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The winegrowers of Ara
a new appellation movement in New Zealand

Website: www.winegrowersofara.co.nz  

I admit it, when I first heard of Winegrowers of Ara I was a bit confused. From its name, it sounded to me like a cooperative movement – and while common in European wine regions, these are rare in the new world. But it’s not. Ara actually refers to two parallel ventures. First of all, it’s the name of a wine producer in New Zealand’s Marlborough region – one that’s trying to do something a bit different. Second, it’s the name of a place that Ara’s general manager, Dr Damian Martin, is trying to turn into a new appellation. I was curious enough to visit in November 2007 and my report on this visit is here. But in this short piece I wanted to unpack the concept behind Ara a little more, as well as report on some of the new releases, because I think it’s really interesting – and quite unique.

What Ara are doing is not just building their own vineyard and brand, but instead developing from scratch an old-world-style appellation. Damian Martin was the first to identify this remarkable, 1600 hectare river terrace as a potential vineyard site when he was general manager of Corbans but it didn’t happen, so when he finally got the chance, with Ara, he purchased the whole lot. Ara (the winery) have now planted 400 hectares of it themselves. But there is still a lot of room for more people to come in and see what they can produce from this special terroir, which Ara presumably would like to be recognized as a ‘Grand Cru’ vineyard site. [I guess a parallel might be with the Gimblett Gravels, which I’ve written about elsewhere, which were only relatively recently identified as an excellent place to make red wine. However, with the Gravels – perhaps one of the clearest new world demonstrations of the importance of terroir – things happened a little differently in that several growers began to work with them, and the recognition of their excellence was a gradual process.]

Indeed, Craggy Range – one of New Zealand’s best and most dynamic producers – have already made an Ara wine (a Sauvignon Blanc, see notes below). One of Ara’s goals seems to be to encourage other producers to begin working with this terroir, by contracting fruit. Might this extend to leasing patches of land on which they can plant their own vineyards? It’s an interesting concept.

On the back label of the Ara wines there’s a strip that reads: ‘Wines of Ara are certified for origin and quality. A tasting panel of respected wine people ensures that only wines that achieve the benchmark standards for intensity of flavour, ripeness and harmony carry the Ara name.’ So it seems that the intention is for Ara to become a brand name as an appellation, in a similar way to European appellations such as Chablis and Chianti that are used to sell wines in preference to the name of the producer. What Ara need to ensure is that the value of the Ara brand is not compromised by those who can produce Ara wines the most cheaply. The problem with appellations as brands in Europe has been just this: those who do good work build the value of the brand, only for those who cut corners to make money from it, parasitizing the brand by using it to sell their cheaply produced wines of lesser quality. This happens because the tasting panels that are used to maintain quality of the various appellations in France end up becoming political and fail to do their job properly. Will Ara be able to avoid this?

There’s a really good article by Kiwi winewriter Bob Campbell that addresses many of these issues here. In it he says, ‘Martin believes he has already created New Zealand's second largest single vineyard. His vision to develop New Zealand's equivalent of a grand cru site in Marlborough is the most ambitious project the region has seen since vines were first planted there 35 years ago. When Montana pioneered viticulture in Marlborough many people thought it was crazy. Martin has his share of critics – neighboruing winemakers among them – but no one thinks he's crazy.’

Will the idea of Ara as a sort of appellation catch on? I think a lot will depend on how the wines turn out. If they are special, and Ara (the producer) builds the reputation of Ara (the terroir), then others will want a slice of the action, even if it means helping promote (albeit indirectly) the brand name of another winery.

So how are the wines looking? It seems to me that the Pinot Noir is still a work in progress, going in the right sort of direction aiming for elegance, but yet to find ultimate balance, with slightly herby, savoury, green characters getting in the way of purity of aromatic expression. The Sauvignons beat to a slightly different drum than the majority of Marlborough wines, and I think these are closer hitting the mark. But it really is still very early to be drawing too many conclusions because the vines haven’t been in the ground all that long. I have a feeling that if anyone can pull this off, then Damian Martin and his team can.

Ara Composite Sauvignon Blanc 2007
Very fresh and bright with nice focus and some minerality. A fresh, pure style that’s really nice. ‘I’m looking for the mineral, elegant, textural area’, says Damian Martin. This was picked relatively early at 21-21.5 Brix. 90/100

Ara Resolute Sauvignon Blanc 2007
A single block that was hand picked and whole bunch pressed. Really intense: quite herby and fresh with a minerally, acidic structure under the dense fruit. A savoury style. This was fermented in small stainless steel barrels, which allows for good contact with the lees. There is no malolactic fermentation: the low pH makes malolactic fermentation less likely, so it’s not hard to avoid. 91/100

Ara Composite Pinot Noir 2007
Lovely sweet, focused berry fruits here. Very bright and pure. The palate is sweetly fruited with nice berryish fruit and a cherry tang. Really delicious: a bright fruity style. 90/100

Ara Resolute Pinot Noir 2006
A single plot selection. Quite pale in colour. Lovely smooth, ripe cherry fruit nose with a subtle spiciness. The palate is bright and spicy but the dominant theme is elegant berry and cherry fruit. Very pure with a nice structure. 91/100

Ara Resolute Pinot Noir 2005
’We probably picked a bit late’, says Damian Martin, ‘and this resulted in a bigger, chunkier wine’. Very bright herby cherry fruit nose which is vivid and intense. The palate shows bold, ripe, slightly herby fruit. Concentrated and rich but with nice fruit definition. 90/100

Ara Low Alcohol Sauvignon Blanc 2008 (Tank Sample)
This is a bit of a sneak preview at an unusual wine. It’s grown on low potassium soils which enables the grapes to reach ripeness at low sugar levels. The vines have low vigour, low acid, low sugar. The wine is savoury, intense and slightly green herbal but is fresh and bright. 10–10.5% alcohol.

Craggy Range Single Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc ‘Ara’ 2007
Very bright nose is quite herby. Concentrated and fresh with a strong herby complexity, but it is ripe with forward fruitiness at the same time. Stylish but perhaps a little atypical for Marlborough. 90/100

Ara Composite Pinot Noir 2006 Marlborough, New Zealand
Quite light in colour for a new world Pinot, this has notes of red cherry, cranberry, rhubarb and sweet herbs. The palate is fresh and a bit sappy, with grassy, green herbal notes under the fresh cherry fruit. It’s quite tangy, with good acidity, and a bit of spiciness. There’s a persistence here, and some nice textural elements, although there’s a bit of herby bitterness to the finish that clamps down on the fruit. It’s a really attractive, supple, savoury style of new world Pinot that will likely evolve interestingly over the next five years. 13% alcohol. 89/100 (£10.95 Berry Bros & Rudd, Majestic) 09/08

Ara Resolute Pinot Noir 2006 Marlborough, New Zealand
Quite light in colour, this has a charming, beguiling nose of sweet red cherries with integrated warm spicy notes adding an appealing warmth. Still fresh, though. The palate has spicy complexity sitting nicely under the smooth sweet cherry fruit, with textural richness and a bit of tannic grip keeping things savoury. There’s a hint of chocolate here, too, presumably from the oak (which is unobtrusive). Pretty serious stuff, with a distinctly European sheen. A complex, understated, elegant new world interpretation of Pinot Noir with the potential to develop well over the next few years. 13% alcohol. 91/100 (£19.99 Majestic, available from early November) 09/08

see also: New Zealand series; tasting notes on New Zealand wines

Wines tasted 05/08 and 09/08  
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