Escarpment

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Situated just 5 kilometres east of Martinborough village, Escarpment’s 24 hectares of vineyards lie on distinctive alluvial gravel, terraced land stretching out along the banks of the Huangarua River. Overlooking the vineyard are the Aorangi Ranges, the very hills made famous by Kupe, the great Polynesian voyager, who discovered New Zealand according to Maori legend. Kupe left his three canoes, Nga Waka, on top of the range, giving rise to the now familiar landmark of the district, the “Nga Waka-o-Kupe” or three flat-topped hills on top of the range, which resemble upturned canoes. This warrior and his story provide the inspiration for the vineyard’s distinctive brand and logo.

Escarpment Vineyard was established in 1998 as a joint business venture between Robert & Mem Kirby (of Australia’s Village Roadshow) and Larry & Sue McKenna. Collectively, these four directors bring to Escarpment a world of experience, skill and understanding to the nurturing and making of fine, deliciously sublime wine. It goes without saying the impetus behind establishing this vineyard came from the four’s deep love for Pinot Noir. Meeting by chance in 1998 through Dr Richard Smith, Larry and Robert quickly hit it off and realised they had more than a love for the grape in common. Serious talk about establishing a definitive New World vineyard began in earnest even then and the "idea whose time has come" has resulted in one of the most significant vineyard developments in the New Zealand district of Martinborough.

Making the decision to establish their own vineyard was one thing, finding the special piece of land that offered the essential ingredients required for optimal grape growing and wine making was another. Although they considered other wine growing areas in New Zealand, Larry and Sue kept coming back to the Martinborough area. They knew the area intimately having grown grapes and made wine there for years. They were convinced that Martinbrough offered the rich mix of elements they required to grow and make fine New World wine, particularly their Pinots.

They soon discovered the Te Muna river terraces on the other side of the hill and knew this was it for them! Basically being an extension of Martinborough’s famed terrace land, the Te Muna site offered all the right attributes, with land a-plenty for their purposes. Larry and Sue firmly believe the Te Muna valley is the future of Martinborough. Evidence for this is seen in the range of new vineyards being established in the area, including the much talked about Craggy Range, whose planting alone will double the current output of Martinborough.

“Te Muna”, means "secret" or "special place", and that is exactly how the people at Escarpment feel about the land and what it means to live, grow and make wine there. Deciding upon the vineyard’s name took far more soul searching. Ideas were bandied about for weeks on end, creating confusion rather than clarity! It wasn’t until Robert’s brother in law, David Glass, went out walking along the eastern boundary of the property one dusky evening that the inspiration came to him in a flash.

Looking out from this point all he could see was the expansive kilometre-long escarpment dropping sharply down to the river for a further 30m (it is so steep it can only just be walked up, and such daring activity is certainly not recommended after sampling the spoils of the vines when visiting!). And so the idea for Escarpment was conceived. Standing at this point you are treated to the most spectacular views of the surrounding country and it is here the vineyard buildings will eventually rest, soaking in the inspiring vista from dawn to dusk.

A specially designed energy efficient winery is partially complete at Te Muna Road. Stage one, an underground barrel room was completed in 2003. This room gives natural humidity and temperature control. When the fermentation room is built above this barrel room they will be able to gravity feed all fruit and wine processing. This allows the gentlest handling of fruit and of the young wines. The aim is to complete all processes without the use of pumps as the resulting wines are softer and more rounded. When both rooms are complete, they will be able to produce wine with a minimum of input, keeping their carbon footprint as small as possible. The fruit receival/fermentation building is planned and will include the latest ideas in energy conversation and alternative power supply.

Escarpment is accredited with Sustainable Winegrowing New Zealand, an industry initiative directed through New Zealand Winegrowers. With a growing trade and consumer demand for environmentally friendly products, it provides an important platform to promote the New Zealand wine industry as a world leader in clean, green wine production.

Sustainable Winegrowing New Zealand provides a frame-work to improve all aspects of performance – environmental, social and economic sustainability. In the vineyard it addresses the use of agrichemicals, soil health, water availability and quality, and biodiversity. In the winery it addresses resource management, waste management and process management issues. The programme also promotes the well-being of staff, neighbours and the community.

Larry McKenna has firmly established himself as a leading winemaker in these parts and is particularly renowned and respected as one of New Zealand’s pre-eminent Pinot Noir winemakers. Referred to by various wine writers and authorities as everything from the "Prince of Pinot Noir", the "Godfather of Pinot Noir", a Pinot Noir "legend", and "maestro", Larry has built a solid reputation for understanding and gaining the best out of this typically stubborn and capricious grape. This is no mean feat, for, as leading British wine writer Jancis Robinson says, “Pinot Noir is a minx of a grape” and “demands much of both vine-grower and winemaker”.

Much of Larry’s success with winemaking has come from a deep-seated passion for producing the very best wine of the grapes he has to work with. He takes a collaborative approach to winemaking and believes in sharing his knowledge and understanding with fellow winemakers to ensure collective learning and progression. He points to the developments and successes in recent years with New Zealand’s Pinot Noir and argues that the open exchange the winemakers have shared, the fact that they represent a range of nationalities and their varying approaches to winemaking and to Pinot Noir benefits the quality of the wine produced.

Playing an integral role in helping shape the development of Pinot Noir in New Zealand, Larry has headed-up a number of winemaker-critiquing workshops and conferences to ensure this open exchange and healthy sharing of learning and knowledge continues and is valued by emerging wine makers as well as established ones.

Known for his relaxed and unassuming style, Larry applies the same approach to his winemaking. Rather than force a wine into doing something out of character, he works with the grapes to develop distinctive wines that are true to character, quality and vintage. And this doesn’t stop at Pinot Noir. Regardless of the grape variety, Larry applies the same skill, precision, understanding and integrity to ensure that his Pinot Gris, Chardonnay, Riesling and Pinot Blanc all stand proudly alongside his Pinot Noir.

Born and bred in Adelaide, Australia he graduated from the Roseworthy Agricultural College there in 1976 and has nearly three decades of winemaking experience under his belt. After travelling for a stint through Europe and sampling the wine culture, he cut his teeth with fellow Roseworthy student John Hancock at Delegat’s Wine Estate in Auckland, New Zealand.

In 1986 Larry left Auckland to take up the position of CEO/Winemaker at Martinborough Vineyard in the Wairarapa region. From 1986 to 1999, he grew this company from 20 to 160 tonnes and firmly put Martinborough Vineyard and himself on the world map as one of the pre-eminent New World Pinot Noir producers and winemakers.
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