery is drop-dead gorgeous and movie star winery owner Sam Neill ignites buzz, most pinots are intense and fruity but often simpler, more monotone -- like many Oregon pinots.

    As Smith confides as we bump about his vineyard, ``I love pinot noir that doesn't deliver everything in the first sip.'' Burgundy has that, and so does Martinborough.


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