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Coming In from the Rain: StarVintner Neil McCallum, Dry River, New Zealand
By Jim Clarke
April 2007

The vineyards at Dry River, New ZealandThere are probably a number of ways of deciding whether an area might be conducive to growing winegrapes; Neil McCallum’s goal was to get out of the rain, and that brought him to Martinborough. A small area there held a 30-year record for the lowest rainfall on New Zealand’s North Island, as mountains on either side encouraged clouds to drop their cargoes before they reached the valley in between. The ocean still had a cooling influence through a gap in the mountains to the south, though, which made the area good for cooler-climate grapes such as Riesling and Pinot Noir.

Good, but not perfect; rainfall was low, but the area around Martinborough still has plenty of the green pastures one associates with New Zealand, and the fertile alluvial soils of the valley retain water well. Further parsing of the landscape was necessary before Neil decided to start planting vines, and eventually he decided on a crescent-shaped escarpment around the northern edge of town. Formed by the meeting of the Ruamahunga and Huangarua rivers, the escarpment consisted of gravelly soils, rocks and stones thrown aside by the rivers as they eroded their way around the sliver of land. Gravel makes for good drainage, and that extra squeeze on the vine’s water supply was just what Neil was looking for.

Wine storage at Dry RiverIt sounds like a rather prosaic, clinical way of finding a new terroir, far from the Old World’s romantic images of ancient vineyards and monks tasting the soil. A scientist by training with a doctorate in Chemistry from Oxford, Neil is not reluctant to use that knowledge to create the best wines he can. But there is no mad-scientist laboratory at Dry River whose facilities, in fact, are rather spartan; the science is instead bent on understanding what the vines need to make the best possible wine, a wine that reflects its origins on the Martinborough Escarpment. This is science being used to discover and reveal terroir. Martinborough’s winemaking tradition dates back to 1979, when Neil planted his first vines; careful scientific study was standing in for Europe’s centuries of experience.

As such, Neil and his crew still don’t have the whole picture of what wines suit Martinborough best. Dry River makes several different wines, mostly from Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and Alsatian varietals. They also intend their wines to age, and this slows down their understanding of the vineyards: if you’re interested in how the wine will taste in ten or fifteen years, you have to wait ten or fifteen years to find out, and then apply that information so future vintages can take advantage of it. Nevertheless, Neil’s initial choices have served Dry River well, and the wines have met with great critical success. He now has over 30 wine-producing neighbors who wish to emulate it. The area’s Pinot Noirs are reckoned by many as New Zealand’s best – and to my palate, they knock the socks off the more aggressively-marketed Pinots of the Central Otago region.

Will Martinborough Pinot then become ubiquitous, like Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc? It’s pretty unlikely; most producers don’t seen to be thinking that way, and the Martinborough Escarpment simply isn’t big enough for really massive plantings. Dry River has expanded from its initial eight acres to 30, but they’re focusing new investment on the winery facilities, and hoping that the meager 3,000 cases/year will be enough to satisfy the international interest their reputation has earned them.

Some Recommended Wines:

Dry River Chardonnay 2004 The nose is dominated by a mix of lemon, smoke, marzipan, and clove, but more fruit emerges on the palate, including some tropical touches. Very clean and elegant, this medium-bodied Chardonnay has food-friendly acidity and weight.

Dry River Pinot Gris 2004 Quite closed and minerally on the nose, this rich and silky wine comes through with notes of peach and pineapple in the mouth. Its length is excellent.

Dry River Pinot Gris 1997 This Pinot Gris demonstrates how these wines open up with time. It shows tons of flavor, notably touches of nectarine, almond, rose petals, and spice. It’s full and creamy, with a dry, clean finish.

Dry River Lovat Vineyard Gewurztraminer 2004 While weighty, this Gewurztraminer nonetheless carries itself with remarkable poise. Lots of fruit aromas – mandarin, peach, tangerine – are rounded out by notes of cardamom, white chocolate, and rose petals. It shows good length as well.

Dry River Pinot Noir 2004 The nose is already expressive with notes of cherry, dark raspberry, anise, and fruitcake spices, while the palate says this wine needs time (or at the very least, vigorous decanting). It’s medium-bodied, with a firm, muscular mouthfeel and surprisingly subtle tannins.

Dry River Pinot Noir 1996 Very expressive and complex; lots of dark fruit aromas like cherry and plum as well as earth, mushroom, cola, and chocolate notes. Like its younger sibling, it’s focused and powerful, with good length.


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