There’s something quite romantic about a wine region whose every hill bears a name given long ago, and whose byways and thoroughfares are often labeled in the same tongue, describing where they will take you or the quality of the journey you’ll have along the way.
Just outside of the quaint little Victorian farming community of Martinborough, New Zealand the roads quickly devolve to country roads that twist and turn down and up and around the water-shaped landscape. A few miles from the neat little town square one can quite accidentally find themselves on Te Muna road, which after a short climb, will bring the traveler to the “Te Muna” valley, “the secret place” itself.
A broad plateau laid down by the much more powerful ancestor of the now timid Huarangarua River, Te Muna is a roughly 30-meter-thick bed of alluvial gravel on the edge of which winemaker Larry McKenna has perched his winery and his fortune. The proximity to the steep drop down towards what remains of the river has provided the namesake escarpment of the winery, and the cross section of the hill cut away to build the cellar and winemaking facility provides a dramatic picture of the depth, consistency, and drainage quality of these soils.
Larry and his wife Sue started Escarpment in 1999 along with their business partners Robert and Mem Kirby with the singular goal of making some of the best Pinot Noir in New Zealand. Far from a pipe dream of a few inexperienced wine lovers, these four bring a level of experience to the venture which stacks the odds considerably in their favor. Larry spend the twelve years prior to this project as the head winemaker for Martinborough Vineyards, and the Kirbys are no strangers to the wine business either — in addition to Escarpment, they own the Yabby Lake winery in Australia’s Mornington Peninsula, along with vineyards in the Strathbogie Ranges and Heathcote districts of Victoria, Australia.
Together these four have purchased almost sixty acres of vineyards on the Te Muna escarpment, which they have planted with primarily (70%) Pinot Noir along with Chardonnay, Pinot Gris, Riesling, and somewhat unusually, Pinot Blanc. These vines grow in densely packed, narrowly spaced, and neatly maintained rows as the plateau snakes along the seemingly haphazard curves carved by the once wayward river. Above the vineyards and across the river valley sit the Aorangi Ranges, a series of high hills (it’s hard to call them mountains) that are high enough to catch the final light of the setting sun every day. On top of these hills sit three smaller, somewhat flat hilltops, that Maori legend describes as the three upturned canoes of Kupe, the mythical navigator who the Maori credit with the discovery of the islands they call Aotearoa, and which we call New Zealand. All too willing to take inspiration from the surrounding landscape, the McKennas and the Kirbys chose to include Kupe himself on their wine label.
McKenna’s winemaking is quite what you’d expect from a winery founded with the goals of making the best Pinot in Martinborough. The fruit is hand harvested and babied through multiple sorts to remove imperfect berries. It is then fermented in mostly whole clusters in large open top oak barrels. After a very gentle pressing, it is aged in new French Oak for up to 18 months before a light fining with egg whites and no filtration.
As a winery that will make somewhere around 9000 cases at top production, there wasn’t much wine left around for me to try (especially of the 2005 vintage) when I stopped by a few weeks ago, so most of what I got to taste was in the barrel. These few wines proved, however, that this is without a doubt one of the best producers in the region and in the country as a whole. Keep your eye out for the 2006 wines — the first since 2002 that represent an excellent growing season with no frosts or rains to compromise the fruit.
2003 Escarpment Pinot Noir, Martinborough
Medium ruby in the glass this wine has a nose of cedar, cranberries, and pomegranate nectar. In the mouth it has very nice acidity that wraps around spicy flavors of cranberry and plum mixed with hints of earth and a tart redcurrant and dried herbs surfacing in the moderate finish. A light tannic structure gives the wine more complexity and presence in the mouth, though not as much texture as perhaps it could have. 9.
2004 Escarpment “Cleland Vineyard” Pinot Noir, Martinborough
Medium ruby in the glass this wine has a bright nose of pomegranate and raspberry aromas. In the mouth it is smooth, with very light, well integrated tannins that support a clarity of fruit that is very appealing. Bright pomegranate and cranberry flavors rule here, with a wet earth complexity surfacing as the wine heads towards the back of the palate, leaving the finish with a deep sense of soil. 9.
2006 Escarpment Pinot Gris (barrel sample), Martinborough
Light gold in the glass, this wine has a wonderfully pure nose of crisp pear aromas with a light underlying minerality. In the mouth it is surprisingly rich, with what I can only describe as a slightly creamy character amidst flavors of pear and baked apples. Decently balanced with enough acid to keep it from being flabby. 8.5/9
2006 Escarpment “District Blend” Chardonnay (barrel sample), Martinborough
Light cloudy gold in color, this wine has a nose of candied lemon and cold cream with a hint of toasted brioche. In the mouth it is bright with minerality and flavors of lemon zest, zipped up in its nice, tart acidity. Good finish. 9
2006 Escarpment Clone 95 Chardonnay (barrel sample), Martinborough
Light yellow gold in the glass this wine has a somewhat unusual nose of white floral aromas mixed with more expected butter and lemon curd aromas. On the palate it offers a very smooth, self assured experience with cold cream and mineral qualities mixed with a touch of lemon pudding. Very nice and quite certainly one of the best Chardonnays I’ve tasted from New Zealand. 9/9.5?
2006 Escarpment Pinot Noir (barrel sample), Martinborough
Medium purple in the glass, this wine has a rich nose of black plum and dark, wet earth. In the mouth the wine has a gorgeous presence with soft, pliable tannic structure that sits comfortably like a well defined d torso under a sports jacket. This musculature supports flavors of cranberry and plum and a dark loamy quality that is quite breathtaking. Excellent. 9/9.5?
2006 Escarpment “Cleland Vineyard” Pinot Noir (barrel sample), Martinborough
Dark purple in color, this wine sings in the key of “plum.” It has a rich plummy nose and in the mouth it is spicy with flavors of plum and cranberry mixed with a lovely granitic minerality that lasts through a gorgeous earthy finish. 9/9.5?
2006 Escarpment “Kupe Estate Vineyard” Pinot Noir (barrel sample), Martinborough
Dark purple in the glass this wine smells like it was freshly dug up from a rain filled hole in the ground. It smells (beautifully) of mud, and dirt and mud and earth. In the mouth it maintains its deep grounding but ads to it a smooth, silky texture and a pure clear note of of plum fruit. 9/9.5?
2006 Escarpment “McCrenna Vineyard” Pinot Noir (barrel sample), Martinborough
Dark to medium purple in color, this wine has a unique, very floral nose, with aromas of violets and sour plums. In the mouth it displays near-perfect balance, great acids and a lovely complexity that mixes bright plum-like fruit with a slightly mineral character that leans more towards dirt as the finish goes on and on. 9.5?
Escarpment is distributed in the US by EMPSON USA, Inc. in Alexandria, VA.