My Day in Martinborough, New Zealand
Why was I so excited to be visiting Martinborough? I had hardly ever tasted any of the region's wines. The wineries are very small and can sell all of their wines locally, so they don't need to seek out foreign reviewers or distributors. And without foreign distributors (except for one that I knew of) there was no one in the U.S. helping to set me up with appointments. Plus, it was winter there, the vineyards would be closed to the public, and without prior appointments I might not even be able to get past the winery gates. So why was I so eagerly anticipating my visit? Blame the internet.
Knowing that I would be visiting New Zealand I had paid close attention to website discussions of New Zealand wines, particularly by New Zealanders, and was intrigued to see so much space and passion devoted to Martinborough wineries that I had never heard of. New Zealanders argued as heatedly about wineries named Dry River and Murdoch James Estate as the rest of the world argued about Turley and Domaine Leroy. I printed out pages to memorize names and vintages, compared them with a book I had purchased and studied a local vineyard map.
Martinborough is in the Southern part of New Zealand's North Island, about an hour's drive north from Wellington. By the time we got to Wellington, it was the tail end of our two week journey, and my wife and daughter had tired of the winery visit routine, so I was to be on my own for my Martinborough visits.
The night before I had emailed several wineries telling them that I ran a wine school in the States, that I had read great things about them on the internet, and that I would like to visit; from that email, I had managed to get three appointments for the next day. Ata Rangi, about whose wines Decanter has raved, never responded. And Dry River was difficult to reach: no website, no published email address, just a phone number. I dialed, a woman answered, I asked for Dr. Neil McCallum (both revered and reviled on the webpages) saying that I hoped to be able to visit the winery the next day; the woman sighed (which I took to mean, "Oh, I can't believe I'm going to have to turn away someone else") and said that he was away for the day, was due back at 5 but was often late, and that they would be going out for the evening at 7, so I should call between 5 and 7. I called back at 6:30 and a girl told me that her parents had gone out for the evening. Hmm.
Martinborough is as flat as Bordeaux. It looks like a small New England town, complete with a town square fronting an old hotel and post office. Its blocks are similarly rectangular except that the spaces between parallel blocks are probably a quarter-mile deep, filled with grapevines.
My first appointment was at Murdoch James Estate (turn right at the town square and head six kilometres out of town). Co-owner Carl Fraser and winemaker Chris Buring showed me around the winery. Chris Buring is a native of Australia who studied at U.C. Davis in the 1970's (Tim Mondavi was a classmate), returned to Australia to handle an expansion of Lindeman's keyed to the Japanese market, then saw the Japanese market (and his job) disappear with the Austrian ethelyne-glycol wine scandal of 1985. There hadn't been anything wrong with Australian wines, but the Japanese character for "Austria" was too indistinguishable from their character for "Australia," so the Japanese stopped buying wines from both countries. He moved to New Zealand and became a star winemaker. At a restaurant the night before, my wine list described a 2000 Te Kairanga Chardonnay as having been made by Chris Buring even though he had left that winery three years earlier. Chris took me outside to a cut hillside along the Blue Mountain vineyard, and you could see pebbly limestone and clay 12 feet deep. Inside we tasted (among other wines) the 1999 Murdoch James Estate Fraser Vyd. Pinot Noir, a deeply delicious wine. I asked Chris and Carl if they had seen a particular internet review of that wine and, as they hadn't, I showed them the following, unedited transcript:
Murdoch James Estate "Fraser" Pinot Noir 1999 (Martinborough, NZ)
This is a single vineyard offering that heads their range. Purple. A wine with lots of good stuff – sweet ripe fruit, both black and red, overlay a core of crisp acidity. This is wonderfully sexy and seductive. Liquid panty-remover. Highly recommended.
They laughed and wondered whether they could get away with putting that on a back label.