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Escarpment Vineyard: Distinctive Terroir, Magical Wines

The Escarpment winery and vineyards are sited above a steep cliff carved by the Huarangarua River over thousands of years. The vineyards are overlooked by the Aorangi Ranges. As legend would tell, Maori navigator Kupe abandoned three canoes there after discovering the land now known as New Zealand. The upturned canoe shapes are clearly visible on the skyline high above the winery.

Resting on 60 acres of alluvial gravel in the expansive Te Muna Valley hear Martinborough this is really a magical place. Te Muna translates from the Maori language as ‘special place or ‘secret’. The ancient alluvial soils which are over 75,000 years old are a nurturing matrix for grapevine roots. The soil and the well balanced climate combine to ripen the grapes very slowly. About 70% of the vineyards were planted to Pinot Noir in 1999 to 2001. Close planting is the norm.

Established in 1999, Escarpment Vineyard Martinborough Limited is a joint venture between Larry and Sue McKenna of Martinborough, and Robert and Mem Kirby of Australia ( who also own Yabby Lake in the Mornington Peninsula of Australia and most notably, Village Roadshow Productions). The company’s vineyards provide 70 percent of Escarpment’s grape supply. Besides Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc, Chardonnay and Riesling are planted.

The winery buildings are modest and inauspicious, standing watch on the renowned Martinborough River Terraces and overlooking the river itself (see view from the winery above). The barrel room is tucked underground and enjoys cool and humid conditions below its grassy roof.

The driving force behind Escarpment is Larry McKenna. Larry grew up near South Australia’s famous Vale and graduated from Adelaide’s prestigious Roseworthy College. He has been a pioneer winemaker in the wine region of Martinborough since 1986 when he became the winemaker at Martinborough Vineyards. Larry has a deep passion for Pinot Noir. James Halliday anointed Larry “The Prince of Pinot,” not realizing that the title was already taken. Larry’s philosophy is summarized as follows: “I want to set new directions (especially for Pinot Noir) creating wines of complexity, texture and structure. Our wines are different, full of surprise and perhaps even unconventional. We are proud of our flagship Escarpment Pinot Noir now, but our wines can only get better with aging vines.”

There are three lines of wines produced at Escarpment. The Edge is aimed at younger drinkers and those who prefer buying wine by the glass. These blended wines (currently Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris) are made from various vineyards or districts in New Zealand and are not currently available in the States. The Escarpment wines are premium district blends exclusively from Martinborough. These wines include classic varieties such as Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Pinot Gris, Riesling, Pinot Blanc and Viognier. The Single Vineyard Wines are the supreme expression of Larry McKenna’s winemaking skills. They are a limited range of red and white single vineyard wines christened “Martinborough Insight Series.” Beginning with the 2006 vintage, three new sites in Martinborough have been added to the estate Kupe Vineyard on Te Muna Road. These wines allow for individual vineyard expression from distinctive sites utilizing some of the oldest vines in the district. In addition to the Kupe estate vineyard, there are bottlings from Moana Vineyard (clones UCD 5,6 and 13 planted on Gill Cleland’s Vineyard in 1989), Te Rehua (several clones grown on the Barton Vineyard from vines over 20 years old), and Voyager (grown on the McCreanor Vineyard, one of the oldest vineyards in the district - clone 10/5 on its own roots).

Larry graciously invited me taste through several of the Escarpment wines including the inaugural 2006 single vineyard Pinot Noirs. He was candid with me, noting that his wines were not bashful, rather wines with their chest stuck out, strutting lush fruit and rich flavors. I was impressed by the harmony of the wines which were deeply colored and not nearly as extracted as many popular California Pinot Noirs. He told me that the single vineyard Pinot Noirs were picked at about 24 degrees Brix. My brief impressions of the wines follows.

2006 Escarpment Martinborough Chardonnay

14.2% alc.. Barrel fermented. · Smoky and mineral-imbibed white fruits on the nose. Peach, citrus, apple flavors with lively acidity on the finish.

2006 Escarpment Moana Martinborough Pinot Noir

13.5% alc.. Open topped fermented in traditional cuves, hand plunged, total vat time 16 days. Aged in 30% new French oak for 12 months. Fined with egg whites. · A little good barnyard and diaper scent enhancing the crushed plum nose. Dark, dark black cherry, spice, earth, meat and soy with a lengthy and vibrant smoky finish.

2006 Escarpment Te Rehua Martinborough Pinot Noir

13.0% alc.. Open top fermented in traditional wood cuves, hand plunged, with a total vat time of 15 days. Matured in 30% new French oak barrels for 12 months. Fined with egg whites. · The darkest of the single-vineyard lineup. A sturdy and structured wine that offers lovely darkly fruited and floral scents accented by restrained oak toast. Delicious raspberry fruit, generously oaked displaying a clean and refreshing finish.

2006 Escarpment Voyager Martinborough Pinot Noir

13.9% alc.. Open top fermented in traditional wooded cuves, hand plunged, with a total vat time of 19 days. Matured in 30% new French oak barriques for 12 months. Fined using egg whites. · Massive concentration and substantial tannins with great verve. Still unevolved yet showing great potential. Grassy, doughy and chunky with thick wood flavors.

2006 Kupe Single Vineyard Martinborough Chardonnay

14.1% alc.. Barrel fermented. · Lovely aromas of citrus and tropical fruits. Nicely structured mouth filling fruits. More of everything here - more fullness, more smoothness, and lip-smacking minerality.

2006 Escarpment Martinborough Pinot Noir

14.0% alc., $35. · Extremely dark reddish purple in color. Fragrant and showy dark fruit and earthy aromas. Vibrant fruitiness in a chewy, muscular style but very user friendly. Saucy, fat and lush with moderate tannins, a soft texture and a clean finish.

2006 Escarpment Kupe Martinborough Pinot Noir

14.1% alc., $60. From a close planted (16,500 vines/) vineyard. Fermented in wooden French cuves, hand plunged and aged in 50% new French oak barrels. This is the vanguard of the Escarpment style and has admirable age ability. · Gorgeous perfume and fruit featuring bright and fresh dark stone fruits and violets. The palate is soft, plush, long and tasty. This is a compelling wine with mouth-coating tannins and immensely satisfying Pinot fruitiness.

2005 Escarpment Martinborough Pinot Noir

Dark fruits particularly plum with a hint of alcohol on the nose. Darkly fruited and well-structured with grassy and herbal notes. Grainy tannins and a clean, dry finish.

Escarpment wines are imported to the United States by Empson USA, Inc., Alexandria, VA ( The Escarpment and Kupe Pinot Noirs are most available and represent quintessential examples of Martinborough Pinot Noir. Visit the website at

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