With Larry McKenna back in Yorkshire, Christine Austin picks the best of his Escarpment range

Harrogate Wines has only moved 50 yards around the corner into Montpelier Street but the difference between the old premises and the new is dramatic. Although the shelves of this gem of a wine shop are still packed with wines from around the world there is more space to move around and the new layout makes it much easier to browse amongst the exciting wines on offer. Best of all, there is space upstairs that has been converted into a tasting room. This room held its inaugural tasting last week when Larry McKenna, regarded as one of the world’s best winemakers joined Harrogate Wines’ proprietor, Andy Langshaw to talk about his wines.

Andy Langshaw of Harrogate Wines welcomes Larry McKenna of Escarpment to the shop

Larry makes wine at his property, Escarpment, in Martinborough, New Zealand. Located at the southern end of North Island, tucked behind a small range of hills, Martinborough is part of the Wairarapa region, now renamed Wellington Wine Country. Compared with the big, valley floor vineyards of Marlborough where much of New Zealand’s Sauvignon Blanc is grown, Martinborough is tiny. This region contributes just over 1% to New Zealand’s wine production, yet the quality of those wines, in particular its Pinot Noir, is recognised worldwide and much of that fame is down to Larry.

He started to build the reputation of the region 30 years ago when some surprisingly good Pinot Noir wines emerged from Martinborough Vineyards while he was working there. During that time he was also scouting around for a good place to establish his own vineyard and he chose Te Muna river terraces, just on the outskirts of Martinborough town. These terraces were formed by the Huarangarau River, which, for thousands of years has carved its way through the landscape, leaving a steep, stony natural escarpment. It is on these free-draining soils that Escarpment is set, with a clear view across the river valley 100 feet below.

Unsurprisingly Escarpment vineyards are on the edge of an escarpment

Not only are those terraces ideal for grapes, but so is the natural climate of the region. It has long, cool, dry autumns that allow the grapes to hang on the vines long after other regions have picked. Key to the long ripening is the good variation between day and night time temperatures so that the grapes retain their natural juicy acidity while they ripen to perfection.

He grows several grape varieties at Escarpment and makes excellent Pinot Gris, Chardonnay and a spectacular Late Harvest Riesling, but Larry’s love affair is with Pinot Noir. He talks about his vines like they are his children. He has matched the clones to their soil, he trains them low, uses organic methods to keep away bugs and pests and when it comes to harvesting, he picks the grapes by hand and makes the wine in the Burgundian way, that is, with minimum intervention.

Nets protect the ripening grapes from birds

Tucked under the escarpment is a cellar that wouldn’t look out of place in Burgundy. Tanks, barrels and a new tall clay amphora are packed into the working space, but there are no clever gizmos or shiny technology. This is a cellar that makes wine by hand.

The Burgundy connection continues with the way the wines are designated by site. Most wineries make a top selection from an estate’s best barrels, but Larry keeps each plot of vines separate and bottles them, so they show the personality of that place.

‘Over the last 30 years the vines have put down their roots and are now expressing the individuality of the site, he said. ‘Another benefit of vine maturity is that the grapes ripen earlier, while still retaining their balance and flavour. It means that alcohol levels are lower, and the wines are more elegant.’

And these wines are definitely capable of aging. At a tasting several years ago at Harrogate Wines, Andy Langshaw put away a few bottles of the Escarpment 2006 vintage with the promise that he would open them when Larry returned to Harrogate.   He kept that promise and opened two wines, Moana, now renamed Kiwa and Voyager now renamed Pahi. Why the change of name? ‘We should have done more research into who actually owned those names before we used them,’ said Larry with a grin. ‘But we own the new names, so that’s what we call those sites now.’

2006 Moana, now renamed Kiwa is still on form

As they have aged the wines have softened their tannins, developed complexity and acquired an unmistakable ‘grunt’ that is the mark of good Pinot Noir. Sadly the 2006 vintage is not available, although this exercise proves that these New Zealand Pinot wines are not just for the short haul. If you buy the recent vintage you can tuck them away in the same way that you might a top-flight burgundy and wait for them to develop.

Harrogate Wines (HW) stocks most of the Escarpment range, and other retailers around the region such as Martinez, Field and Fawcett and Halifax Wine Co. all have some of the range. These are the wines to head for.

Escarpment Pinot Noir 2014, HW £19.99

The perfect wine to start exploring the Escarpment range. Dark cherry and herb aromas with a plush, rounded palate, ripe, slightly grippy tannins and a long, fruit-filled finish. Enjoyable now with lamb or duck, but will age for another 5 years.

Kupe Single Vineyard Pinot Noir 2015, HW £36.99

My favourite in the range for its deep flavours and structure. Made from the Abel clone, low trained and with low yield, this is a tight-grained wine, full of savoury herbs and spice blended with dark cherry fruit. Fabulous concentration. Try not to drink it for 5 years.

Pahi Single Vineyard 2015, HW £31.99

A silky style of Pinot, mainly from old vines planted 30 years ago, this has fresh-tasting red cherry fruit, with a dash of herbs and ending with notes of violets. It will keep, but you don’t have to wait too long to enjoy this one.

Kiwa Single Vineyard Pinot Noir 2015, HW £31.99

From another 30-year-old block of vines, this is deep in flavour, with definite savoury spice character blending with black cherry fruit and a long, textured finish. Buy now and keep until the grouse are ready.

Te Rehua Single Vineyard Pinot Noir 2015, HW, £31.99

Deep in colour and flavour, with layers of herbs and spice this is a wine made for the long haul. Still with the charm of good Pinot it has depth and character to pair with roast meat.

The Edge 2015, Waitrose, £14.99

An ideal introduction to the wines of Escarpment, this is the baby brother of the main range, with terrific deep cherry and plum fruit and soft, ripe tannins.

Hinemoa Riesling 2016, HW £12.99 for 37.5cl

Astonishing for its vibrant crystallized lime fruit flavours, pure linear refreshing acidity and an amazing, perfectly balanced sweetness. Team this with a lemon tart, or just drink it instead of a pud.

 

 

 

 

 

 

About The Author

Christine Austin

Christine is a wine writer, broadcaster and a wine judge for several international wine competitions. She has a technical background and spent five years as a buyer for a major supermarket before moving to wine writing.She writes for The Yorkshire Post Magazine and organises the York Festival of Food and Drink. She has won both the Lanson and the Roederer prizes for wine writing.

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