Elegance, finesse and terroir expression ruled the day during Larry and Chris’ long lunch, celebrating Escarpment’s 2009 Single Vineyard Insight wines.
I myself didn’t make my mind up about the 2009 vintage in Martinborough until very recently. Certainly, based off what I had seen over the past few months, it a stylistically polarising year - lighter in fruit concentration and power than the very ripe and intense wines from 2008s hot dry summer, but showing more elegance because of the cooler year’s longer, milder season. The calm warmth from January to early-February in 2009, much like this year, was a key inflluence, according to Helen Masters of Ata Rangi. Her 2009 Estate Pinot Noir was a good example of the difference between 2008 and 2009; carrying an extra layer of finesse and perfume, an ethereal extra dimension in exchange for dark rich fruit. Ma Maison and Dry River were similarly more elegant in 2009 than 2008, again with less dark fruit, less power, and lighter tannin.
On that same day, Larry and I tried his 09 Escarpment Estate Pinot Noir at the Te Muna winery. It was different to the other 2009s, with more than a little of 2008s power and dark fruit, depth and concentration. I was intrigued, but the day’s schedule required us to press on. I left the 2009 question unanswered in my mind, until four weeks ago, when I finally had a chance to try the 2009 Insight Pinot Noirs and the 09 Kupes. They were not what I was expecting based off the style of the Escarpment’s estate 2009 - reticent, closed and restrained, light on fruit and somewhat austere. I would have liked to have been able to shelf judgement until the chance to retaste them with time in bottle arose, but as with all of these cult wines, the wait comes with a risk that you might miss out on an entire vintage. So it was a great relief to see them all showing so expressively last Thursday at the long lunch. The wines had recovered, and expressed both vintage and site - graceful wines, lighter on fruit but no less classy, more precocious but at the same time already showing immense complexity at this early stage.
As a set, these 2009 Pinot Noirs seemed to me a lot more transparent to terroir than the 2008s which spoke of the vintage’s warmth more than the nuances of site. No more than medium bodied, with earthier tannins and a more sateen palate. The fruit was less anchored to the bones of each wine than the corresponding 2008s, seemingly likely to take flight at any time. The acidities, while high, were integrated structurally and flavour-wise, transitioning well into the cooler fruit spectrum. Pahi and Kupe were fruit forward wines; boysenberry and tamarillo for Pahi, raspberry and cherries for Kupe; both calendered with a deft touch of sweet oak. The Kupe, louder and more concentrated; Pahi, more generous and voluptuous. Both were edible wines; but not my favourites for the day - that would ultimately be decided by way of prolix conversation between the beautifully balanced, Burgundian Te Rehua, and the exotic, yet austere Kiwa.
Te Rehua was a composition of automnal colours; reds, umbers, golds and browns - expressive, finely poised and seductive. It inhabited that perfect confluence between the warm fruit of Pahi, and the more challenging, woody, earthy tides rising out of Kiwa. Nothing dominated in this wine, not the plummy fruit, not the spice; unlike in Kiwa, where the prevailing note was an intriguing pine smoke nose wrapped in violets - a character which appears to some degree every year the wine has been made, but especially in 2009. This vineyard provided 75% of the fruit for Martinborough Vineyard’s now-famous 1998 Reserve Pinot Noir, and yet it has the fewest outright fans at this early stage of its life, if ratings are anything to go by. If Te Rehua has an automnal palate, Kiwa is the representation of dusk in winter - mineral and brooding, with an urgent resolute smokiness adding life to its otherwise silent, barely lit, dark fruit. I could not help being drawn to the wine’s mysterious, hypnotic melancholy. This is a wine I would buy to keep and revisit when I possessed the mental constitution to unravel its riddle; while Te Rehua is one I would serve at dinner.
Despite my initial misgivings about the 2009 vintage’s cellar-worthiness, I think these four wines clearly help punctuate the conversations we are having about the existence and nature of New Zealand’s Pinot Noir terroirs. We have bought our allocations for the year of these wines and as I see them now resting happily next to their 08 and 06 brethren, I am glad we did.