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.