Vintage work at Ata Rangi in Martinborough must be fun and educational. I met the group of international interns, an Israeli, an Italian and an Englishman, who assisted winemakers Helen Masters and Jannine Rickards, several times during the course of the 2012 harvest. While waiting for picking to commence, they were sent over the hill to Wellington to attend Burgundy tastings that I went to. At dinner early on, Helen and her trainees had obviously formed a strong bond and a sense of camaraderie was active. With vintage over, Helen had arranged for them to visit other key players in the district, to see a bigger picture of the region. As a farewell event, Helen and Ata Rangi's co-owner Alison Paton arranged a most interesting tasting for the interns, cellar door staff and friends, the latter I'm pleased to say I'm one of! It was a blind tasting of Ata Rangi Pinot Noir over the last decade comparing the wines under screwcap and cork closure.
The tasting was to investigate the tasters' preferences of the wines served with the different closures, and how the use of closures may be more suited to various years and their conditions, in particular looking at ripeness and weight. The question posed by Helen was "Is one closure better for one style of wine over another?” Although Ata Rangi have already investigated this and decided on screwcap as their preferred choice, they are always open on the matter, and this tasting involved a group of tasters with a strong international outlook. We were asked to note our "preferences” in each pairing of wines served ‘blind'. The aim was not guessing what type of closure was used in each wine, but to decide which was the better wine. Here are my notes on the wines:
Ata Rangi Pinot Noir 2002
From an overall perspective of vintages in the last decade, 2002 produced lighter wines due to a wet growing season and rain in February, resulting in late herbaceous growth and larger crops. The two wines served were more similar than different, the differences quite subtle, this being the recurring theme of each pairing. I initially thought these to be 2004s, a lighter and cooler year, but was surprised to learn they were older. The Cork Ata Rangi Pinot Noir 2002 soft with gentle complexities of red fruits and secondary dried herbs, very fine textured , but still with bright acidity, the wine quite integrated now. Quite harmonious and drinking well now. The Screwcap Ata Rangi Pinot Noir 2002 just a little darker in colour, more dense and tightly bound on nose, the fruit seeming to be a little darker and riper. This still had some tannin to resolve, and along with greater richness, the wine showed it had more to reveal. My preference was for the screwcap wine for its greater richness and freshness. Most of the tasters also preferred the screwcap wine. And I correctly guessed the type of closure for each wine.
Ata Rangi Pinot Noir 2003
This has turned out to be a superior vintage in Martinborough, with spring frost at flowering resulting in low fruit set and very small crops. The fruit was very ripe and healthy and the wines have power and concentration. Youthful colours led me to deduce these were 2005s, and again, I was pleasantly surprised to find them older. The wines are just beginning to show some secondary characters now. The Screwcap Ata Rangi Pinot Noir 2003 quite dark with youthful purple hues, quite tight, nearly brackish, robust and grainy textured, the dark berry fruit still held in check. The Cork Ata Rangi Pinot Noir 2003 a fraction darker! Also restrained and shy, with ripe dark fruit and herb complexities, but more refined and showing attractive, silky integration. This to me was more elegant and more ethereal. My preference was for the cork sealed wine. But as a group, it was a very even split, with only one more person preferring the screwcap over cork. Again, I correctly guessed the type of closure for each wine.
Ata Rangi Pinot Noir 2004
This was another cool vintage producing lighter, less ripe wines that have generally developed quickly. My experience of the 2004s is that they have matured to show savoury, forward, herbal aromas and flavours leaving the acidity prominent and skinny structures. They should be drunk up, but here, the Ata Rangi 2004s looked fresh, with good vitality. The Cork Ata Rangi Pinot Noir 2004 had a ruby red colour with lifted red berry, dark herb and red floral aromas and a juicy, lush and vibrant palate. This was very alive, with fruit sweetness allied to chalky tannins, all balanced and set to continue to develop. The Screwcap Ata Rangi Pinot Noir 2004 was soft, integrated and quite reserved on nose, and similarly on palate, more gentle, softer in tannin texture, and more evolved than the cork-sealed wine. My preference was for the cork wine, as with the majority of the group. I was surprised to discover it was cork-sealed, as I thought it was the screwcap wine based on my perception of it being fresher. Those who identified the closure correctly felt the restrained nature of the wine indicated it being more tightly bound.
Ata Rangi Pinot Noir 2006
In 2006, Ata Rangi trialled three closures – Natural Cork, Screwcap and Diam reconstituted cork, and these were all present in this flight. The vintage is regarded as one of the best and most classic for Martinborough, with ideal ripeness and brilliant fruit health, plus a return to good and balanced crop loads which was welcome, following the small vintages of 2003, 2005 (and 2007 to come). The Diam Ata Rangi Pinot Noir 2006 very youthful with the darkest purple-hued ruby colour. This has a lovely elegant presentation, with a deep core of fruit still to unfold on the nose, and similar on palate, with excellent ripe and sweet fruitiness, nearly robust, and showing real structure and fine tannin grip. It was the most backward wine of the trio, still with plenty of potential. This was my preference, but picked as second-equal preferred by the group. I thought it the screwcap wine. Next was the Screwcap Ata Rangi Pinot Noir 2006, to me seeming lighter in colour and more forward and evolved, being less weighty and somewhat restrained. This still had lovely dark berry fruit sweetness, but also a feel of coolness and steeliness, and possessed very refined tannins as if they were becoming resolved. This was my least preferred wine, but the group's pick as favourite. I thought it the natural cork wine, being finer and evolved, while those who guessed correctly saw it as being more locked-up. The Natural Cork Ata Rangi Pinot Noir 2006 looked as youthful as the Diam sealed wine in colour, but was not as expressive and fruity. But it was richer and sweeter than the screwcap wine to me. It shared the same robustness and structure as the Diam, but seemed far more perfumed, floral and pure than the Diam, which possessed greater exuberance and fruitiness. I thought this was the Diam sealed wine, assuming it suffered some scalping of the fruit. Interestingly, the Diam and natural cork wines were more similar, and the screwcap wine seemed apart – as it should have been. And surprisingly the Diam-sealed wine was richer and more fruity than the natural cork, the opposite of what I thought might be the case.
Ata Rangi Pinot Noir 2007
This is a vintage seen by Helen as being similar to 2003, the result of poor fruit set resulting in tiny yields and fruit with high skin and seed ratio to pulp. The wines are seen as aberrations to the usual Ata Rangi style, being much bigger and concentrated than the norm and possibly what is seen as the desired style with elegance. The Screwcap Ata Rangi Pinot Noir 2007 is bright purple-hued ruby colour. It is a wine of great richness, concentration but also refinement and beauty. Fully ripened, this was lush and sweet with wonderful clarity of fruit, with layers of detail, the oak matching the power underneath. Still with much to reveal, and wonderfully fine in texture, this was the top wine for many at the tasting, including myself. The Cork Ata Rangi Pinot Noir 2007 seemed darker again, denser and with complexing savoury notes to the fruit, gamey even, with a more robust mouthfeel, the tannins more obvious. A sour edge added interest. For me, the screwcap wine stood ahead of the cork, and this was the case for most of the tasters. Again it seemed natural to pick the screwcap wine as such. The thought from Helen and some of the other tasters was raised that the cork-sealed wine showed oxidation, accounting for the savoury, sour expression. Another bottle of a Cork Ata Rangi Pinot Noir 2007 was opened, and this was better with more explicit fruit, but it too showed some developing secondary elements that took it away from purity.
Ata Rangi Pinot Noir 2008
Also seen as an excellent vintage in Martinborough, 2008 has produced well-ripened and very healthy fruit, and this is apparent in the resultant wines, especially the Ata Rangi. With the benefit of hindsight, the impression is that the wines show greater accessibility than is the norm for such a good year. I saw these as extremely elegant, but still wonderfully rich wines, especially after the highly concentrated 2007s of the prior flight. The 2008s are smooth-textured and possess great class. The Screwcap Ata Rangi Pinot Noir 2008 is certainly youthful, purple hued in colour with a restrained and tightly bound nose, exhibiting beautiful purity. On palate also restrained, with silky textures and harmony, and an attractively lifted violetty finish. The Cork Ata Rangi Pinot Noir 2008 was brighter and richer again, more aromatic and mouthfilling, with more succulence and real vividness of flavour. I preferred the cork wine as did most of the tasters. Unfortunately I thought the cork-sealed wine was the screwcap. We were experiencing the realisation that screwcap delays the development of wines and that cork allows wines to express themselves earlier than under screwcap.
Ata Rangi Pinot Noir 2009
2009 is another classical quality vintage, with the wines showing very well-ripened fruitiness and the primacy of youth. The Cork Ata Rangi Pinot Noir 2009 was very youthful in appearance with good purple hues, and tight, concentrated dark red berry fruits infused with violets on nose and palate. Lovely elegance and lusciousness, a touch of youthful confectionary whole berry character, and silky smooth, sinewy structure. The Screwcap Ata Rangi Pinot Noir 2009 looked a little deeper in colour, and definitely more voluminous, with bolder and more up-front fruit, and oak noticeable. On palate richer and more fulsome, with richness bolstered by firmer tannins, as well as more detail and layers. I preferred the screwcap wine, as did most of the other tasters. Based on my experience with the 2008 wines, I picked the cork-sealed wine as the screwcap! Either this proves the fallibility of human tasters or that cork performance is variable? I'd like to think it was the latter scenario!
Ata Rangi Pinot Noir 2005 and 2010
This flight was served open as to vintage identity and that both wines were sealed with screwcap. These two completed a vertical of Ata Rangi Pinot Noir wines that Helen has taken responsibility for since she arrived there in November 2003. I've never really been enamoured with the Ata Rangi Pinot Noir 2005 as much as the other wines around it. A low crop year, again with high skin to juice ratio, I felt the wines showed slightly less ripening than ideal, though they had great structure and presence. The Screwcap Ata Rangi Pinot Noir 2005 had a densely deep colour, showing some garnet evolution. Very solid and intense, this has powerful aromas and flavours that showed complex secondary development notes of dried herbs and game. Very full and gutsy with a myriad of complex savoury fruit flavours and bold, robust mouthfeel, brisk acidity marks the palate and its structure and flavour will see it continue to keep well, developing more funky notes with time. It looked interesting and good on this occasion. The Screwcap Ata Rangi Pinot Noir 2010 is a baby. I've seen it a number of times, the first when it was unformed and ungainly. But each time after, this has just gotten better. Very youthful and distinctly primary, this is beautifully perfumed and shows wonderful purity. The richness and sweetness builds to reveal depth, filling the sinewy tannin framework. Fresh, acidity is a feature, keeping it all lively, and exquisite violetty florals mark the finish. Improving all the time, this may be a bit of a dark horse. However, there is no doubt about the 2011 vintage of Ata Rangi Pinot Noir in Helen Master's mind. She sees it as the best wine over the last 12 years. I can't wait to see it…
Over various trials conducted by the Ata Rangi team, they have seen that wines opened in their youth benefit from being sealed with natural cork, which allow the wines to become more expressive. Besides the issue of TCA contamination, the problem is that as time progresses, variation between bottles of the same wine sealed with cork becomes very obvious and in fact increases. Screwcap sealed wines tend to be locked up and less expressive in their earlier years. There is no doubt that development and evolution occurs within bottles so sealed. The key positive is that there is much greater consistency between bottles of the same wine at all ages when sealed by screwcap. This tasting reinforced these findings.
Ata Rangi have chosen to have their wines sealed with screwcap, including the flagship Pinot Noir. It is felt that most buyers and drinkers of this wine will want to drink it with some bottle development when the wine shows greater complexity. This suits the usage of screwcap, and takes advantage of the far greater consistency this closure gives.
It is also important to point out that storage and cellaring conditions are crucial for ensuring that wines show their best. The wines tasted here were from Ata Rangi's cellar and had not been disturbed in their lives. They tasted fresher and more youthful than examples I have seen elsewhere.
In the tasting, my personal preferences for the different closures were varied and I'm sad to say that no predictable pattern was evident! Based on the group preferences, the screwcap-closed wines were the more preferred. We never did answer the question of whether one closure was better than the other for certain types of vintages, but the path taken by Ata Rangi seems logical and the desirable one considering the market that buys their wine. The fly in the ointment on this occasion was the good performance of Diam… www.atarangi.co.nz