The Wairarapa man they call the ‘Prince of Pinot Noir’
The mystique of wine has been part of a Wairarapa winemaker’s life from an early age to the point where he earned the nickname ‘Prince of New Zealand Pinot Noir’.
When Larry McKenna came to Martinborough to try his hand at making wine 35 years ago, the village was a sleepy little rural service town.
Now retired from Escarpment Vineyard, McKenna remembers how wine permeated his life and brought something new to the region.
He remembers being fascinated by red stuff from his youth, growing up in South Australia.
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His father owned a wine cellar and his mother was an excellent cook, which allowed the family to fully appreciate the beautiful flavors.
“A family occasion involved wine and table time.
“We had to go down to the wine cellar and watch the bottles stored in the dark all on their side – there was a mystique about it as it got better with age.”
Moving to New Zealand in 1980 to take up a position as an assistant winemaker with Delegat, he moved to South Wairarapa from Auckland in 1986.
At the age of 35, McKenna was offered an equity opportunity to enter the ground floor of Martinborough Vineyard.
“I had a lot of faith and a lot of vision of what the wine sector could be for this district,” he says.
“You didn’t care about risk back then, and we invested, and we really haven’t looked back.”
When he came to South Wairarapa there were only a few vineyards that had just been established.
“It was really at the beginning. There were only four wineries – Ata Rangi, Dry River, Chifney [now Margrain]and Martinborough Vineyard.
“’86 was the second true vintage for the district.”
Martinborough in the mid-1980s was a far cry from the popular destination it is today.
“It was a rural service town for the local mutton and beef industry, and there were only two pubs, two takeaways, no restaurants and a motel.”
“None of the tourism that is here now.”
After 15 years with Martinborough Vineyard, McKenna saw an opportunity to start his own vineyard in the late 1990s.
With an equal joint venture investor, they purchased land south of town and established Escarpment Winery on Te Muna Rd.
Three years ago its business partner opted to sell and Escarpment was acquired by top Australian winemakers Torbreck Vintners. McKenna continued to participate in the management of the vineyard until his recent decision to retire.
Wine master Bob Campbell said the value of McKenna’s contribution has spread far beyond the escarpment.
“Larry was at the forefront of developing the reputation that New Zealand was capable of producing world-class wines.
“Sauvignon blanc may have opened the door to the world to learn more about New Zealand wine, but Pinot Noir has elevated the status of New Zealand wine in the world,” Campbell said.
McKenna remembered that they had to travel a lot to promote their wines in the early years, including traveling overseas.
He said buyers really appreciate their authenticity as local winemakers talking about their products, and that has served them well.
“We had no marketing budget, there was no social media, there weren’t even cell phones. We had to get on the bike and go to town and raise our hands and talk about it.
McKenna was a great ambassador for New Zealand wine, especially the grape for which Martinborough has become most famous.
This led one of Australia’s leading winemakers, James Halliday, to label McKenna “The Prince of New Zealand Pinot Noir”.
The pinot noir variety has always been a natural choice for Martinborough, and it has performed well overseas.
“Today’s cuisine, today’s way of life are much better suited to Pinot Noir. It is drunk from an early age and ages gracefully, McKenna said.
“We’re looking for something a little lighter, a little fruitier and a little easier to take.”
Martinborough has always been a boutique growth area with a strong focus on quality.
Nowadays, there were many more companies making wine in the area, but still not producing huge volumes.
McKenna cited an interesting statistic that Wairarapa, (which included Carterton and Masterton vineyards), produced only 2% of the country’s wine, but was home to 9% of our wine businesses.
“There are a lot of people tending very small acreages of grapes, so they get a lot of love, a lot of attention.”
Retiring from managing a vineyard opens many other opportunities for McKenna.
“I’m not the type of person to do nothing. I can’t see myself not working to some extent. It’s a huge decision. But I like to get out of my comfort zone.
He loved going out and planned to embark on cycling and walking adventures in New Zealand and overseas.