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.
Onward to my next appointment, at Palliser. The first winery on the road from Wellington, so I had to backtrack through the town. But first, I put in a call (I was carrying my daughter's NZ cell phone) to Dry River. I got a voice (presumably Neil McCallum's) which said that no one was available, that the winery was closed, that all of its wines were sold out, that all of its wines were sold via mailing list and that its mailing list was full, but that if I wanted to be put on the waiting list for the mailing list I should leave my name and number. I said (speaking as if to McCallum) that I had called twice the day before, that I was a visitor from the States who ran a wine school there, that I had heard wonderful things about his wines and would like to visit the winery, but that I realized that he was very busy and might not have time to see me, and told him that I would be in Martinborough all day, carrying a cell phone and gave him the number in case he cared to return the call.
At Palliser, assistant winemaker Sharon Goldsworthy led me through a muddy vineyard, past one of the largest machine harvesters I had ever seen. Like a lot of NZ wineries, Palliser uses the Scott Henry trellising method, that is, vines with paralell cordons (arms) with shoots that grow both up toward the sun and down toward the ground. But, especially for compact Martinborough, the machine harvesting is different, and you could see some dried up grapes that the machine harvester had missed during the harvest, months earlier. Sharon told me about their struggles with birds. They had tried overhead netting, but that was expensive and made it difficult to tend the vines. Lately they've experimented with a netting which runs alongside the fruiting zones of the vines like a very wide gauze bandage; with the vine leaves and bases exposed they can leaf-pull or hoe without disturbing the netting. And, although the manufacturer says this type of netting can only be used once, by carefully re-rolling it they've been able to re-use it in successive years.
Palliser's wines sell for about two-thirds the price of the other top Martinborough wineries, largely due to their willingness to experiment with cost saving devices like the machine harvester. In California you see barrels made from French oak coopered (at lower cost) in the U.S. In the Palliser barrel room I saw American oak barrels coopered in Australia. But their frugality has limits. They bought the first – and only – rotary fermenter in Martinborough. But they didn't like the qualities it gave their wines and now it sits there, described by Sharon as a large and very expensive white elephant.
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 their 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.
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 McCallum 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 Id 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.
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.