Joelle Thomson

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Wines of the week… tales of three Pinots

When Larry McKenna says the Wairarapa is the driest place in the North Island, he’s not kidding around. Especially this year. In the past fortnight, the grass in this region has turned from brown to grey and rivers are so dry that some no longer contain any water, revealing their stony beds to sheep and cows roaming in the gravel, in desperate search of water. 

“Even by our standards, it’s very dry and very hot this summer,” says McKenna, who has been making wine in the region for decades, initially at Martinborough Vineyards, then at The Escarpment Vineyard, which he founded with three others in 1998.

The dry climate is more than a little challenging. Water restrictions are in place earlier than usual this year, gardens are brown, trees are withering, many grapes are looking weary with dehydration but others look, surprisingly, picture perfect. As Larry says, this weather leads to reliably long autumns when grapes can hang on the vine longer than in many other regions, which accentuates their ripening. It’s too bad that it’s not only incredibly hot and dry for animals in the region but also that it’s extremely difficult to turn grapes and wine into cold hard cash.

The Wairarapa is home to about three per cent of New Zealand’s producing vineyard area but it regularly makes less than two per cent of New Zealand’s overall wine production. Wind regularly ensures that what the region lacks in volume, it more than makes up for in value and high quality, thanks to winemakers like Larry.

All of which leads me to this week’s top drops; a bunch of Pinot Noirs that come from this challenging but beautiful wine region. So, without further ado, here they are.

Three top Pinot Noirs

2012 Escarpment Pahi Pinot Noir $72.99


This is one of the single vineyard wines made by Larry McKenna and it’s a great wine from a tough year, made from a vineyard in Princess Street, Martinborough then fermented with wild yeasts. It was aged in French oak barrels (30% new, typically). A deeply coloured, full bodied Pinot Noir with eight years aging on its side, revealing an intense but elegant style of wine – deliciously drinkable now, with more time up its sleeve.

No wonder winemaker Larry McKenna says: “We’re very committed to Pinot Noir. We’re a Sauvignon Blanc free zone.”

Available from specialist stores and worthy of its high ratings and price tag; reluctant as I am to part for that much for a bottle of Pinot, this wine delivers.


2017 Johner Estate Gladstone Pinot Noir $33.99


German born winemaker Karl Johner owns 14 hectares of vines in Gladstone, in the back blocks of the Wairarapa – and what wines he makes. The Pinot Noirs are incredibly smooth, velvety, medium bodied with intense wow factor, due to their high but super well balanced refreshing acidity adding length and depth to every, lingering sip. I love these wines and find this one under priced – another tough vintage (2017) but Karl and his team have pulled something incredible out of the bag here. Beautiful Pinot.


2017 Lime Hill Pinot Noir $46.99


This is the second vintage of one of the Wairarapa’s most beautiful new Pinot Noirs, which comes from a 1.3 hectare vineyard on the road to Castlepoint – remote, even for this region. The land is leased off a local farmer and the wine is a joint venture of Karl Johner and his winemaker, Raffael. The vines are grown 200 metres above sea level, making for great frost resistance because it allows them to avoid the inversion layer.

If you’re searching for so-called old world Pinot Noir (a term I loathe but understand because it’s an easy way of describing style), here it is.

Quantities remain tiny, for now. There is another 2.8 hectares of land at Lime Hill that could be planted. Watch this space.

The not so secret great Hawke’s Bay winery

How do you beat Wellington on a beautiful day? One of the best ways I know is to taste iconic wines that live up to their name.

Enter Te Mata.

The winery’s owners and winemaker held their annual Te Mata release tasting at Prefab in Jessie Street yesterday and it was led by winemaker Phil Brodie, who has been at Te Mata for the past 28 years and says he’s still learning. This is clearly one of the key reasons that these wines just keep getting better.  Global warming, climate change, warmer summers – call it what you will – but the past seven vintages have been significantly warmer too, which is undoubtedly another reason – warmer weather equals riper flavours in the grapes equals better quality wines. Especially this stellar bunch. Te Mata is one of those rare few wineries that makes good, very good and exceptional wines. Its winemaking team doesn’t do bad. That’s my five cents worth anyway, based on 25 years of following the fortunes of these outstanding whites and reds. My only gripe is the price of the top reds, which has risen so high that I no longer personally collect Bullnose and Coleraine; more’s the pity. The last time I opened an old Coleraine, it was 21 years old – and it was worth the wait.

2018 Te Mata Cape Crest Sauvignon Blanc

This dry, full bodied Sauvignon Blanc has a long track record as one of New Zealand’s top dry whites. It’s 100% fermented in French oak, 30% new with the remainder in used barrels. It’s 90% Sauvignon Blanc, 6% Semillon and 4% Sauvignon Gris (a grape variety in it own right – not a hybrid or  blend, as the name seems to suggest).  This wine’s a keeper. It ages beautifully for up to 10 years.



2018 Te Mata Elston Chardonnay

I love this wine. It’s named after the ancestral home of Charles Darwin, Elston Hall in Nottinghamshire, the UK, and tastes dry with ripe stone fruit flavours of peach and nectarines, balanced by a citrusy, creamy and lingering finish. It drinks well now, but is youthful and will come into its own in in the next five years.



2018 Te Mata Alma Pinot Noir

This is the first Pinot Noir from Te Mata and is a different style to those made further south. The grapes were hand picked from a vineyard in the Dartmoor Valley, a cooler area in the Hawke’s Bay wine climate spectrum. Despite which, this good quality red tastes bigger, more full bodied and spicier than many New Zealand Pinots. A wine to watch – and to cellar. Give it another four to five years.



2018 Te Mata Bullnose Syrah

Bullnose Syrah is named after a car that had the bull emblem on its radiator and, well, it’s a long story, suffice to say that the wine is made from hand harvested grapes grown on Te Mata’s Bullnose Vineyard with grapes from the Hotspur and Isosceles vineyards also used for good measure. It was aged in new and seasoned French oak barriques for 15 months, is sealed with a natural cork and is super dry, full bodied and savoury.

Drinks impressively but needs time to show its full potential.



2018 Te Mata Awatea Cabernets Merlot

Awatea is made every year and the blend varies slightly; this year’s being 48% Cabernet Sauvignon, 37% Merlot and 15% Cabernet Franc. It’s dry, juicy, medium bodied and youthful with blackcurrant flavours, spice. Awatea is named after the SS Awatea, a ship that sailed from Auckland to Sydney to Wellington in the 1930s.



Star wine of the tasting

2018 Te Mata Coleraine

I often find myself conflicted when rating wines like this one; it’s impeccable in taste but its price puts it beyond the reach of most of us mere mortals. That said, the new 2018 Te Mata Coleraine is, without doubt, the star wine of this winery’s latest releases. It had been bottled for two months at the time of tasting in early February 2020, so it has plenty of time up its sleeve; it’s a blend of 52% Cabernet Sauvignon, 33% Merlot and 15% Cabernet Franc and tastes of dark black fruit flavours with hints of black olives, wild herbs and a full body.

It’s named after the Coleraine Vineyard, which is also the site of the home of Te Mata owners, John and Wendy Buck.


A small wine region with big plans

If a picture speaks a thousand words, then the one above says a lot about the name of a small winery – Nga Waka, in Martinborough, which has doubled its potential output in the past five years and now has a new cellar door planned.

The picture above tells the story of the name, Nga Waka, which comes from the Polynesian explorer, Kupe, whose three canoes were infamously carried inland by a massive earthquake. The  upturned boats (nga waka – ‘the boats’) form the sloping tops of the rolling hills behind Martinborough township – home to Nga Waka Winery.

Like most wineries in Martinborough, this one started small in 1988 when it was founded by winemaker Roger Parkinson, who produced his first wines in 1993. Parkinson remains the winemaker but he sold the business in 2015 to a couple, Jay Short and Peggy Dupey, who have since doubled their vineyard land from 10 hectares to over 20 hectares with the purchase of the former Croft and Vynfields vineyard blocks. These have been renamed the Pirinoa Block and the Mike Kershaw Block.

A new cellar door is also underway, which will be home to the growing amount of wine produced at Nga Waka. Short and Dupey’s newest acquisition is a full time general manager called Mick Hodson, who has worked with wine since 1992 when he began at Eurowine (now EuroVintage) in Wellington. He also worked closely with Nga Waka wines in his role at Glengarry’s in Auckland.

It’s timely to see Nga Waka wines expand and grow. Parkinson has quietly produced one of New Zealand’s best dry Rieslings from day one, adding in superlative Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir along the way. And while the market for small volume, high quality wines can be a challenging one, the consistent quality of Nga Waka wines makes it one of the most important producers in the Wairarapa region. The entire region encompasses not only Martinborough but also Gladstone and the northern Wairarapa area. All up, the wider Wairarapa wine region is currently home to just 983 producing hectares of vineyard land, making it one of the smallest wine regions in the country, but the scene is set for significant expansion and growth. At least one new gin distillery is on the drawing board and the Hawke’s Bay winery, Craggy Range, has purchased a substantial new block of land to add to its already large vineyard holds on Te Muna Road, west of Martinborough. Add in the fact that Australian winery Torbreck now owns The Escarpment Vineyard and the region is clearly on the path to expansion. The good news is: Parkinson remains the winemaker who sets the style of wine at Nga Waka and Larry McKenna remains at the winemaking helm at The Escarpment. Retaining talent in a small region has never been so important.

Watch this space for more about the region, the events, the wines and their makers.

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