In my last post, New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc: Top Producers Create an Exciting Alternative Style, 14 December 2010, I mentioned that our friends served the sublime Cloudy Bay Te Koko Sauvignon Blanc 2004 with a magnificent roasted prawn dish. Well, the follow-up course and wine were equally spectacular. This time they chose another New Zealand wine, the Dry River Pinot Noir 2002, to complement beautifully steamed John Dory with Asian flavourings and lightly sauteed greens.

New Zealand’s success with sauvignon blanc is in danger of being eclipsed by the Kiwi’s formidable achievements in creating superlative wines from one of the world’s most difficult noble grapes: pinot noir.

Top producers in the regions of Central Otago, Malborough and Martinborough are making an array of very fine pinot noirs at various price points.

Martinborough is the only one of the three regions on the North Island, but in terms of climate it is significantly cooler than neighbouring wine region Hawkes Bay and, according to the leading winemakers who call it home, the soil type and climate make it New Zealand’s closest approximation to Burgundy – home of the world’s most acclaimed pinot noirs.

Back in 1979 Neil and Dawn McCallum of Dry River recognised that the deep, free-draining gravelly ‘Martinborough Terrace’ was ideally suited to the pinot noir grape. They were very picky about their site selection, as within ten kilometres of where Dry River is located,  rainfall and soil quality vary enormously. Their efforts proved fruitful, and along with other pioneers like Ata Rangi, Chifney, Dry River, Martinborough Vineyard and Te Kairanga they decided they would define and demarcate the terroir they had adopted, just as such areas are described and mapped in France and Germany. From 1986, wines made from within this area were given a seal of origin by the ‘Martinborough Winemakers Association’, and in 1991 the area was named ‘The Martinborough Terrace Appellation’ to distinguish it from other types of terroir. Essentially, the terroir is characterised by low rainfall (unusual for New Zealand!) and technically defined free draining soils. (The Martinborough Terrace Terroir, Dry River website)

Neil and Dawn sold Dry River in 2002 to hedge fund legend Julian Robertson and the now deceased Californian viticulturalist Reg Oliver of El Molino winery in St Helena, but Neil still continues in the role as Chief Winemaker.

In the vineyard the winery limits crop yields, doesn’t irrigate and maximises the amount of sunshine on the grapes by opening up the leaf canopies  Neil explains that the open vine canopies are achieved in early summer when teams of school-children and adults descend on the vineyards to pull off every leaf around every grape – probably 80,000 – 100,000 leaves by his estimation every season!

The result of this careful hands-on approach in the vineyard is ripe fruit with generous flavours, and wine that favours long bottle cellaring for the full development of its flavours.

Neall Martin of The Wine Advocate had the following reaction to the Dry River Pinot Noir 2006:

I vexed over the 2006 Pinot Noir. Why? Because it is beautifully crafted in a style that is contradictory to what I believe Pinot Noir should be. A dense, super-ripe nose with plum jam and a touch of ripe, fresh figs, the full-bodied palate extremely ripe with raspberry jam, fig and even a hint of the local manuka honey! Yet, this is no faulty winemaking, the wine is not blowsy of cloying in any way, it is just intentionally fashioned in a very sweet, ripe style that I hazard a guess might leave you rapturous if you enjoy this particular take on Pinot Noir. It has a roguish charm!  (Wine Advocate Issue #176
Apr 2008

Just I was taken aback by the unusual style of the Cloudy Bay Te Koko Sauvignon Blanc 2004, I was equally gobsmacked by the Dry River Pinot Noir 2002. Martin’s impression of the style more than hits the mark in my opinion. The colour of the 2002 was so remarkably dark that you could easily mistake it for a shiraz. The flavours were still so fresh and concentrated that I imagine this wine would cellar well for another decade or more. Wonderful stuff!

Next: Part 2: Other Great Producers of Martinborough Pinot Noir

Photo Credit: Dry River Vineyard, Martinborough, New Zealand