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Escarpment Vineyard Pinot Noir 2012 Barrel Tasting


13-Jan-2013
As the ‘Prince of Pinot', making some of this country's finest Pinot Noir for around a quarter of a century, one wouldn't be surprised if Escarpment Vineyard proprietor and winemaker Larry McKenna was a little blasé about a new vintage. But I'm always amazed by his eager anticipation in interpreting the growing conditions and his enthusiasm for making the best possible wines he can. I also sense a little worry or a case of the nerves, very much as the most experienced public speaker has before going in front of an audience. Larry takes nothing for granted, and even though he's seen numerous vintages, no year is identical to another, and this requires fresh eyes and a unique approach every time.
 
Such is the case with the 2012 vintage for Pinot Noir in the Martinborough vignoble. Larry sees it as one of the cooler growing seasons, and his main concern is that the wines show no green, unripe characters in the fruit. The key to achieving this is the work in the vineyard, maximising the ripening process of the vines through various techniques involving crop load and canopy management, and timing of actions that require an intimate knowledge of each vineyard. This requires teamwork, with Dave Shepherd, the Escarpment viticulturist and Larry's right-hand man winemaker Huw Kinch. It's hands-on stuff for sure. Careful selection of the harvested fruit is essential, and the most meticulous elevage of the wines is crucial, Larry being quick to give credit to Huw in the winery, who he has complete trust in to carry out any of the work. However, it is Larry's 25 years of making Pinot Noir that provides the difference in taking the wines to the top level consistently, and that's why the Escarpment wines figure among what I consider the best Pinot Noirs in the country.
 
Larry McKenna giving a barrel of 'Kupe' Pinot Noir 2012 a hug
 
The Barrel Tasting
I was privileged to be taken through a barrel tasting of 2012 Escarpment Vineyard wines by Larry, on a Sunday! (Does the man ever rest from his work and love of his wines?) The cool growing season was discussed, and he was very open about the potential problems. The barrel tasting was an opportunity to scrutinise the wines with respect to greenness, and also a chance to assess the expression of the terroir of the ‘Insight' single vineyard Pinot Noirs. I can say that from what I tasted, the 2012 Escarpment Pinot Noirs look to be another very strong set of wines, without evidence of herbaceous fruit flavours or weakness. The wines appeared to possess very well-managed structure and extraction, along with an acidity profile that is harmonious, endowing them with vibrancy. Larry sees the wines as expressing a singular vintage for sure, but my over-riding impression was the pleasing individuality of each of the vineyard site wines, consistent with the previous releases. They look to be another success. Here are my impressions of what was tasted:

The Pinot Gris 2012 was the palate teaser. The gentleness on the nose belies the fruit richness on the palate. Excellent fruit clarity and bright acidity on the finish. Less worked than previous releases, and something I endorse. Properly dry at <2 g/L rs, but has apparent fruit sweetness.

It was immensely interesting to compare two lots of the potential regional blend Escarpment Pinot Noir 2012, based on Abel and 667 clone fruit. The ‘A' version aged in 25% new oak with approx. 30% whole bunch, dark in colour and with dark violet florals and dark cherry-berry flavours on palate. A soft dryness with well-proportioned tannin grip and size, the oak a little noticeable, but as it should show at this early stage. This will be a little less robust that some earlier releases, but it is very Martinborough in character. The ‘B' version, with no new oak influence, lighter, but still dark fruited and showing no evidence of the greens. Less volume, and the acidity more of a feature. The length of finish and fruit nuance was its drawcard. What to do – Blend in some of the ‘B' to the ‘A' for layers, softness and length at the risk of making the wine lighter? We'll see where Larry and Huw take it in due course.

Next a sample of ‘Pahi' Pinot Noir 2012, now made from the ‘Front Block' of the McCreanor vineyard on Princess Street, now that the virus-affected ‘Back Block' vines have been grubbed up. Around 30% whole bunch and 40% new oak, as with all the ‘Insight' wines. Though the average age of the vines used is slightly lower, this has no loss of florality, the signature of this wine, and indeed this year is expressed with great clarity. The lightest of the ‘Insight' wines, as is appearing to be the case nowadays, but very fine-grained with bright and near succulent fruit. Lovely vitality with the acidity contributing to this. A feminine beauty.

The ‘Kiwa' Pinot Noir 2012, from the ‘Cleland' block on Cambridge Road, which has always given the most ‘Burgundian' style with its savoury flavour layers. This is the situation again, with dried herb, meaty complex nuances to the dark berry fruits. Excellent richness, a solidness and chunkiness, unfolding waves of flavour. The acidity more restrained in this, maybe not quite the vibrancy, but there is no lack of interest.

The star on this showing was the ‘Te Rehua' Pinot Noir 2012 from the ‘Barton' vineyard on Huangarua Road. Masses of bright and lively dark berry fruits, quite lush, but in perfect balance with the tannin structure. Beautiful acid lending brightness and freshness with stand-out tension and energy. This has an exceptional core of fruit and linearity. The more I taste wines from this site, the more I like them.

The special wine for Escarpment is the ‘Kupe' Pinot Noir 2012, from Abel clone fruit from the home ‘Te Muna Road' block. This is given a little more whole bunch, this year around 35%, as the structure and composition of the wine suits its inclusion to this degree, even in a cooler vintage such as 2012. The ‘biggest' wine, just a little more so than the ‘Kiwa', but significantly more layers of interest and the distinctive savoury-aromatic whole bunch component obvious. More density and presence, and more of a statement, without losing any of its ‘Pinot-ness'. The tannins quite integral with the presentation, and acidity quite discreet. There are four barrels of ‘Kupe' 2012 with 100% whole bunch, and tasting from one was most illuminating. Lighter in colour, the whole bunch character was more in the secondary fruit spectrum. Real complexity allied to fruit sweetness, laced with acid prominence. 2012 may not be the year to go 100% on whole bunch, but I'd imagine this will make an excellent ‘seasoning' component.

Tasting through the barrels again highlighted Larry's thoroughness and drive to exploring the options in making the best wine possible. I can't wait to see them finished. www.escarpment.co.nz

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