About this WINE
Tokyo-born Hiroyuki (known as Hiro) Kusuda trained as a lawyer and worked for Fujitsu, then the Consulate General of Japan in Sydney before throwing it all up to pursue his other love, wine and winemaking. He went to Germany, learned the language, enrolled at Geisenheim and then emigrated to New Zealand to pursue both the Riesling and Pinot grapes – to which a third challenge, Syrah, has now been added. The choice of New Zealand in general and Martinborough in particular apparently came about through tasting the 1992 Ata Rangi Pinot Noir.
Obviously the main market for Kusuda is Japan, where they have developed a cult following, and indeed whence comes the volunteer labour force at harvest time when every grape is rigorously checked before making the cut. Hiro Kusuda is meticulous to an almost fanatical degree, but it explains the exceptional quality and amazing precision of his wines. The Kusuda Pinot Noir was one of the standout wines at the 2013 Pinot Noir Celebration in Wellington, NZ.
Close to the southern tip of North Island, some top-class, aromatic Pinot Noir is being made in the sleepy town of Martinborough, with the best rivalling good Burgundy. Compared to the hustle and bustle of Marlborough, the pocket-sized Wairarapa district – with Martinborough at its head – comes across less as a wine-producing region, accounting as it does for three-point-five percent of the country's vines, and more like a cottage industry. Much of this is perhaps down to the compact size of its favoured old-Martinborough terrace with its gravely, sandy, alluvial soils, located an hour's drive east of the country's capital, Wellington.
Another factor is the nature of the winegrowers themselves, often holding down a professional career during the week, and tending their vines at the weekends; so more therapy than husbandry, reflected perhaps in the relatively high land values, making commercial viticulture a tricky proposition. Added to which, and despite being in a rain shadow, this south-eastern corner of North Island is constantly at the mercy of the icy south-easterlies spinning off the Antarctic, bringing frosts five or six times a year, from flowering through to harvest. Pinot Noir yields are therefore often at the 25-30 hl/ha mark.
Just as Cloudy Bay launched a hundred wineries in Marlborough, so it could be argued that Dry River Wines and Ata Rangi provided the spark that lit up Martinborough. While the region's history dates back to the first commercial vintage of 1893, Prohibition intervened, followed by Marlborough's debut, hence Dry River's inaugural vintage was only in 1979, with Clive Paton releasing Ata Rangi in 1985.
Much of the initial buzz surrounding the region came from the Abel or `Gumboot' clone of Pinot Noir whose origins apparently lie in a certain Romanée-Conti vineyard. During the 1960s or 1970s, a cutting was allegedly smuggled into New Zealand via a gumboot, discovered by the then customs officer Malcolm Abel who in turn propagated it on the quiet before releasing it to Ata Rangi. To this day, one sniff of a barrel of Abel Pinot Noir conjures up visions of Musigny – something evidently not lost on Nigel Greening, who planted most of his Cornish Point vineyard with it.
Though Pinot Noir put the region on the map and continues to turn heads in the hands of Dr Neil McCallum (Dry River), Clive Paton (Ata Rangi), and, more recently, Chris Archer of Alana Estate, economically the region is arguably better-suited to Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling and even Gewürztraminer. Unlike Marlborough, or Burgundy for that matter, this region has to juggle several varieties to make ends meet – not an easy task. The regional style is dark plum and chocolate black fruit, with a savouriness akin to meat.
Riesling's twin peaks are its intense perfume and its piercing crisp acidity which it manages to retain even at high ripeness levels.
In Germany, Riesling constitutes around 20% of total plantings, yet it is responsible for all its greatest wines. It is planted widely on well-drained, south-facing slate-rich slopes, with the greatest wines coming from the best slopes in the best villages. It produces delicate, racy, nervy and stylish wines that cover a wide spectrum of flavours from steely and bone dry with beautifully scented fruits of apples,apricots, and sometimes peaches, through to the exotically sweet flavours of the great sweet wines.
It is also an important variety in Alsace where it produces slightly earthier, weightier and fuller wines than in Germany. The dry Rieslings can be austere and steely with hints of honey while the Vendages Tardives and Sélection de Grains Nobles are some of the greatest sweet wines in the world.
It is thanks to the New World that Riesling is enjoying a marked renaissance. In Australia the grape has developed a formidable reputation, delivering lime-sherbet fireworks amid the continental climate of Clare Valley an hour's drive north of Adelaide, while Barossa's Eden Valley is cooler still, producing restrained stony lime examples from the elevated granitic landscape; Tasmania is fast becoming their third Riesling mine, combining cool temperatures with high UV levels to deliver stunning prototypes.
New Zealand shares a similar climate, with Riesling and Pinot Gris neck to neck in their bid to be the next big thing after Sauvignon Blanc; perfectly suited is the South Island's Central Otago, with its granitic soils and continental climate, and the pebbly Brightwater area near Nelson. While Australia's Rieslings tend to be full-bodied & dry, the Kiwis are more inclined to be lighter bodied, more ethereal and sometimes off-dry; Alsace plays Mosel if you like.
Joe Czerwinski - 28/02/2019