On the Trail

The Grand King of New Zealand Pinot Noirs

David Driscoll
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I had a conversation with my colleague and friend Ryan Woodhouse the other morning about what it might take to convince American customers to start spending as much money on a bottle of New Zealand Pinot Noir as they would for a wine from California or Oregon, let along Burgundy. There's definitely a classist hierarchy embedded in the way most of the wine-drinking world considers the varietal and no matter how great the pedigree and how spectacular the flavor, most of us would never consider paying $50 or more for a bottle of New Zealand Pinot Noir. A bottle of Volnay? No problem. DuMol? Of course. Domaine Serene? Hell yes! Ata Rangi? Uhhh......maybe next time. 

 That's going to change this year, however. 

The new 2015 vintage of Ata Rangi is one of the prettiest, most haunting, and awe-inspiring Pinot Noirs we've carried from anywhere in the world and you don't have to read one word of critical praise to figure that out on your own. All you need is to smell the glass and take a sip. It's all pretty self evident from that point on. Stunningly gorgeous aromas of cherries, herbs, and spices leap from the glass. Delicate and nuanced flavors dance across the palate. It's a superstar Pinot Noir on every level, textbook in its character and divine in its expression. It's always been that way, however. It's just taken us Americans a bit longer to come to terms with spending $50 on a screw cap from New Zealand and it's tragic that we've been depriving ourselves for this long!

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I'm sure twin 99 point reviews along with a 97 from Suckling will help the wine's cause, but even without the hype and the press this level of praise is nothing new for Ata Rangi. Clive Patton, Ata Rangi’s owner and founder, planted the first vines on an old sheep paddock back in the early 1980’s, essentially pioneering the region of Martinborough. He had a vision; an understanding that this land was capable of producing majestic pinot noir, but beyond his prescience there's something uniquely special about Ata Rangi's vines themselves. It's a rather enthralling story, to say the least. Much of Ata Rangi’s plantings are of a varietal clone known locally as the “Abel” or “Gumboot” clone. This specific clone of pinot noir was propagated from a single cutting taken from Domaine de la Romanée-Conti in Burgundy and smuggled into New Zealand in the mid-1970’s. The cutting was allegedly hidden inside a gumboot (rain boot) but discovered by a customs officer named Malcolm Abel. Mr. Abel, being a wine enthusiast himself, realized the significance of the cutting and took it (via quarantine) to the countries viticulture research center. He would eventually plant his own vineyard from the clone in Auckland. In 1982, Clive worked with Malcolm Abel on that very vineyard and took his own cuttings to establish Ata Rangi. Decades later the Abel Clone is also referred to as the Ata Rangi Clone, such is the importance of these early plantings to the nation’s viticultural narrative. That means that when you drink Ata Rangi pinot noir today, you're drinking a wine that can trace its roots back to the most heralded (and expensive) wines in the world.

Now I'm not sure how much more convincing we can do here; the 2015 Ata Rangi has huge scores, glowing press, a great price, an incredible history, accessible flavors, and of course the old screw cap. If you're still not convinced that New Zealand deserves your fifty bucks, I'm challenging you to try this bottle and have your world turned upside down (under). The gauntlet has been laid. Now be amazed.

-David Driscoll