One of the disarming things about trying to get a bead on Ata Rangi – among New Zealand’s pre-eminent, and pioneering, producers of Pinot Noir – is how simple and straightforward they make it all sound. Last year marked 40 years “on the land” (there would have been celebrations but, well, you know, so they’re celebrating this year instead); four decades since founder Clive Paton bought five hectares of bare, flat paddock on an ancient river terrace in Martinborough, just 50 miles east of Wellington, and began planting Pinot Noir.
The story is charming: single parent and farming bloke Paton sets up small-town vineyard while bringing up a young daughter alone. He meets life and business partner Phyll Pattie in 1987 in Marlborough, where she is making wine, and cajoles her back to sleepy Martinborough where she looks after the white wines and Paton continues making the reds. By the mid-1990s, they hire winemaker Olly Masters (a winemaker world-famous in New Zealand, to borrow a Kiwi phrase) before current winemaker Helen Masters (Olly’s sister-in-law – the wife of his brother, Ben) takes the helm in 2003.
Fast-forward to 2021 and it’s as if a gentle destiny has simply unravelled before their eyes; as if, through the passing of time, this was always the destination. But the fated – and feted – history hides just as much human drive as it does good fortune.
There’s little doubt the Martinborough terrace is a fine place to grow grapes. But even with Dr Derek Milne’s soil and climate report of the late 1970s comparing the site directly to Burgundy (part of a drive to revive the agriculture sector in the area, says Paton) and even with the low land prices at the time, it still takes no small measure of conviction to set up a commercial vineyard from scratch.
To be fair, Paton wasn’t alone. Dry River, Chifney (now, basically, Margrain) and Milne himself (forming Martinborough Vineyards with partners) all planted at roughly the same time. But all have changed hands or had ownership issues at some point in their history, bar Ata Rangi, and that, I think, is fundamental.
Helen Masters calls it “an unsaid set of rules about what the wine needs to be” – a quality focus that is easier to uphold through family ownership. Talking “quality first” is a something of a cliché in the world of winemaker-speak but for a winery that has grown and maintained such a status, her point is hard to ignore. To establish the winery and vineyard, to start making good wine, to get international accolades in the 1990s (when Ata Rangi won three champion Pinot Noir awards at the International Wine and Spirit Competition), to maintain and build on that level into the new century is more a story of human vision than happenstance.
Indeed, Clive, Phyll and Clive’s sister and co-founder Ali Paton, are all forces of nature – as is Helen. “It’s mostly run by girls, these days,” says Clive, “and they’re all stroppy.” “We prefer the word ‘spirited’,” Masters interjects.
Even Clive’s disarmingly soft-spoken, all-round-lovely-bloke demeanour, his paintbrush moustache-topped smile and sometimes wistful eyes hide a clarity of purpose and action. Nowadays, Paton is as dedicated to his regenerative Project Crimson and his 200-acre “bush block” in the forested hills south of Martinborough as he is to Ata Rangi. I had the fortune to work with him in the cellar for the 2012 harvest and in the downtime before harvest, Paton drove up in his ute (a pickup truck) and took three of the cellar hands into his bush block. We spent the day walking the forest, setting possum traps – basically outdoor mousetraps – that Paton had stuffed into the canvas backpacks we humped around. We worked as hard there as we did in the cellar.
But what about the estate now? “We’re looking into the future,” says Clive, “possibly a succession of kinds. Looking at that over the next five years, that’ll be interesting.”
I ask Helen about this later. Her huge smile, sparkling eyes and bonhomie also belie a sometimes terrifying clarity of purpose. “There’s still a clear vision,” she tells me. “The next generation understand what Ata Rangi is – who owns it or manages it is less relevant because the staff know what that vision is. There’s such a strong idea about what it is that it would take 15 to 20 years to try to alter.”
Paton calls it “the spirit”. “The Pinot spirit still hasn’t died,” he says. “We want to improve”. For the wines themselves, as much as this is a retrospective tasting, there is inevitably talk of the future. Helen is adamant vine age is beginning to truly show the nature of the individual sites in Martinborough. “That’s what’s exciting about the future,” she says.
I ask about the appearance of two new, yet-to-be-bottled single-vineyard wines. Kotinga is a three-hectare block at the south-eastern end of the Martinborough Terrace. It’s a beautiful but very free-draining site. There’s also Masters’ Vineyard, an established site on the other, later-ripening side of town where winemaker Helen now lives. These two have been added to the lesser-known but now well-established McCrone Vineyard just a few hundred metres from the Ata Rangi home block. The McCrone name will be familiar to fans of Oregon’s Ken Wright Cellars as Don and Carol McCrone also own a vineyard there, in Yamhill-Carlton. In Martinborough, their 2.5-hectare vineyard is separated from Ata Rangi by a road and Ata Rangi’s four-hectare Walnut Ridge vineyard.
“As time goes on, you’ll see other vineyards that interest us but they’ll have to get over that 20-year-old mark,” says Clive. “We’re gradually evolving into the Burgundian model that we know and love.”
In fact, there are a host of possibilities, as Ata Rangi sources from a patchwork of vineyards in and around the town. Champ Ali is Ali Paton’s home block, a two-hectare site behind the Ata Rangi home block and planted to Pinot Noir and Syrah. Craighall vineyard, on the other side of the road to the cellar-door driveway, should need no introduction to Martinborough fans: the vineyard has been divided between Ata Rangi and boutique producer Dry River for years, both producing exceptional white wines. Meanwhile, Ata Rangi’s top Chardonnay is the Craighall – vine age has played a role here again, although this is no shield from the predations of phylloxera on own-rooted vines, and the vineyard is in the process of being replanted.
With the exception of the sweet, late-harvest Kahu Riesling, the Ata Rangi style has been for dry white and red wines. For those interested in such matters, the Chardonnay is whole bunch pressed and run to barrel and ferments – all ferments – are with indigenous yeasts. Masters generally eschews the trend of sulphides in Chardonnay and has experimented with fermenting Sauvignon Blanc on its skins (a technique with a huge future in New Zealand and elsewhere). The Ata Rangi Sauvignons, too, are dry, with the winemaking focusing on acidity and texture to create palate interest (hence the skins).
The reds are a little more straightforward. With a few days of pre-ferment cold soak, the wines again ferment with indigenous yeasts and do not generally have a long time on skins after ferment is complete. The only change has been an increasing use of whole-bunch ferments since about 2015.
In the vineyard, the mix of Pinot Noir includes the famous “Abel” clone, named after the customs officer (and winemaker) Malcolm Abel who confiscated a bunch of vine cuttings smuggled in a rubber boot (hence its alternative title of “the gumboot clone”) at Auckland airport in the 1970s. Abel then put them through official quarantine before propagating them in Auckland (Paton got his cuttings direct from Abel). But where was the cutting taken from? No-one is absolutely sure, but two renowned Burgundy vineyard sites are frequently mentioned. And it’s at this point that Ali Paton leans over to me to say, sotto voce, that there are some quite high-level trade talks going on at the moment and it would be wise not to mention the vineyards by name…if I wouldn’t mind.
The clone even has a wine named after it, the Abel Old Vine Pinot Noir. Along with a selection of other wines, spanning recent and older vintages, and the new, yet-to-be-released single-vineyard wines, it is reviewed below.