The 2003 Escarpment Kupe Pinot Noir ($80, 96 points) was served blind (at a splendid lunch at Melbourne's Vue de Monde) against the 2003 Yabby Lake Pinot Noir and 2001 Echezeaux of Domaine de la Romanee-Conti ($300+). Whatever else the comparison proved, it certainly showed the Kupe is not overpriced, for it was the preferred wine of all those present. Brilliantly clear, but strongly hued, it is richly perfumed and spotlessly clean; the underlying fruit is in the black cherry and plum spectrum, with flashes of spice and oak. It is in unashamedly powerful wine (the yield was slashed by frost notwithstanding the high planting density) but is totally harmonious, the fine tannins giving the wine great balance, line and length. Further details from Red + White www.redandwhite.com.au, or phone Caroline Wilkins 03 8413 8333).
With structure and texture in a class of his own
Australian-born and trained Larry McKenna has lived and worked in New Zealand for the past 20 years. Until you hear him speak you might think he spent much of that time in the front row of an All Black scrum, but the still-raw Australian accent quickly dispels that illusion. His rugged independence of mind has shaped all his winemaking philosophies and practices: there is an over-arching intellectual rigour which has always put his wines into a category of their own, bowing to no single influence or style.
He made his name during his tenure from 1986 to 1999 as chief winemaker (and general manager) at Martinborough Vineyard in New Zealand. Our lives regularly intersected during most of that time, the common bond being pinot noir. While Coldstream Hills and Martinborough Vineyard pinots were made in very different style, the respect was (and is) mutual.
From relatively early on in the piece McKenna decided he wanted to move away from the glossy ripe fruit and new oak styles generally favoured by the New World. He was far more interested in building texture and structure, constantly fine tuning his making techniques as the years went by, moving to wild yeast, lengthening maceration times, lengthening time in barrel, and reducing the amount of new oak.
The first Reserve Pinot from Martinborough Vineyard was 1991, followed by the 1994, '96 and '98 Reserves (with a varietal release every year). These wines put Martinborough (and McKenna) at the forefront of New World pinots, albeit in a style all of their own.
Behind the scenes, all was not well with the partnership (which included McKenna) that owned Martinborough, and McKenna knew he had to find a way out. Across the Tasman, Village Roadshow's chief shareholder Robert Kirby and wife Mem had decided they wished to become involved in winemaking enterprises solely focused on quality.
They sought consultancy advice from (inter alia) Dr Richard Smart in 1998, and he in turn opened a dialogue with Larry McKenna and, closer to home (the Kirbys live on the Mornington Peninsula) Tod Dexter of Stonier.
For McKenna, in particular, it was classic case of being in the right place at the right time. He, Dexter and Smart were involved in setting up Yabby Lake on the Mornington Peninsula and Heathcote Estate (in Heathcote, obviously enough); in New Zealand the McKenna and Kirby families became the equal share joint venture partners in Escarpment in 1999.
Escarpment's Te Muna vineyard is several kilometres southeast of the Martinborough township, outside the terraces of Martinborough proper, but with similar hard, stony soils. In 2001 and 2002 the first pinots were made, principally from leased vineyards and contract-grown fruit at Martinborough, but with an inclusion of first crop from Te Muna.
Escarpment has now released the three first wines with which McKenna is entirely happy: 2004 Escarpment Pinot Gris ($30 to $35), 2003 Escarpment Pinot Noir ($45) and 2003 Kupe (pronounced Kew-pair) Pinot Noir ($80), a single vineyard flagship for Escarpment which will only be released in exceptional vintages.
All three wines fully reflect the McKenna philosophy. The Pinot Gris is made exactly as if it were a chardonnay, except that no new oak is used; barrel fermentation is strictly a medium, not a flavour enhancer. For those familiar with run-of-the-mill slightly sweet New Zealand pinot gris, the Escarpment wine is brazenly, shockingly dry - which is doubtless part of the reason for its popularity in Australian restaurants.
The two pinots have a number of things in common. First and foremost, they are the polar opposite to the New Zealand (and some other New World) tadpole styles. Those wines flood the palate with fruit flavour and alcohol as they enter the mouth, then dwindle away on the finish.
With their marked texture, tannin structure and length, the Escarpment duo head in the opposite direction. It is the quality of the tannins which separate the two: those in the Kupe are finer and silkier, those of the standard wine a little more robust.
McKenna has the last word (for the moment), 'I personally believe that Kupe is New Zealand's best Pinot Noir to date, and it is my intention to strive for continuous improvement in the years to come'. If that doesn't get some Kiwi wings flapping, nothing will.
|As published in The Weekend Australian.|