Martinborough Wine Centre

In late June, 2001 Phillywine director Neal Ewing visited Martinborough, New Zealand. Here's his report.

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Martinborough, New Zealand (continued)

After Palliser I had several hours to kill before my mid-afternoon appointment at Martinborough Estate Vineyards, so I drove up and down the town's rather large blocks. From my readings I had learned the names of many of the town's vineyards, and it was fascinating to see them to my right and left as I drove down the streets. It was similar to driving along Napa's Route 29, seeing Mondavi on one side of the street and St. Supery on the other, except that in Napa the winery holdings on each side stretch to the mountains in the distance; if you could turn left on a public road just past the Mondavi frontage and then pass the front gates of, say, Stag's Leap and Montelena (which are actually quite far away from Mondavi), then Napa would be truly analagous to Martinborough.

I drove past some wineries that I would have emailed had too few of my first choices responded, such as Christina Estate, a new winery whose wines are made by Chris Buring, and Walnut Ridge, whose owner is a schoolteacher (as is my wife – that coincidence would have been my ploy to get an appointment had I been desperately enough in need of one) . As I drove, I pulled into the ungated driveways of some wineries (although the wineries were often closed for the winter), taking photos of winter pruning activities. I drove past Dry River; its neatly painted gate was shut and locked. Margrain Winery was actually open for tasting but no one was on duty in the wide-open tasting room except a quiet, friendly dog. Seeing dozens of expensive bottles just sitting there, unguarded, made me wonder how many California wineries would be similarly lax. A friendly young man eventually showed up and said that winemaker Strat Canning (another NZ star winemaker) was away for the week but would be back the next week – when I would be back in the U.S.

I slowed down as I approached Ata Rangi. After sending them my form email (to which they hadn't responded), I had accessed their webpage and learned that one of theiAta Rangi Sold Outr partners had gone to London for several years to take the WSET courses – which I teach in Philadelphia. If I had known that fact earlier, I could have mentioned the WSET in my email, increasing the chances that someone might have responded to it. Also on their webpage I had read such rave reviews (from the British press) of their wines, that I was really reluctant to pass them by so, despite the sign saying the winery was closed, I decided to drive in.

I got out of my car and began to walk around, carrying my camera. A young(er than me) woman approached and I told her my name and asked if she minded if I took some pictures. She said ok and introduced herself as "Allison." This was the partner who had taken the WSET courses, so I quickly announced my WSET affiliation and told her that I had emailed the winery hoping for a visit but had gotten no response. She looked up to the glass-enclosed second floor of the winery, where we could see several people tasting. She asked me to wait a minute and then returned to say that I was welcome to taste with them upstairs.

Although I'm bad at remembering names during group introductions, the names of some of these people were familiar to me from my prior readings. There was Phyll, the co-owner, Ollie Masters, the winemaker, someone named Helen, and a couple of other names which escaped me. They were all very friendly. They were tasting through some ready-to-bottle barrel samples and some recently bottled wines, trying to come up with tasting notes to put on their webpage. I was there to work, Phyll told me, so I concentrated on being helpful. I was struck by how young, intense and intelligent they all seemed to be. We tasted through several wines, and I offered my observations when I could. But eventually I noticed that I was asking more questions than providing input. Barrel samples are difficult to taste, even if you're familiar with what the bottled wines should taste like. Everyone else present knew each wine from past vintages, whereas I had never before tasted any Ata Rangi wines in my life. I could see that I was of limited use there so, after a while, I thanked them for letting me taste with them, took a couple of photos outside, and moved on.

After lunch at the Martinborough Cheese Shop (pretty good) I headed over to Martinborough Estate Vineyards (MEV). This was the most internationally famous Martinborough winery and the only one with much presence in the American market. I had read reviews which called their 1998 Reserve Pinot Noir the greatest Pinot Noir ever made in New Zealand, and I had been tempted to buy it in the Cheese Shop ($80NZ, which is about $32 U.S.) but decided I'd rather take my chances on finding it in the U.S. rather than risk breaking such an expensive bottle on the way home.