I used to be one of those Australian’s – you know, the one’s that don’t bother with countries that are too close to their own to really care to go and take a look. Much like many Brits that don’t quite appreciate the fact that they’re on Europe’s doorstep and, instead, prefer to come over and visit Australia, Thailand and so on…
Well, I can now proudly say that I’m 100% re-formed in all of my opinions about New Zealand being a country not worth visiting until I was old enough to do it ‘Cruise and Coach’ style in my 60’s…
Free of the burdens and restrictions (and smells) of a cruise and coach, I hopped in my hire car in Christchurch and set off for the very first time down the number 1, towards Cromwell in the Central Otago, home of New Zealand’s famously distinct, Pinot Noir.
The New Zealand wine industry is, relatively speaking, still in it’s infancy – but vine planting has been going on since the late 1800’s; and in the late nineteenth century, the Central Otago was singled out as one of the great potential wine making regions in New Zealand. By the 1990’s the region’s vineyards numbered just 11, but soon began to expand rapidly, and by 2004 that number had risen to 75, according to New Zealand Winegrowers.
The region’s climate conditions can be easily summed up as cold or hot – regular snowfall and frost anytime between March and November, with an average rainfall of 600mm per year, are contrasted with hot, dry summers with intense heat from the sun and minimal cloud cover. Speaking with Rudi Bauer, of Quartz Reef, he said, “the soil at the moment is quite infertile due to the infestation of rabbits throughout the area, which makes it very difficult to grow anything long term, so the climate has a lot more to do with influencing the wine than anything the soil can impart… at the moment.”
The soils of the Central Otago range from deep silt loams, and finely textured lake-bed sediments, quartz sands along with quartz and schist gravels. They have the potential for high fertility and good water retention, so long as the rabbits are kept away.
The rabbits, I found out, were those mushed up things lying just about one every 200 meters or so, and they are New Zealand’s biggest pest – with no natural predators, not even the beautiful Karearea Peregrin falcon, to control it. After I found this out, I wasn’t so worried when ever one raced out in front of my car, and I accidently hurtled over the top of it.
If the gigantic snow peaked mountains of the Central Otago are the crown, and the majestic glacial blue lakes are the jewels of that crown, then the vineyards are the robes and adornments with which the area sweeps it’s way into the wine world, grabbing and holding the attention of all the other guests in the court.
Best known for it’s Pinot Noir, that densely clustered mercurial mistress, capable of creating some of the finest wines in the world, the Central Otago is soaring high above it’s height on the world stage, creating wines of deep colour, rich body and textural finesse, worthy of some of the finest cru’s the world has seen.
But, there are winemakers hidden within the folds of the mountains that are making other varietals too… Pinot Gris, Chardonnay, Riesling, even Syrah, and surprisingly, Sauvignon Blanc. All worthy of standing alongside their famous Pinot Noir prize fighters, and all of which I was able to taste, and begin to paint a picture of what defines a Central Otago wine.
If you want to export your wines to the world, in New Zealand, you must be a part of the group, Sustainable Winegrowing New Zealand (SWNZ), which aims at promoting sustainable wine growing throughout the country, resulting in 20% of the vineyards to be certified organic by 2020. So far about 90% of all wine growers in the country are included in the program. The three wineries I visited on were all participants of SWNZ, and all were certified organic, and practicing bio-dynamic principals within their vineyards and wineries.
Felton Road, situated in Bannockburn, just outside of Cromwell are one of the first certified organic, and bio-dynamic winegrowers in the Central Otago, where patience is key. I found this out first hand when I arrived just as they had all sat down for lunch… rather than being miffed, I quite liked the idea of everyone who worked there sitting down and enjoying their lunch break together, and so I happily obliged and went in search of something to eat myself.
When I returned, later in the afternoon, I drove back up the gravel drive, winding my way through the vine rows toward the cellar door. A beautiful timber building sits amongst the vines with a sweeping view out over the Kawaru River. It’s cellar door is small and the walls are plastered with articles and pictures of past triumphs, including information on their organic and bio-dynamic practices.
The wines I tasted there began to give me an impression of the principal characteristics that the Central Otago defines itself by. Less of the fruit driven styles from Marlborough SB’s with that emphasis on tropical sweetness, and more of a focus on refined, structurally sound textures, and minerality.
Their Chardonnay was a clean citrus number with stone fruit characters of white peach, and nectarine, a vibrant river stone, slate felt zip hides much of the oak, until it suddenly appears alongside a tense tannic length, which lingers on and on.
The Pinot was unmistakable Otago; dark red fruits accompany herbaceous savory and earthy tones balanced with that unmistakeable spine, providing structure for the light tannins encased in a texture halfway between plumpness and leanness.
If you ever visit the Otago, make sure you visit this place… they might even invite you to lunch.
Carrick Wines was another on my list of sustainable winegrowers in Cromwell that were already certifed organic, and had just started to employ some bio-dynamic methods and practices.
Situated in probably the most enviable location in all of Cromwell, Carrick make wines of stunning distinction and seem to capture that ‘sense of place’ that is all important when creating and making wine. Their cellar door is a lovely modern space with contemporary paintings hung on the walls, high ceiling, and big doors that open up onto a field of green grass, flowers, vines and stunning views of the lake, and mountain ranges beyond. Kelly, the cellar door manager takes me through their tasting list, before giving me an excellent guided tour of the site.
The 2011 Carrick Riesling is overwhelmingly aromatic with sweet floral and sparkling citrus notes drifting around the glass. The whole bunch press gives the wine a lovely tart finish to balance out the 28.3 residual sugar. Riesling’s are generally too sweet for me, but because of the Otago’s ‘terroir’ giving the wines a slate structured minerality, it was deliciously dry and balanced.
Their 2010 Pinot Noir is a finesse filled masterpiece. Approximately 10% whole bunch crushed, and fermented with wild, indigenous yeasts, then matured in French oak for just shy of 12 months. This Pinot exhibits full impact raspberry and black cherry aromas, balanced with flavoured clues of herb and dark chocolate sitting amidst a determined finish.
While already certified organic, Kelly explained to me that they have just began employing some of the preparations for bio-dynamic farming, including composts 503-507, with ingredients gathered from the same property where the vines are grown. This activity fits neatly into their over-arching philosophy of interconnectedness, which can be seen on their logo of a ‘carrick bend’ which is a knot for joining two single lines together, making them strong, yet flexible.
I returned inside for lunch, sitting and admiring the spectacular views with a glass of 2011 Sauvignon Blanc; 100% organic fruit, wild yeast ferment and minimal intervention, which means no fining. Despite this, the wine was clean and crisp, revealing light passionfruit and grassy notes, following a bright sorbet lemon citrus and melon tang, with much less of an emphasis on over powering fruits than it’s Marlborough counterparts in the north.
Finishing my lunch, and reflecting on the day so far, my thoughts turned to Queenstown and the journey through Gibbston, where vineyards are stretched out along cliff edges and beneath mountains and caves. I’d only seen **three so far, and already the day was getting away from me…
The Central Otago is a big, beautiful place full of incredible scenery, amazing wine, and generous people…
I think I might have to move here.
D// – The Wine Idealist
**Next week I will be writing about my privileged visit to Quartz Reef, where I was able to meet a true pioneer in the Central Otago wine region, Rudi Bauer, and his vision for sustainable wine-growing, and ambitions to make the best wine possible.