Australasian tasting with Escarpment and Torbreck Vintners

Some of the worlds oldest vines continue to thrive in South Australia’s Barossa Valley and 3,600 kms away in Martinborough, New Zealand there are some vines upwards of 35 years of age now entering into their experiential phase. First there is the 1994 founded Torbreck Vintners, one of the Barossa’s upper echelon producers of bonzer shiraz, Rhône-inspired red blends, sémillon and a grenache to rival any in this world. Second along comes Escarpment Wines, a recent addition to the Torbreck portfolio created by the Marchesi of Martinborough himself, that being Larry McKenna back in 1999. The winery was originally established as a partnership between McKenna, his wife Sue, along with Robert and Mem Kirby, at a vineyard planted on the Te Muna river terraces, a few kilometres east of Martinborough town. McKenna had been in Martinborough since 1984, involved in the vineyards since ’86 and the winery was recently purchased by Torbreck in 2019.

With John Szabo MS and Torbreck’s Andrew Tierney

Back in September Torbreck’s Sales, Export and Marketing Director Andrew Tierney was in Toronto and so John Szabo MS and I sat down with him and his importing agent Craig de Blois of Noble Estates. We paced steadily with concerted haste through five Escarpment and eight Torbreck wines. Some will soon show up in VINTAGES and also by way of Classics catalogue releases from now through the Spring of 2023. Here are my notes on the 13 wines.

Escarpment Chardonnay 2021, Martinborough, New Zealand

Founder Larry McKenna had been in Martinborough since ’84, involved in the vineyards since ’86, started the property in ’99, mainly to chardonnay and pinot noir with a bit of pinot gris. Purchased by Torbreck in 2019. Alluvial-gravel soils and a property (Escarpment) that needed an infusion of commercial advantage. Quite a flinty strike, reminiscent of the Dog Point style in whites but here clearly attributable to the terroir. Low density in the new plantings and low volume output. From the original plantings (or at least those that survived Phylloxera) and a wine that sees no barrique, only puncheons. Intensity of tart and taut behaviour, lees-textured though nothing creamy caused by stirring. Gets to the top of the sides of the palate, lingers for a cocktail or two and slowly drifts away. Unique set of chardonnay circumstances right here. Drink 2022-2025.  Tasted September 2022

Escarpment “Noir” Martinborough Pinot Noir 2020, Martinborough, New Zealand

Considered an “entry-level” pinot noir, poured first and leading into a few “Premier and Grand Cru” iterations. Consider this more of a mini or multi-Villages style or plan, done in stainless steel and old barrels. A combination of vineyard across Martinborough of fruit de-classified away from the Villages and Cru wines. Shows off that darker and mineral-stony intensity of varietal fruit and therefore quite typical for the greater sense of place. As floral as expected or better yet wanting it to be, strength of aromatic sense and then herbal though savoury so, like fennel and drying roses. Drink 2022-2024.  Tasted September 2022

Escarpment Pinot Noir 2019, Martinborough, New Zealand

The next Escarpment steppe is a “Villages” level pinot noir, composed of 60-70 per cent estate fruit plus other Martinborough “Villages” sourced fruit. The next level concentration but more so the complex notions of fungi and Piedmontese-esque tar and roses take this to another level entirely. You need to take time here, allow the aromatics to rise and hover, pause again and then consider the range of flavour escaping with emotion. The encapsulation of Martinborough falls into and emerges from this Villages and my how it strikes a chord. Drink 2023-2025.  Tasted September 2022

Escarpment Pinot Noir Kiwa 2020, Martinborough, New Zealand

From the oldest (1.8 hectare) block with a higher level of alluvial-gravel, a township vineyard close to Ata Rangi, dating back to 1994. Expect high mineral and tannin though that is not necessarily what will come from sister bottling Kupe. Taking concentration, sensation and fascination to another level yet again, aromatic sure but harder to get and fully comprehend. Yet you know and intuit another dimension and scope of varietal fortitude, due to soil and place, someway, somehow. This is whole and a wine of breadth, clustered by 30-40 per cent intact berries and thereby a true gifting of the veritable pinot noir. Drink 2024-2029.  Tasted September 2022

Escarpment Pinot Noir Kupe 2020, Martinborough, New Zealand

One hundred per cent Abel clone smothered and then smuggled from “somewhere” in France, here from a block that suggests 60-70 whole cluster fermentation and the winemaking team abides. There is a pickling effect, a reductive reticence and a demand in taut intensity by way of tension that would not want to open up any time soon. Showing some nightshade leafiness though subtly so and surely a component that will dissipate with time. A beast? Perhaps the term of endearment could be used but it should be considered more in terms of weaponry, medieval to a degree but a warrior’s accoutrement accruements for sure. Return before the next moment of strife to check in and see where Kupe is at. Drink 2025-2033.  Tasted September 2022

Ladies and gentlemen, Craig de Blois

Torbreck Woodcutter’s Sémillon 2022, Barossa Valley, South Australia

From plantings of 1984 and 1998 and yes indeed the first 2022 wine tasted (for now). Just over a third is aged in wood and the vintage was as non dramatic as it gets, “a good year,” tells Andrew Tierney, “no drought, no wildfires, no bad winds.” Bit more downy texture and fulsome mouthfeel than many which will surely equip this sémillon with the kind of stature to age into something elastic and forever. This will surely include buttered brioche and lemon curd, eventually. Just imagine how upper echelon, world class this wine could be were it’s vineyards farmed and crafting approached with religious reverence. Drink 2022-2025.  Tasted September 2022

Torbreck Cuvée Juveniles 2021, Barossa Valley, South Australia

The first vintage that contains fruit from the recent carignan and cunoise plantings (2017) to go along with the syrah, grenache and mourvèdre. The “Côtes de Barossa” of Torbreck’s Rhône portfolio with such an added savoury element now that the C’s are involved and balancing out with the S, G and M. Gone are the days of confectionary pleasantries (a relative thing to say) and welcome to equanimity but better still Barossa Valley range. The new umami and depth descended than before. a great direction to be sure. Drink 2023-2027.  Tasted September 2022

Torbreck The Steading 2020, Barossa Valley, South Australia

Here Torbreck’s world enters what can be considered and even referred to as “Châteauneuf de Barossa,” a place where a multitude of Rhône grapes gather for the full and complimentary layered effect. A true G-S-M, first made in 1996 and by many accounts the signature red wine of the company. Rich and structured, built for aging. Ages in large foudres and while it will almost certainly retract in a year or so, for now the open juiciness and up front beauty is there for the preview. Just wait until the 2017 plantings of carignan and counoise mature and join this mix. The future will be exciting indeed. Drink 2022-2025.  Tasted September 2022

Torbreck Grenache Hillside Vineyard 2019, Barossa Valley, South Australia

Planted in 1949, all dry-farmed bush vine grenache on an estate property at 180m of elevation. The fruit used to go into The Steading but now finds its way into one large foudre for this lithe, elegant and copacetic example of pure grenache. Hard to find a Barossa Charter for Old Vines example any more impressive as a provider than this, a parent, grandparent and great-grandparent set of vines gifting a current vintage with all the acumen, experience and nurturing that is seemingly impossible but so very wanted. Started in 2017 with the elimination of small casks because grenache absorbs and then oxidizes, better best done up in foudres for the right result. Here the grenache swirls, inclusive of raspberry, then variegates (with far eastern Illicium Verum spices) and expands aromatically, in complex flavours and truth be told, über concentrated freshness. Gorgeous and honest wine. Drink 2024-2034.  Tasted September 2022

Torbreck The Struie 2020, Barossa Valley, South Australia

Label does not say it (it’s a Torbreck thing) but this is solo shiraz, from “intermediate” vineyards in the 70-80 year range, 75 per cent from the Valley and the rest outside. Sure there is a feeling gained that’s expressly shiraz from Barossa but what’s more and truly important is this silken seamlessness, the glycerol and mint coulis that grabs the palate’s full attention. To grow at this quality level the yields have to be devilishly low, not an easy task when you’re working with 30 contract growers. Sustainably farmed and regionally framed in a shiraz of fruit, meat and sweet herbs, nothing tarry, charred or rustic about it. Smooth as it gets. Truth. Drink 2024-2030.  Tasted September 2022

Torbreck Shiraz The Factor 2019, Barossa Valley, South Australia

The essential difference between Struie and Factor is complicated but the limiting is to four vineyards (90 to 125 years of age, in stone, sand, clay and red Barossa loam) and 40 per cent in French oak. The viscosity is again palpable but now so bloody accentuated, elongated, elasticized and multiplied in the Factor. Thus the name? Not exactly (or likely) but this is indeed a matter of place(s) and purpose. No deception in this depth, nor in the execution neither. Need to find more word hyperboles for glycerol and mouthfeel so bare with me for a moment.. Let’s call Factor a shiraz “triol bond multiplied by hydroxyl bomb” with the result being a diatomic molecule simply called “Radical.” Drink 2026-2037.  Tasted September 2022

Torbreck RunRig 2019, Barossa Valley, South Australia

Six vineyards go into RunRig, 90-170 years of age, four estate and two by growers, from Lindoc to Ebeneezer. There is a tiny percentage of viognier added at bottling and the wines that are not chosen will end up in the Struie and The Factor. A drought year and there seems no real need to compare with those wines. The level of fortitude, intensity, trenchant purpose and just plain gumption is off the charts, shiraz or not, with a “willingness to get things done and just let this wine do the talking.” Not the solo black fruit that the others show but a full hematoma of hue and drupe, blues and reds in the scheme. Full varietal aperture, slow shutter speed and clarity like no other. Vintage snapshot captured that will live in infamy. Drink 2024-2039.  Tasted September 2022

Torbreck RunRig 2016, Barossa Valley, South Australia

Six vineyards go into RunRig, 90-170 years of age, four estate and two by growers, from Lindoc to Ebeneezer. There is a tiny percentage of viognier added at bottling and the wines that are not chosen will end up in the Struie and The Factor. Surely age has begun to make a minor difference but more than anything it is a vintage that sets the record straight. RunRig was one thing and like all great wines has to change so here the set is that of a twain. And so 2016 marks the turn from one era towards another and establishes a revised launch point to accrue the new benchmark. Shiraz yes but a wine of certitude and confidence to transcend varietal definitions and celebrate some of the oldest plots in the land. Sure the texture is silky smooth but the “it factor” concerns these layers to peel away and the depths of (opposite of despair) that put this wine where it wants to be. Drink 2023-2029.  Tasted September 2022

Good to go!

godello

Twitter: @mgodello

Instagram: mgodello

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Catena out of the bag

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Inclined to think this block has the best microbes @CatenaMalbec @LauraCatenamd @Noble_Estates #perfectname #adriannavineyard #vinodeparcela #mundusbacillusterrae #catenazapata #winesofargentina #mendoza #gualtallary #tupungato

Argentina’s Bodega Catena Zapata is in the throes of self-professed “Three Revolutions.” The first was inspired by Napa Valley, a grand success story that convinced Nicolás Catena Zapata to pursue the consciousness of emulation. He made the decision to plant, cultivate and produce high quality cabernet sauvignon and chardonnay. He infused his high-end domestic red with malbec, initiating a long history for this wine and a technique many others would follow. The old Italian traditions were eschewed for the Calif-French style. Catena has long since brought that wine to the world. The first revolution has been realized.

The development of extreme high altitude vineyards are at the crux of Catena’s second revolution. “When we talk about making a high altitude blend, we are actually taking about making a high altitude family of blends,” says Dr. Laura Catena, by way of introduction to a small faction of Toronto media. Plant selections and cuttings are employed with geneology and lineage. “To me climate has always been defined by latitude. Altitude is an entirely separate component. It’s a fact. Different soils give different flavours. I think the explanation lies in the microbes. Terroir needs to be redefined with these elements.”

Which leads to the third revolution, the current obsession defined by vinous archaeology, as if the Catena team are searching for fossils and signs of ancient life in the soil of their Adrianna Vineyard. They are in fact looking for diversity, variance and permutations, what viticulturists like to call micro-terroir. They are seeking to prove a French theory which attributes 100 per cent wine quality to terroir. Research is the mode de vie and who better to lead the revolution than the Harvard University-educated, biologist and physician Dr. Laura Catena. She and Head Winemaker Alejandro Vigil, along with Fernando Buscema and Vineyard Manager Luis Reginato have created the “Catena Institute of Wine.” What treasures they unearth will unlock the secret to the third “vineyard lot” revolution.

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Good morning @lauracatenamd #vinodeparcela #altitudewines #appellationwines

Their website reads “Leña Restaurante by Chef Anthony Walsh is an all-day dining destination, inspired by South American cooking, located at the corner of Yonge and Richmond.” Truer time-gastronomy continuum words are rarely spoken. We arrived early to meet Dr. Laura Catena, listened with great intent as she led us through nine appellation series and Adrianna Vineyard wines and then moved on to lunch. If ducking out early to catch an overseas flight were not an obstacle it would have added up to the better part of an all-day affair. I would have had no problem with that.

We are blessed in Toronto, this close-knit wine community of ours, with access to a never-ending flow of great wine. We are also graced by exceptional humans, wine purveyors, men and women who have assumed the thankless task of procuring the finest available products from around the globe, against all odds beneath the shadow of the world’s most tyrannical liquor system. Hats off to them.

tuna

Leña Restaurante’s Charcoal Bluefin Tuna, baked garlic potato, rapini, mojama, tomato

On November 9th Craig de Blois, Richard Dittmar and Mark Coster of Noble Estates, three smarter than your average bear, stand up guys played chaperone to Argentina’s Dr. Laura Catena in Toronto for this media tasting and trade lunch. We journalists and sommeliers are all well-versed in the Catena portfolio. My WineAlign colleagues and I had recently sat down with winemaker Ernesto Badja for a full-on, wide-scale investigation into a large section of the portfolio. This extraordinary and climat-precise sit-down went much further, deep into the soil for a compendious look at the proselytism of Catena culture.

Much of the discourse with Dr. Laura Catena during this visit focused on the science of soil, of microbes, bacteria and block by block vineyard investigations. I would expand further but I’ll just have to ask you to read the tasting notes below. Each of the very specific wines poured by Dr. Catena is driven by a particular block or a structured pyramid of amalgamated plots and the notes must speak to the science behind each expression. No more questions here. Just read the notes.

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Catena Vista Flores 2014, Mendoza, Argentina (Agent, $22.95, WineAlign)

The humidity of Vista Flores (where there is much more rainfall) makes for another level of compression and density in malbec. A very floral red, from violets and roses, mixed in with deep, dark fruit. The tannins are sous vide and subterranean, throaty, tobacco-laced and rigid. Gifts a soft peppery bite, fine dust, even finer tang, minty meets calcari feel. The purpose here is to elevate Catena’s cabernet sauvignon and malbec essentials into more curious consumer territory. Value here is strong and purposed so there is nothing to fear. Single vineyards are not always commercially sustainable but single terroirs are so much more likely so. This is the epitome of that concept for malbec in Mendoza. Drink 2016-2020.  Tasted June and November 2016

Catena Paraje Altamira Malbec 2014, Mendoza, Argentina (Agent, $22.95, WineAlign)

Paraje Altamira refers to something that is distant, far away, separated, a terroir where plots and places are dotted, separated by one another by some distance. Here Catena procures the flesh of the land with a malbec that delves deeper into earth and clay and procures a fuller, riper rich berry that goes to blue and boys. Though the tones of aromatic intensity and acidity are elevated, the ceiling is finite and the malbec juice is brilliantly protected. The earthy, material funk is all in, in surround and prevalent even as it finishes with the effects of great soil structure variegations. There is modern nebbiolo meets South African schisty syrah from mineral, smoked meat and smoulder in here. It’s got tartare running through its blood. Wow. Drink 2018-2024.  Tasted June and November 2016

Catena San Carlos Cabernet Franc 2014, Mendoza, Argentina (Agent, $19.95, WineAlign)

Here in 2014 the single terroir series cabernet franc by Catena heads in the right direction with elevated aromatic tones, so different than the malbec. Well enough aside and beyond just location, it seems San Carlos accentuates the acidity and the herbal conditioning to fruit, making it taste more like plum and pomegranate than berries. The barrel weighs yet does trod lightly on the ripe red fruit. There is great persistence in its gait, with additional black fruit from currants and berries. The pyrazines are low to almost noon-discernible. Drink 2017-2021.  Tasted June and November 2016

Catena Agrelo Cabernet Sauvignon 2014, Mendoza, Argentina (Agent, $22.95, WineAlign)

The aromatics fly from this four vineyard blend, more than the malbecs and certainly with haute plaisir as compared to the cabernet franc. The far-reaching amalgamation comes by way of La Pirámide Vineyard in the Agrelo district of Luján de Cuyo, Domingo Vineyard in the Villa Bastías district of Tupungato, Nicasia Vineyard located in Altamira in the La Consulta district of San Carlos and the high-altitude Adrianna Vineyard in the Gualtallary district of Tupungato. Travels well beyond fruit into florals and a sense of one another’s cumulative soil. What happens in Agrelo’s soils reacts with cabernet sauvignon or rather it allows (or encourages) these vines to draw something other. Something that is deep into a richness of tang, not an elevated acidity but a round and circuitous one. Balance is unearthed (literally) and this wine is extremely fresh, in fact it’s bloody delicious. A bit dusty and a few drops of bitters fall into it late so there is a minor sense of char and tar. Lingers like cabernet can and should. Drink 2016-2020.  Tasted November 2016

"Bones sinking like stones, all that we fall for." @LauraCatenamd we live in a beautiful world when #chardonnay does this, and that #adriannavineyard #catenawines #bodegacatenazapata #gualtallary #tupungato #mendoza #vinodeparcela #whitebones #whitestones

“Bones sinking like stones, all that we fall for.” @LauraCatenamd we live in a beautiful world when #chardonnay does this, and that #adriannavineyard #catenawines #bodegacatenazapata #gualtallary #tupungato #mendoza #vinodeparcela #whitebones #whitestones

Bodega Catena Zapata Adrianna Vineyard Chardonnay White Stones 2012, Mendoza, Argentina (Agent, $81.00, WineAlign)

The White Stones chardonnay from the altitude-aromatic-accelerating Adrianna Vineyard is part of Catena’s third revolution, in concert to understanding soil, led by Laura Catena, beginning here. From Laura’s passion for “parcelas,” micro-level soil locations, going back to an investigation that began in 2000. In a locale above a dried riverbed, leaving big rocks, limestone, sand and more rocks in various locations, with the use of 70 parcel bits per hectare showing what is where. Stones on the soil’s surface help to facilitate and create a micro-climate of warm days and very cold nights. From the outset it has to be said that no chardonnay from the southern hemisphere has ever intimated Burgundy as one smell and one taste as here it has done. It is noted as an impression deeply internalized from this single parcel within the vineyard. There are sticks and stones in elegant lines, subtle, demurred white flower aromas, lime-creamy fruit, petals and rock. A wow mouthfeel and flavour intensity. Wild-eyed acidity. All this could not have been laid clear, or bare, a year ago. Drink 2016-2020.  Tasted November 2016

Bodega Catena Zapata Chardonnay Adrianna Vineyard White Bones 2012, Mendoza, Argentina (Agent, $110.00, WineAlign)

The flip side of the Adrianna Vineyard is the antithetical White Bones, also part of Laura Catena’s third revolution, investigating and culling acuity from soil through the breakdown of the “parcelas.” These micro-level soil locations were first dissected in 2000 for the purpose of deconstructing Adrianna’s block-by-block diversity. The Bones necessarily draws from the ancient riverbed below, from its single parcel limestone, sand and rocks within the vineyard, though it seems quite deferential to the White Stones. It’s somehow fleshier and corporeal, of similar sticks but less stones. More bones, like an arm outstretched from the crackling skin of the roasting bird or swine. More gastronomy in that sense, less cool-climate and limestone a mere twinkle, not a shard or karst stuck like a needle into that arm. But the palate returns to join the stones with citrus and intensity. Chardonnay of concentration and balance with the soil crumbling like bones, shells and fossils into what is best described as Chablis. Drink 2016-2021.  Tasted November 2016

chicken-soup

Leña Restaurante’s Mushroom and Lentil Soup, roasted chicken, swiss chard, lemon

Nicolás Catena Zapata 2011, Mendoza, Argentina (396960, $110.00, WineAlign)

The epiphany came after Jacques Lurton told Nicolás Catena “your cabernet sauvignon reminds me of the Languedoc.” So Nicolás went back to Argentina and planted at 5,000 feet of elevation. History changed. So the coolest (others insisted “you will never ripen at this altitude”) site produces this dry, dusty, intense cabernet sauvignon, the kind you can’t deny is possessive of powers unable to resist oozing dark black currants, chocolate and spice. Try musing about holes on the palate and if you find one it’s black into which once entered reveals no exit point. The back is very chocolate driven, of dark cacao, bitterless and strong. Note the balanced intervals of structure by fine-line drawn architecture and see where this will travel. For 10 more years until the fruit begins to dry and shrivel to further intensify. The mind’s obsession keeps returning back to the middle palate that drives the machine. Drink 2018-2024.  Tasted November 2016

Catena Adrianna Vineyard Fortuna Terrae Malbec Vino De Parcela 2012, Mendoza (Agent, $130.00, WineAlign)

Catena’s Adrianna has clearly emerged as its most important vineyard and its biological dissolution is spurred by Laura Catena’s medical state of being and an unpropitious thirst for viticultural, micro-level knowledge. The analogical thinking machine delves deep into soil locations from an investigation that began in 2000. This section of Adrianna draws aridity and subtlety (as opposed to power) from the subterranean riverbed, leaving the big rock and heavy clay impart to others. From this single parcel within the vineyard the surprisingly attenuated and reserved character creates a new order for malbec, from Catena and the single-vineyard entablature. Quite pretty, floral and less volatile than not just Catena’s way but Mendoza malbec as a thing. A natural cure in the flavour profile tends to salumi and comes late. But even more respect is awarded because the overall personality is achieved without shrouding, sheathing or smouldering. It’s a very transparent malbec of extreme clarity, engaging and inviting. Singular actually. Drink 2018-2025.  Tasted November 2016

Catena Adrianna Vineyard Mundus Bacillus Terrae Malbec 2011, Mendoza (Agent, $325.00, WineAlign)

In this extremely specific malbec from a diagnosed block of the Adrianna Vineyard we are graced with the micro-science of wine. And if you feel that using the name of an aerobic bacteria in the nomenclature is an odd choice, consider the mind of Dr. Laura Catena and her biological approach to viticulture. If we can understand and differentiate the microbes in the soil we can make better wine. It’s as simple as that. When wine is broken down to the biological level is becomes something entirely different and this is the road travelled by the Mundus Bacillus. Catena’s usage of 70 parcel pits per hectare has unearthed this single parcel within the vineyard, again completely different and the pinpointed microbial discussion initiates right here. The soil stakes a claim for this malbec only, certainly not in any way that tends to funk but surely as an impresario of soil. Talk about eugenics in the MBT because that science is compelling and can be related to in this wine. It can offer keys towards improving genetic quality of the vinous population. Here we are faced with rich and dusty, a mean streak of malbec intensity made elegant by earthly microbes. This section draws parallels to the (chardonnay) White Bones soil from which there transfers an excess of dry extract and tannin. Patience please for a malbec that will be long lived. Drink 2019-2027.  Tasted November 2016

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Good to go!

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