Winefriend by David Way

Writing about the wines of Piemonte, Italy and France

Postcard from Ata Rangi

Ata Rangi is one of the four original estates of Martinborough which in the 1980s kicked off the Pinot Noir revolution in New Zealand.  Clive Paton and Phyll Pattie recount the story of how Clive went to a seminar put on by the mayor and doctor of the town explaining the potential of this dry, inhospitable land for vines. By the end of the day they had signed up to buy land and the adventure into the unknown had begun.  Little did they know then that among the benefits of the site was a 25-metre deep gravel bed starting a few inches below the soil. It is no wonder that the land was deemed too poor for other forms of agriculture.   It is very moving to stand with them today, to see the mature vineyards, meet the multi-national crew of workers (and join in a birthday celebration) and to muse on the fact that the wines are sold and treasured around the world.  

Of course, being a pioneer also has its drawbacks. The original vineyards were planted with three-metre wide row spacing to accommodate the then standard farm tractor. Similarly, Gewurztraminer was planted which proved problematic with its immense vigour and low cropping. It had to be pulled out which at least gave the chance to plant new Pinot clones.  The mother block of Pinot is still on its own roots as while there is some phylloxera they are doing OK.  

And there are other advantages too. In a dry (500mm of rain per year) and windy warm area, Ata Rangi has never used insecticides on the vineyards. Insect damage here rarely turns into botrytis bunch rot.  It formally turned organic in 1989.  As the picture shows, every alternate row is ploughed with some organic matter being put back into the soil with a winter crop of mustard and lupin.  

The winemaking is pretty traditional here.  For the estate Pinot, the fruit is subject to cold soak for five days or so at under 10º C to maximise the fruit aromatics.  30% of the fruit is whole bunch pressed and the must stays on the skins for a total of 18-24 days. A rapid rise to 18º C means that unwanted yeast strains are given short shrift.  A week of high temperatures (30º C +) extracts the tannins.  Ageing is for around 11 months in French oak barriques, 35% new, dependant on the vintage.  

But it is not all about Pinot Noir. Ata Rangi also produces a fine, bottle-aged Riesling (current release 2011), a stone-fruit-to-mango Sauvignon Blanc, a spicy, poached-pear flavoured, off-dry Pinot Gris and two excellent Chardonnays. Here as elsewhere, the Mendoza clone is prone to uneven fruit set, but the combination of small and large berries gives a wine which combines the ripeness and high skin-to-juice ratio from small berries with the acidity and balance of regular ones. These are fine wines by any standard.  

Lastly, Janet and I would like to thank all our hosts for their warm hospitality on this trip. Whether eating informally under the shade of trees as here or more formally elsewhere, the generous welcome was matched by the quality of the food, the use of local, artisan ingredients and the chance to meet the people who have done such a remarkable job of transforming an infertile piece of land into fine wine.  

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