This is the story of our Wairarapa wine (and gin) field trip.
Take eight people, one wine region and a truckload of Pinot Noir and what do you have?
Our latest staff visit last weekend offered some great insights into what makes the Wairarapa and its fantastic Pinot Noirs tick.
The winemakers were saw were spread far and wide, with one new gin distillery thrown in for good measure at Reid & Reid - a tiny distillery with a big new building on the horizon (scroll down to see its new premises, which are forecast to open in April this year).
Schubert Wines, left to right: Winemaker Kai Schubert with the team from Regional Wines & Spirits and our parent store, The Hamilton Beer & Wine Company - Mat Bayly, Geoff Henderson, John Ridley, Matt King, Joelle Thomson, Chris Barclay and Kane Muggeridge.
We started the trip with a tasting and lunch at one of the region's biggest wineries, Palliser Estate, which had its first vintage in 1984, making it one of the earliest wineries in the region. Lunch was platters of mostly local produce, including outstanding frittata, Spanish style. The 2018 Palliser Estate Pinot Noir is drinking delicious right now, especially with the platters at the winery, but a good trip is a fast moving one when the agenda is full of great winemakers to see and our next visit was to Schubert.
Schubert Wines - 100% organic certification
Kai and Marion Schubert are both winemakers who have been in New Zealand since 1998 and now own 14.5 hectares of vineyards in the Wairarapa. Their characterful cellar door is on Huangarua Road in Martinborough and home to two hectares of their vines; the remaining 12.5 hectares are in Gladstone. Like most wineries, theirs is based primarily around PInot Noir.
Kai fell in love with wine on a school trip to Alsace when he was 16 and had an eye opening wine and food experience; "I wasn't from a wine growing family but that experience changed the course of my life and I did a viticultural apprenticeship with winemaker Ernie Loosen in the Mosel then studied wine at Geisenheim."
He then worked in Oregon, met his winemaking wife, Marion, and they came to New Zealand, tasted Martinborough Vineyard Pinot Noir and the rest is history. About 85% of their wines are exported and 75% of their production is Pinot Noir.
We tasted these wines with Kai Schubert:
2019 Schubert Tribianco
Muller Thurgau, Chardonnay and Pinot Gris blend; fermented in French oak, 1500 bottles made. Fresh and refreshing light white.
2019 Schubert Rosé
Light salmon in colour, bone dry in flavour with fresh medium acidity adding length, a light body and made 100% from Pinot Noir.
2015 Schubert Con Brio
Interesting blend of Syrah, Merlot and Pinot Noir, aged in a combo of new and aged French oak (35/65%) for 48 months.
2017 Schubert Block B Pinot Noir
Dijon clones, more new oak (45%) and my pick of the Pinots tasted on the day. Dark, full, bodied, rich but elegant. Has a long life ahead, potentially.
2017 Schubert Marion's Vineyard Pinot Noir
Abel and Pommard Pinot Noir clones, 100% destemmed grapes, 3 weeks maceration, 18 months in French oak, 35% new, 65% aged.
Talk about the back blocks. This estate is in East Taratahi on Dakin's Road, Gladstone. It's owned by Karl Johner (pictured above); another German winemaker, who also owns a vineyard in Germany. He spends time in both countries each year.
He owns 14 hectares in Gladstone and leases another two hectares at Lansdowne, an historic site, thought to be home to the first grapes ever planted in the region, in the late 1800s.
We tasted a vast number of wines with Karl, who (like Kai) is an excellent host. Highlights included:
2017 Johner Sauvignon Blanc Sur Lie
Three years old and a fresh as a daisy; dry, full bodied with a smooth mid palate and lightly fresh acidity on the finish. Great alternative style for Sauvignon Blanc fans.
2018 Johner Viognier Gladstone
Stunning example of a little known grape - Viognier. This wine is dry, full bodied and rich with flavours of dried apricots and ripe peach, finishing on a crisp refreshing taste.
2018 Johner Chardonnay
This full bodied Chardonnay was 100% barrel aged in German oak; spicy, creamy notes lead into a ripe, clean and fresh dry white.
2018 Johner Lime Hill Chardonnay
Next level Chardonnay with all the fresh bells and creamy whistles, balanced by beautiful acidity and a long finish.
2017 Johner Lime Hill Pinot Noir
One of the best Pinot Noirs in New Zealand thanks to low yields, hand harvested grapes, small batch winemaking and attention to detail every step of the way. This wine comes from the 1.3 hectare Lime Hill Vineyard in the northern Wairarapa. A special place and a wine to watch, cellar and enjoy.
2018 Karl Johner Baden Grauer Burgunder
Pinot Gris from Karl's German winery, dry with 3-4 grams of residual sugar and a more savoury style than many New Zealand Gris.
2017 Johner Gladstone Pinot Noir
Outstanding, dry, spicy, smooth, earthy, smoky Pinot Noir that takes this grape to the next level.
2014 Johner Terroir Pinot Noir
One metre deep channels of limestone were dug as trenches around the vineyard that this Pinot Noir comes from; the aim was to investigate the effect this has on the land. It's a big wine with a long life ahead, thanks to its concentration of flavour, richness and full body. One for the cellar.
It's always easier to make indepth tasting notes when seated and the tastings on day two were mostly stand up affairs, but the knowledge that our team gained from meeting the makers, seeing their vineyards and learning about their philosophies were every bit as rich as our experiences on day one of this field trip.
Winemaker Wilco Lam (pictured above) was our host at Dry River and he gave us a refreshing new take on this iconic old brand - Dry River Wines is one of the first wineries in Martinborough.
Its reputation has always been for big, bold, cellar worthy wines; the whites aging arguably longer than the reds (this writer's viewpoint from experience of aging the wines).
The Riesling and Gewurztraminer have always been flag bearers not only for this winery and the region but also for New Zealand's outstanding ability with these beautifully expressive aromatic wines.
The winery's founder, Neil McCallum, has retired and sold the vineyard and winery, so it now has a change in focus. Wilco's aim as winemaker is to respect the land and treat the grapes and their production with as much care and as few chemicals as possible. He gave us an outstanding vertical tasting of many of the current wines with some older vintages too - it was great to taste Dry River's wines as they are now; elegant rather than blockbusters. I personally love the Pinot Noir as it is today; less oak and more about the fruit.
Reid & Reid
There's nothing like a winemaker's gin because it's born out of a desire to drink a super refreshing, crisp and classic style. Enter Chris Reid, one of the brothers in the Reid & Reid duo, who are building a new gin distillery in Martinborough - pictured above.
It was a privilege to see the insides of the new distillery, yet to be completed with an estimated opening date of April this year. Bring it on.
The Reid & Reid gins are doing exceptionally well commercially at Regional Wines & Spirits and Chris says he can barely keep up with production from his small one room facility, so he's looking forward to this new home for Reid & Reid.
It will have a bar and an area to enjoy the gins on site.
Winemaker Lance Redgwell is a visionary in the new wave of young winemakers in Martinborough and a pioneer of the region's edgier wine styles such as his outstanding bottle fermented sparkling, The Naturalist. Grape varieties vary from one year to the next, depending on the source - he grows his own but also buys from James Millton (king of organics and biodynamics in New Zealand's wine scene) in Gisborne, among many others.
Lance has also bought two old totara barrels, originally constructed for Ivan Brajkovich in Kaikohe, north of Auckland. These barrels (pictured above with Lance) are going to be used for winemaking by Lance. Large, old oak formats are on trend and so is Lance's thinking. As are his innovative, descriptive labels and unconventional blends, such as Dovetail - Pinot Noir and Syrah. Unusual? But it works... A visit to Cambridge Road is a must on any visit to Martinborough.
As is a visit to...
Te Muna... home to The Escarpment Vineyard
The Escarpment founder Larry McKenna, one of the region's most experienced Pinot Noir producers; 'king of Pinot' to many and rightly so. Wines such as Escarpment Pahi, Te Rehua and, top of the tree, Kupe, are among New Zealand's most outstanding reds each year.
Larry talked to our team about the history, the climate, the incredibly hot, incredibly dry summer that the region is having right now - and he showed us some barrel samples in the cellar - a well concealed secret underneath the cellar door area.
“Even by our standards, it’s very dry and very hot this summer,” says McKenna, who has been making wine in the region for decades, initially at Martinborough Vineyards, then at The Escarpment Vineyard, which he founded with three others in 1998. Larry talked about how the region's weather patterns typically lead to reliably long autumns when grapes can hang on the vine longer than in many other regions, which accentuates their ripening, the robust tannins and long, slow development of flavour. The region's wind and dry climate also reduce crops of grapes in most years, which is why the Wairarapa is home to about three per cent of New Zealand’s producing vineyard area but regularly makes less than two per cent of New Zealand’s wine.
* Thank you to all the winemakers who shared so generously of their time, their wines and their hospitality - we have all learnt a huge amount more about a small but hugely significant wine region. The place where New Zealand's Pinot Noir story all began.