Ata Rangi by Andrew Caillard MW
I am quite sure the French Impressionists would have loved New Zealand's exquisite, strange and voluptuous landscape. The countryside twists and jolts with startling newness. The refraction of light, prism of colours and freshness of air are almost unworldly. The land is terrifying and gentle with jagged violet mountains, rumpled forests and shimmering green pastures. Fast moving turquoise rivers pump through shifting gravel banks like varicose blue veins. The sheer energy and force of nature is omnipresent, sometimes violent. Even the sand flies have a venomous potency beyond belief.
This devastating but sirenic beauty, lies at the heart of New Zealand's successful contemporary wine scene. The rolling vigour of the landscape is so often found in the wines. Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc for instance has a compelling vinosity and freshness that keeps consumers coming back for more.
During the early 1980s New Zealand flirted dangerously with German grape varieties including the high yielding and obnoxiously boring muller-thurgau. A few visionaries including John Buck (Te Mata at Hawkes Bay), the Vuletic brothers (The Antipodean at Matakana) and Stephen White (Stonyridge on Waiheke Island) made a compelling case for cabernet-based wines during the 1980s. For one moment these wines became cult celebrities in the Australian secondary wine market. Stephen White even once threatened to "excommunicate" any of his buyers found selling Stonyridge Larose at auction. This market has nowadays subsided but Hawkes Bay Cabernet Sauvignon (and Merlot), particularly, is finding renewed interest in important primary markets. However Pinot Noir is New Zealand's contemporary trump card. The evolution of quality, style and vineyard sites is simply astounding.
Last year AtaRangi, from Martinborough (North Island) and Felton Road from Central Otago (South Island) were each awarded the inaugural 'Tipuranga Teitei o Aotearoa', which translates as 'Great Growth' or 'Grand Cru' of Aotearoa. This may to some Burgundian tragics seem a touch arrogant. The land is geologically very young and the wines have not yet reached a full three decades of production; but the vines are mature. Many Burgundy vineyards are hundreds, if not thousands of years old, but in reality the Pinot Noir vines are rarely much older than fifty years.
The classification hierarchy of Grand Cru, Premier Cru and Villages etc. is steeped in early 20th century politics. Some communes are deficient of Grand Cru vineyards, not because of location, but because an elevated status meant paying more tax. Add the wild card of producer and many Grand Cru wines fail to stump up their promise. Burgundy continues to be infuriating and confounding as much as it is totally absorbing.
It has become something of a habit to buy a few bottles of Ata Rangi Pinot Noir, from the duty free while leaving New Zealand. I think it's the best value and beautiful Grand Cru type pinot noir in the world! You can pick it up for under $60 a bottle. The style is typified by lovely deep colours, dark cherry/ violet/ ginger aromas, voluminous fruit, lacy/ supple tannins and underlying savoury oak. It has wonderful vinosity and vigour seemingly across vintages. The decision to bottle under screw cap in 2002 has allowed the wines to develop fruit complexity without contracting staleness. The consistency of vintages from then on is remarkable.
2009 is particularly seductive with black cherry/ plum/ meaty aromas, lovely buoyancy of fruit and chalky loose-knit tannins (94pts). It has built up more generosity and richness over the last year suggesting that its best to keep these wines generally for a while after release. 2008 has a touch more volume and generosity underpinned by black cherry/ musky flavours and savoury new oak (95) The single vineyard 2008 McCrone Vineyard is more floral with grainy/ al-dente texture, plenty of richness and viscosity (93). 2007 is a touch leafy with redcurrant/ herb garden/ forest floor notes (88). 2006, with its violet/ black cherry/ spice/ vanilla aromas and wonderful percussion of fruit, is a standout vintage (98) and one of my all time favourites.
The plush 2006 McCrone Vineyard comprises more extract and substance, but it is not quite as refined (94). 2005, known as the "delinquent child" was elegant and sinewy but it still possessed lovely fruit power and flavour length (91). 2004 (92) and 2003 (90) are both holding up well. 2002 was showing lovely fruit complexity with some roasted chestnut notes and fine sweet supple tannins (91). 2001 (86) and 2000 (89), both under cork, illustrated more advanced aging.
Perhaps Claude Monet would have enjoyed wine under screw cap. In the late 19th century the invention of oil paint tubes, lead to en-plein air painting and the beginnings of modern art. Ata Rangi (meaning "new beginning") Pinot Noir epitomises the very best of site and clonal selection, viticulture and modern winemaking practices. Steeped in the shingle terraced soils of Martinborough, near Wellington, it articulates New Zealand's promising start as one of the world's greatest producers of Tipuranga Teitei Pinot Noir.
Andrew Caillard MW