In February 2010 the Ata Rangi Pinot Noir and the Felton Road Block 5 Pinot Noir were named  “Great Growths of New Zealand” at the New Zealand Pinot Noir Conference.

The honour, which is New Zealand’s equivalent to Bordeaux’s ‘Grand Cru’ status, wasn’t an audacious move on the part of the Kiwis to thrust their pinot noirs into the limelight. Rather, it was appropriate recognition that New Zealand pinot noir has come of age and is now the leading New World example of fine pinot noir.

Martinborough winery Ata Rangi has been at the forefront in showing the world that New Zealand is capable of making world-class pinot noir. Langton’s Andrew Caillard recently described the Ata Rangi Pinot Noir 2006 as an example of how a wine can be so “profoundly beautiful when young” that it is capable of being articulated as a “great” wine, a wine which, in his opinion, “simply transcends its genre.” (The Evolution of New Zealand Pinot Noir by Andrew Caillard, Langton’s Magazine)

Owned and managed by Clive Paton, his wife Phyll and Clive’s sister Alison, Ata Rangi’s grapes were planted on an originally bare, stony 12-acre paddock at the edge of the Martinborough village in 1980. Today Ata Rangi harvests fruit from around 120 acres, including a number of leased and local contract growers blocks.

All of the carefully chosen sites are very similar in terms of soil type and micro-climate. Key features of the terroir include:

  • shallow silt-loam over deep, free-draining alluvial gravels that force the vines to dig deep for water leading to fuller flavours and minerality in the wine
  • speckled sunshine that allows for a gentle, slow and full ripening of the grapes
  • cool and windy spring weather that limits the risk of damage to the grapes from mildew and insects
  • unusually low levels of annual rainfall, which limits crop yields

The Abel (or gumboot clone) is the heart of the Ata Rangi Pinot Noir. Legend has it that the clone is an offspring of a single vine cutting from Burgundy’s finest estate, Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, which was confiscated from a traveller’s gumboot at Auckland airport in the mid 1970s. Fellow winemaker and Clive’s friend Malcolm Abel, who was working as a customs officer at the time, immediately recognised the significance of the cutting and sent it off to the state-owned viticultural research station.

The Abel clone, planed by Ata Rangi in 1982, is now one of over a dozen clones cultivated on 60 tiny plots of pinot all within metres of one another on adjacent blocks. Grapes from vines that range in age from 10 to 30 years are meticulously hand-sorted as they arrive at the winery, with individual blocks and clones then fermented separately. About ten months later a blind tasting, barrel by barrel, decides the first ‘cut’ for the premium Ata Rangi Pinot Noir.

Each of the various clones contribute different elements to the wine’s complex structure, aromas and flavours. The Abel clone, for example, provides texture and palate length. Its tannins are substantial, yet are incredibly silky and fine. The terroir brings out the clone’s dark cherry aromas and a brooding, savoury feel. Clone 5/Pomard, another very valuable clone, brings wonderfully vibrant, aromatic fruit and gives the wine a solid mid-palate structure.

In his fascinating article, Domaine de la Romanée-Conti: Burgundy’s historic estate sets the world’s benchmark for Pinot Noir, Wine Spectator, 31 May 2010, Bruce Sanderson discusses the meticulous biodynamic vineyard management practices of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti. Ata Rangi is equally as rigorous as its Burgundian rival in the management of its vineyards and the surrounding bushland.

As one of only a handful of ISO 14001 accredited wineries in the world and a founding member of SWNZ (Sustainable Winegrowing of New Zealand), Ata Rangi has been a leader in developing a ‘best practice’ model of environmental practices in the vineyard and winery.

Insecticides have never been used in the vineyards, and enormous emphasis is placed on minimising resource usage, promoting soil health and sustainability, encouraging biodiversity, and offsetting carbon dioxide emissions through extensive native forest plantings.

Like Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, the results of all this considered stewardship is reflected in the consistent quality of the wines regardless of the vagaries of vintage. After a tasting line-up of a range of New Zealand pinot noirs from the 2003 vintage, Caillard reflected: “Both Ata Rangi and Felton Road Block 5 seem to outclass their genre every time they get an outing. These are genuinely outstanding wines of first class quality. With increasing vine-age, refined vineyard management and superbly intuitive winemaking, both Ata Rangi Pinot Noir and Felton Road Block 5 Pinot Noir show improved fruit complexity, richness and texture; the 2008s tasted at another session are superb.”

Photo Credit: Ata Rangi, The Vineyards