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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 was 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. 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 fffc;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 as “The Prince of Pinot,” not realizing that the title was already taken. Larry has also been anointed "The Pinot King." 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 became available with the 2008 vintage 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 were 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 Kiwa Vineyard (clones UCD 5,6 and 13 planted on Gill Cleland’s Vineyard in 1989), Te Rehua (several clones are grown on the Barton Vineyard from vines over 20 years old), and Pahi (grown on the McCreanor Vineyard, one of the oldest vineyards in the district - clone 10/5 on its own roots).
Larry's wines are not bashful. Instead, they strut lush fruit and rich flavors. Despite their intensity, they have nice harmony and are not nearly as extracted as many popular California Pinot Noirs. The high percentage of whole cluster makes the wines impressibly age-worthy.
Escarpment wines are imported to the United States by Empson USA, Inc., Alexandria, VA (www.empsonusa.com). The Escarpment and Kupe Pinot Noirs are most available and represent quintessential examples of Martinborough Pinot Noir.
Escarpment was purchased by Australia wine giant Torbeck Vintners, owned by American billionaire Peter Kight, in 2018. McKenna remains at the winemaking helm. Plans are afoot to increase production and open a tasting room in a luxury lodge in Martinborough.
2013 Escarpment Martinborough New Zealand Pinot Noir
13.5% alc., pH 3.60, TA 0.49, $56, screwcap. Imported by Meadowbank Estates (a division of Empson USA Inc), Alexandria, VA. Ideal crop that did not require thinning. Fermented with indigenous yeasts, on skins for 18 days, aged 11 months in French oak barrels, 30% new. · Moderately dark reddish purple color in the glass. Inviting earth-kissed aromas of black grape, blackberry jam. Impressive fruit expression, with an exhilarating array of juicy purple and black fruits backed by modestly muscular tannins. The finish embraces with a cornucopia of ripe fruit. Score: 92. Reviewed February 5, 2016 ARTICLE »
2013 Escarpment Single Vineyard Kiwa Martinborough New Zealand Pinot Noir
13.5% alc., pH 3.62, TA 0.48, $56. Grapes come from Cleland Vineyard. 24-year-old vines, deep alluvial gravels, clones UCD 5, 6 and 13. Fermented in wooden vats, on the skins 16 days, aged 18 months in French oak barrels, 40% new. Bottled unfined and unfiltered. · Moderate reddish purple color in the glass. The least expressive wine of the three single vineyards reviewed here, but still offering a peak at impressive potential. Aromas of mixed berries and loamy soil lead to a gorgeous core of blackberry and black raspberry fruits beautifully accented with spice and oak. This well-structured, mid weight plus wine has nicely balanced acidity and a finish replete with dark fruited goodness. A brooding wine that only hints at the 10 to 15 year future. When tasted the following day from a previously opened and re-corked bottle, the wine was more showy and pleasurable, but still revealed a need for further cellaring to bring the tannins into further harmony. Score: 94. Reviewed February 5, 2016 ARTICLE »
2013 Escarpment Single Vineyard Pahi Martinborough New Zealand Pinot Noir
13.5% alc., pH 3.58, TA 0.50, $56. Sourced from McCreanor Vineyard that has vines that are 26-years-old. Clone 10/5. On the skins 19 days, aged 18 months in French oak barrels, 40% new. Bottled unfined and unfiltered. · Moderate reddish purple color in the glass. Engaging aromas of cherry, strawberry and wilted rose. Impeccable marriage of black cherry fruit and oak in a mid weight style with suave supporting tannins. Admirable harmony, with an array of perfectly ripened dark red fruits, finishing with a peacock tail of aromatic good will. The most “feminine” of three Single Vineyard wines tasted together. Score: 94. Reviewed February 5, 2016 ARTICLE »
2013 Escarpment Single Vineyard Te Rehua Martinborough New Zealand Pinot Noir
13% alc., pH 3.54, TA 0.51, $56. Grapes grown on Barton Vineyard that has vines over 22 years old and many clones. Soils are deep alluvial gravels. Fermented in wooden vats, total vat time 18 days, aged 18 months in French oak barrels, 40% new. Bottled unfined and unfiltered. · Moderately dark reddish purple color in the glass. The seductive nose is incredibly exotic and intoxicating, with highly expressive aromas of blackberry, black plum, spice and tobacco humidor. The heavenly fruit core is both savory and succulent, offering an array of purple and black fruits. A subtle spice and floral note adds intrigue. The wine exudes mouth watering vigor and fruit expression with well-defined, bold tannins adding substance. More expressive on the nose than palate now but the divine flavors will catch up over time in the cellar. When tasted the following day from a previously opened and re-corked bottle, the strikingly exotic aromatics persisted, along with a noticeable oak overlay. Score: 93. Reviewed February 5, 2016 ARTICLE »
2008 Escarpment Martinborough New Zealand Pinot Noir
13.5% alc., $35. Imported by Meadowbank Estates, Alexandria, VA. The vineyard at Escarpment is planted on alluvial gravel terraces at the foot of the Aorangi Mountains. Vinified by Larry McKenna, known in New Zealand as the “Prince of Pinot.” · Moderate reddish-purple hue in the glass. Nice array of spicy red and black fruits on the expressive nose. Full-bodied and very ripe core of dark red and black fruits with complimentary oak vanillin and spice in the background, displaying a creamy mouth feel, and exhibiting a modest persistence on the finish. Very good (-). Reviewed November 29, 2011 ARTICLE »
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. Reviewed October 13, 2008 ARTICLE »
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. Reviewed October 13, 2008 ARTICLE »
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. Reviewed October 13, 2008 ARTICLE »
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. Reviewed October 13, 2008 ARTICLE »
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. Reviewed October 13, 2008 ARTICLE »
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. Reviewed October 13, 2008 ARTICLE »
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. Reviewed October 13, 2008 ARTICLE »
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. Reviewed October 13, 2008 ARTICLE »
2003 Escarpment Kupe Martinborough New Zealand Pinot Noir
14.0% alc., $60. The Maori navigator Kupe is said to have discovered New Zealand, and his image on the label and his pioneering journeys inspire the winemaking at Escarpment. The Kupe bottling represents the first wine released from close planted vines on the estate's Te Muna Road, Martinborough vineyard planted in 1999. Word has it that some of the plantings are suitcase clones from France planted on their own roots. This bottling will only be produced in exceptional vintages. Imported by Paterno Imports. · The wine clearly has the most power of any New Zealand Pinot Noir I tasted recently. It is a Pinot Noir of great promise but I would not drink it for at least five years. The potent nose intoxicates with black plums and cherries. The flavors are deep and dark with underpinnings of earth, pepper and toasty oak. There are substantial tannins in the background. This is one big, rich pussycat. Reviewed April 16, 2006