Martinborough Estate Vineyards sign


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

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Martinborough, New Zealand (continued)

At the Martinborough Estate Vineyards (MEV) I was greeted by Duncan Milne, the winery's new CEO. He told me that their assistant winemaker, Helen Masters, would show me around. Helen – much to my surprise – turned out to be the same Helen who I had met at Ata Rangi a couple of hours earlier. She's the sister-in-law of Ollie Masters, the Ata Rangi winemaker, and had been over there helping them with their tasting notes. She seemed to be as pleased to see a familiar face as I was.

We tasted through about a dozen barrels in the barrel room. MEV (as well as the other top NZ Pinot Noir producers) use several of the same top clones used in Burgundy, California and Oregon, and Helen let me taste wines from the newly planted 667 and 677 Dijon clones as well as wines from older NZ Pinots, such as their "Abel" clone. The flavor depth of the older-vine fruit was impressive, but so was the complexity from the promising younger vines. During her winters, Helen has sought work in the Northern hemisphere. She previously spent a season working at Calera; soon she was to be heading to the Russian River, to help Sonoma-Cutrer produce their first Pinot Noir. (They've been growing the fruit for ten years, Helen said, but selling it instead of making wine).

Back in the tasting room we were tasting the 1999 MEV Pinot Noir, which is quite good, when my jacket pocket began to ring. The jacket has a complicated series of zippers for various compartments, and I frantically tried to free the phone before it rolled over to voice mail. I succeeded; it was Neil McCallum. In twenty minutes someone from Chapoutier would be dropping by to taste the Dry River Syrah, and he probably wouldn't mind if I was there also; would I be interested? Sure, I said. I mentioned the locked gate and he said to take the dirt road past the gate; he seemed curt and a little annoyed.

Duncan Milne seemed quite pleased by what just happened and quite happy for me. He said that this is the best time of the year to visit Neil McCallum. He said that he had seen him socially the night before and he had been very relaxed. (So that's where McCallum was when I couldn't reach him the night before).

I drove to Dry River, down the dirt road, and arrived exactly on time. Neil McCaDry River Gatellum was standing outside, waiting. He looks a little like Phil Jackson, the LA Lakers coach; he's tall (but not 6'8", like Jackson), thin, intense. The man from Chapoutier hadn't yet arrived, but we went inside anyway. He asked me what I wanted to know. I told him that basically I like to visit a winemaker and just see whatever he wants to show me, hear whatever he wants to tell me. He asked what I know about his winery and I said that what I know I learned on the internet. He scowled and said he has some harsh critics on the internet, but they don't know what they're talking about; as long as people like Jancis Robinson respect his wines, he's satisfied. He asked if I know what he produces and I mentioned the several varietals I know about and that he sells them in mixed cases via his mailing list. He said that he sells all his wines in three days. I said that must be quite a relief. I asked how his wines happen to show up in wine shops in Auckland, and he said that shop owners are on his mailing list also, and that they also subscribe in the names of their relatives so they can have more than a few bottles to sell. The room has glass on three sides and we were surrounded by vineyards, so he spoke a little about his viticulture (standard Scott Henry, very little bot [rytis] problem).

The man from Chapoutier still hadn't arrived, but we began to taste the 2000 Syrah barrel sample. The usual response is "Côte Rôtie," he said. My immediate impression was that the wine is broader than that, so I said something about Hermitage. His eyes narrowed; I sensed that he's not looking for praise, just precision, and I began to realize that this wine is much more elegant than an Hermitage, and that Côte Rôtie is a better analogy. I then misspoke by asking him if he includes any Condrieu but immediately corrected myself and said, I mean, Viognier, and he said that he has some Viognier vines, but that this wine doesn't contain any. He said it's 12% alcohol, which he thinks is just about right. He said sometimes the Syrah doesn't ripen well enough and I asked if he's considered planting Grenache or some other Southern Rhone varietals to augment the Syrah in cool years; he scowled and said he's not interested in hedging his bets, that he has no problems with just tossing the whole vintage out if it doesn't measure up. He asked me if I thought he should fine the wine. I said I'm not a winemaker, but... and he interjected yes, but you're a wine drinker, so what do you think, and I said there's nothing suspended in my glass that I would want removed.

I was sipping the wine very slowly, because I sensed that as soon as I’d finished I'd probably be sent away. Rather than my usual "Just tell me what you want to tell me" approach, I would have been better off had I rattled off a series of questions that I wanted him to answer. Everyone else I had visited was eager to see me and tell me about their wines; here was a man who would have been just as happy if I had never showed up. Meanwhile, I began to realize that this is one of the best wines I've ever tasted. I didn't say this; afterwards I wondered what his response would have been had I said it. vines at Dry River

My glass was finished. He said, well it looks like this guy isn't going to show up – his loss. He looked toward one side of his vineyard and said, oh there's one more thing, see that reflective foil in that far vineyard? In Burgundy, winemakers include stems in their Pinot Noir vats, which they can do because their stems are dried out, but the New World hasn't been able to do that because their stems are too green and affect the flavor of the wine; my foil under the vines dries out the stems so I can use them in my fermentation. Robert Drouhin was just here and he was so impressed that he's going to begin doing that at Domaine Drouhin. Well, you're welcome to wander in the vineyard as long as you like.

I took a couple of photos in the vineyard, but then headed back to Welllington, feeling that I've had a very full, satisfying day.