Central Otago wine country, a part of the world that bombards you with relentless beauty and stunning vistas. Gigantic, snow specked mountains separate the land from the sky, and surround you from all sides as you drive alongside the glacial blue waters of Lake Dunstan, in towards Cromwell – the suburban hub of Otago wine country. Following the signposts for Quartz Reef Wines – established in 1996, and home to Austrian born winegrower, Rudi Bauer – the last thing you expect is to end up in an industrial estate.
The gigantic snow specked mountains have been interrupted by large steel sheds, and the glacial blue lake has become a regular black tarred road, edged with concrete. You look up and see the smiling face of Simon Beck, and forget what ever is was you were thinking about, as he greets you from the shed-like cellar door, and offers out a hand shake welcoming you to Quartz Reef Wines.
Simon is the Marketing and Sales manager for Quartz Reef, and after a quick hello and only the necessary amount of small talk, he invites me into the kitchen where we sit down with the rest of the the team and have breakfast. As I’m introduced, there is a great feeling of connectedness amongst the staff as the coffees are poured and the muffins, unwrapped; a feeling that is enhanced by two colourful charts displaying Dr Rudolf Steiner’s bio-dynamic principals of universally interconnected agriculture. I’m pulled away from my brief study of the charts when into the room walks Rudi Bauer, Quartz Reef’s chief winegrower.
Arriving in New Zealand in 1985, Bauer was one of a rare few who were genuinely qualified to be working within New Zealand’s infant wine industry, having completed degrees in viticulture and winemaking in Austria from 1975-82′, followed by enrollment at a winemaking business college in Germany. He worked on vintages in Burgundy and California prior to moving to New Zealand, where he worked for Giesen Wine Estate in Canterbury, and at Rippon Vineyard, near Lake Wanaka. But it was the harsh, infertile, rabbit infested, and as yet, unproven slopes of Bendigo – a sub-region of Central Otago – that offered Bauer the chance to get in on the ground level, and become a part of New Zealand wine-growing history.
Bauer says, “I was out driving in Bendigo and recognised the incline of the hills, which reminded me of the slopes in Burgundy, and thought that it would be a perfect site for vine growing.” The north facing slopes at the foot of the Dunstan range was more like a hostile alien landscape – where the aliens were rabbits running rampant over dust and rocks – than a civilised landscape of history and succession . It was an immense challenge, embodied within the landscape, that confronted Bauer, which he began to attack by first establishing a reliable supply of water and electricity.
Fast forward 18 years, and the Quartz Reef vineyard at Bendigo station has transformed into a sweeping green, bio-dynamically sustainable hillside filled with Chardonnay, Pinot Gris, and, the one vine to rule them all… Pinot Noir.
Underneath the soil at Bendigo station is, as the name suggests, a reef of quartz rock sediment and fine gravels embedded within arid clay that reflects a bony grey/white colouring, which, I suspect, is why the wines of Quartz Reef have such a defined structure and lean mineral characteristics. Bauer claims however, that because of the rabbits leaving the earth so decimated and infertile for decades that, “it is the climate,” of the Central Otago, “rather than the soils, that has the biggest influence on what defines Central Otago wine,” He says that at the moment, “the soil fingerprint, (a region’s terroir, or sense of place) remains smudgy.”
In order to clarify the soil’s identity, Bauer, and his team at Quartz Reef, have been strong advocates for bio-dynamics (Rudolf Steiner being a fellow Austrian), with certification coming at the beginning of 2012. Before that, Quartz Reef were organic and recognised in 2003 by the New Zealand Sustainable Winegrowing body as fully sustainable. Meaning they had established and employed viticultural practices that preserve the unique sense of place that makes New Zealand wines so distinct.
The pre-existence of quartz within the soil is a vindication of Quartz Reef’s bio-dynamic practices – that nature is being listened and adhered too, which is the essence of bio-dynamic agriculture. The on site quartz is used in Prep 501 – a method of stuffing finely-ground quartz (silica) into cow horns, burying those horns over summer, then stirring a very small amount of the powder in rain water for an hour and spraying the resulting liquid in a fine mist over the vines (redwhiteandgreen.com.au) – as well as estate grown chamomile and dandelion flowers, stinging nettle and various other ingredients used in Prep’s 500 to 507, which are all prepared within the Bendigo station vineyard.
For Bauer, the use of bio-dynamics is an obvious one, due to the challenging nature of the climate and environment. He looks at his role as “a nursing process, rather than strictly a wine making one,” where he is trying to assist the soil back to fertility and growth, “and working organically, and bio-dynamically is the best possible practice for this.” Once the soil is encouraged to expose it’s unique identity, and to participate in the wine-growing process, it is then up to Bauer to put together the remaining pieces of the puzzle in order to produce, create and achieve his one plain objective – “to make the best wines possible.”
One thing Quartz Reef does well is their bubbles. Using méthode traditionnelle – a process that provides the necessary effervescence for Champagne, produced by secondary fermentation in the bottle – Rudi Bauer has been able to create wines of spectacular quality and beauty.
The Methode Traditionnelle 2010 Brut – 58% Pinot Noir and 42% Chardonnay from the Bendigo Estate vineyard – exhibits crunchy apple and citrus characteristics, that are hung from a spine of gentle acidity and robust tannin. The time involved to create such a wine is well worth it. Bottle fermented and aged on lees for 24 months, then riddled (turned on racks) and disgorged by hand, it’s painstakingly slow and requires intense patience and persistence… much like turning an alien landscape into a fertile field.
The 2012 Pinot Gris – whole bunch pressed, wild ferment in stainless steel and kept on lees (dead yeast cells) until bottling – this wine was my introduction to the technically brilliant wines of Central Otago. It was from this white that I was able to begin profiling such wines: emphasis on tone, texture, and minerality, rather than fruit, but never at the expense of flavour. Honey and almond aromas sit amongst a soft stone and oily texture that balances out with soft peach, and juicy pear flavours. I took a bottle of this with me, and drank it underneath Mt. Aoraki (Mt. Cook) on my final night in New Zealand. It was spectacular… and the view was pretty nice too!
Quartz Reef Wines are most well known for their Pinot Noir – something that Bauer envisioned would be more than suitable for the Central Otago’s cool climate way back in the very beginning. The fact that Pinot Noir has not only thrived, but more or less defined the region it is made in, is testament to Bauer’s pioneering vision of Central Otago wine growing potential.
The 2011 Bendigo Estate Pinot Noir – a Burgundy clone – is picked from the single vineyard site at Bendigo station (hence the solid quartz logo on the bottle) and has all the sublime structure that comes to define these wines. Deep crimson, bordering on purple, tints the wine with that elegance that can only come from a well crafted pinot. Blood plum and dark cherry fruit flavours hide amongst a texture and minerality that runs right through the wine, providing it with form, and arrangement from which to hang hints of pepper, violet, and herb. A tremendously understated earthiness grips this wine with noticeably soft tannins and a longing finish.
Pioneering determination, enthusiasm and patience has led to the Central Otago becoming one of the most beautiful (and promising) places on earth to make wine. Thanks to people like Rudi Bauer, with his vision for making the best wines possible through sustainable practices, New Zealand is already well on it’s way to establishing itself amongst some of the best wine growing countries in the world. There are not many opportunities, these days, to get in on the ground level of something, but in New Zealand, the Central Otago, and Quartz Reef… it’s history in the making.
D// – The Wine Idealist.
**Many thanks to Rudi, Simon and the team for allowing me such enthusiastic access to your world of wine making. I appreciate the kindness and willingness to make my visit such an informative and rewarding experience. I hope to be back very soon!