Thursday, July 23, 2015

11 Years Of Ata Rangi Pinot Noir

Ata Rangi means "red sky dawn", and that it was for New Zealand Pinot Noir, when Ata Rangi, together with Felton Road, burst on the wine scene. I therefore felt great anticipation when I learnt I could participate in a rare 11 year vertical tasting. I had once participated in a blind Pinot Noir tasting where a small group of wine lovers were trying to figure out which Pinots were from New Zealand and which from Australia. We were then embarrassed to learn, we had just tasted 6 vintages of Ata Rangi. The vintage influences were very large. This was about eight years ago. What would happen this time?

Clones have more influence on Pinot Noir than on any other variety, and the Ata Rangi situation is an interesting one. Like many others in New Zealand, they use 6-8 clones, in particular clone 5 from the US and the Dijon clone, but at the heart of its Pinot Noir is the gumboot or Abel clone. It is a long story how it got to Ata Rangi, but it is rumoured to be an offspring of an illegal single vine cutting from Domaine de la Romanee-Conti. According to Clive Paton, Ata Rangi's founder, it delivers the typical Ata Rangi texture, length and silky tannins. The other significant aspect is that the soil of Ata Rangi's vineyards consists of 30-50 meters of gravel.

Now on to the tasting. It covered the years 1999 and 2004-2013. We tasted from youngest to oldest in two five year brackets, followed by the 1999. I will not describe every single wine, but start with some overall conclusions, followed by a summary.

The significant vintage variations I had experienced in my previous vertical tasting were not so apparent in the five youngest wines, but there was more of it in the second bracket. Given seasonal variations were just as large, why would this have been? According to Clive Paton, it is not in the winemaking. Maybe, as the vines reach maturity - they are now 35 years old -, they can balance out the variations. It is not entirely clear.

Overall, Ata Rangi Pinot Noirs are iron fists in a velvet glove. These are wines with concentration, with fruit and (not so noticeable) tannin power. They all deliver elegance and silkiness.

The most impressive wines were the bookends, 2013 and 1999. The 2013, from a perfect vintage, has complex flavours, strawberry, raspberry, but also savoury sandalwood. The wine is vibrant, with a very rounded and balanced mouthfeel and a long burgundian finish (97 points). The 1999, which won a trophy at the prestigeous UK International Wine and Spirit competition, shows what such a wine can develop into: the flavours are now very exotic: there is truffle, hay, some toffee. The wine is still very balanced, simply sensational (98 points). This was a wine under cork. We had a perfect bottle, but others opened to trade and in Melbourne were not good.

The second group scored 93-95 points and consisted of the 2012, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2006, 2005. There were considerable differences between these wines, mainly depending on the warmth of the season and sunshine hours. In the cooler years, the wines are more austere, and acidic, but showing great elegance. This was certainly true for the 2012 and the 2010, which was more generous, though.This latter wine was my third favorite of the night. 2008 and 2009 were warmer seasons. The wines showed generous fruit aromas and were softer. Secondary characteristics, such as mushroom, started to show in these wines. 2005 was a very masculine wine with a weighty palate. The year had a very low yield. 2006 was more elegant, a gracious and precise wine with silky tannins to finish.

The weaker wines (around 91 points) were 2011, 2007 and 2004. The 2011 season had rain at the wrong time, which diluted the intensity a bit. 2007, from a cold season with low yield, was a powerful wine on the front palate, but finished quite short. 2004 was the wettest season. The wine had developed quite a bit, showing a charming mix of fruit and forest floor flavours - a pretty wine, but lacking some intensity.

Overall, a mighty impressive showing. It is good to see that no vintages were left out. The seasonal impact was significant, with warmer seasons showing better, but others creating interesting characteristics as well.

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