THERE’S nothing like the carrot of a spot of salmon-fishing to tempt a top New Zealand winemaker to Northumberland.
Larry McKenna was hooked, and while he was here, found time to host a wine dinner at Riverdale Hall Hotel in Bellingham. The following morning, late last month, I dodged the local hunt and then a flock of sheep to catch up with him and taste a selection of his wines.
Although Larry is now one of the most respected wine makers in New Zealand, he’s an Aussie from Adelaide, where he studied at the world-famous Roseworthy Agricultural College.
He got a job working for Delegat’s in Auckland, and rose to become chief winemaker; but he found the warm, wet climate of the north of North Island far from ideal for growing grapes. In 1986 he was asked to head up Martinborough Vineyard on the southern tip of North Island, where the cooler, far drier conditions were ideal for Pinot Noir.
“It all made sense,” he said. “There was no interest in Pinot Noir at the time in New Zealand, all the talk was of Cabernet and Merlot, but I could see that Pinot Noir had great potential.” And he was right.
He stayed at Martinborough until 1999, and was hugely influential in laying the foundation for New Zealand’s reputation for great Pinot Noir. It is now the most planted red wine variety in New Zealand with a quality that rivals that of the best Burgundy.
“I have to admit that I have been heavily influenced by Burgundy, the natural home of Pinot Noir.” Larry told me. During the 1990s he even went to Burgundy to work during the harvest with Jacques Seysses at his Domaine Dujac, one of the best estates in Morey-St Denis.
He adopted some of Seysses’s methods back home in New Zealand, including leaving a significant proportion of intact bunches of grapes in the fermentation tank. “The stalks help to add structure to the wine, give it longevity and make it a better match for food,” he argues.
In 1998 he teamed up with Robert Kirby, another Australian, to found Escarpment Vineyards on the same alluvial loamy soils of the Martinborough District. Pinot Noir of course dominates, along with Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc, Chardonnay and Riesling. “That’s enough varieties for us,” he insisted. “This isn’t really the place for Sauvignon Blanc – everyone looks to Marlborough for that.” Even so, he conceded that his neighbours at Palliser Estate do make a pretty good example.
Larry crafts three ‘series’ of wines at Escarpment. The most approachable are ‘The Edge’ range, an unoaked Pinot Gris and Pinot Noir, which Larry has designed to be ‘fruit-driven’. They are the kind of wines that Larry hopes quality restaurants might offer by the glass. I’d certainly be happy with a shot of the 2011 Pinot Gris (£10.99 at Carruthers & Kent). It has deliciously clean, ripe apple fruit, with just a hint of ginger.
The main Escarpment range features each of the grape varieties on the estate. Escarpment Riesling 2009 (£11.99 at Carruthers & Kent) is a stylishly elegant mouthful, with zesty, spicy, lemon fruit and just a hint of sweetness.
“Dry Riesling doesn’t express its fruit best,” Larry believes. “A touch of residual sugar really helps.” Escarpment Pinot Noir 2009 (£20.99 at Carruthers & Kent) shows something of Larry’s genius with the variety. It is not for nothing that he is known as Larry McPinot.
It is quite a rich wine, with very bright red fruit flavours, beautifully integrated with spicy oak and then has a long, savoury finish.
The finest wines that Larry makes, the ‘Insight’ series, feature fruit from three special, named vineyards. Several are available from Martinez Fine Wines (www.martinez.co.uk), whose owner Jonathan Cocker’s family also own Riverdale Hall Hotel. Larry had not brought any to Northumberland, but Jonathan waxed lyrical about them – as does everyone who has tried them.
Interestingly, Larry told me the fruit from some of the oldest vines on these plots achieves full ripeness with slightly lower sugar levels and very fresh levels of acidity. The first step to making fine wine is to harvest top quality fruit that will give the wine a natural balance and structure. A skilled winemaker, just like a top chef, likes nothing better than to be able to work with the best quality ingredients to bring out their full potential, rather than having to fiddle around to cover up any imperfections.
Another factor in the high quality of wines from Escarpment Vineyards can almost certainly be attributed to the viticultural regime Larry and his team practise on the estate, which they are in the process of converting to organic. New Zealand has a superb track record with respect to sustainability and carbon neutrality, but organic and biodynamic viticulture goes a bit further and, in particular, pays special attention to soil health and structure.
At Escarpment this means a five-year programme which began by abandoning herbicides and will end by fully embracing the homeopathic sprays that typify biodynamics. Larry has been advised by James Milton the pioneer of biodynamic viticulture in New Zealand. He is totally committed to the new approach, but is reluctant to burden non-specialists with the details.
“Start talking about 501 (one of the two main homeopathic preparations) and you see everyone’s eyes glaze over,” he quipped; not that anyone who has the privilege of listening to Larry, an engaging personality and a true wine great, could be bored for a moment.
WINE OF THE WEEK Escarpment ‘Hinemoa’ Botryris Riesling 2009 £10.99 (half bottle) Carruthers & Kent A lusciously sweet treat, in which honeyed, lemony intensity and crisp, lime-like acidity combine to wonderful effect. It is irresistible on its own and a revelation with almost any cheese. The potential for fine wine from grapes grown on these barren, deep gravelly soils was not recognised until 30 years ago when they were about to be quarried away by a concrete company. Now they make arguably the finest Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah in New Zealand.
WINE OF THE WEEK
Escarpment ‘Hinemoa’ Botryris Riesling 2009 £10.99 (half bottle) Carruthers & Kent
A lusciously sweet treat, in which honeyed, lemony intensity and crisp, lime-like acidity combine to wonderful effect. It is irresistible on its own and a revelation with almost any cheese.
The potential for fine wine from grapes grown on these barren, deep gravelly soils was not recognised until 30 years ago when they were about to be quarried away by a concrete company. Now they make arguably the finest Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah in New Zealand.