Central Otago Pinot Noir, a Region with the Potential to Equal Burgundy
I recently visited New Zealand and I have to say that I am still buzzing with enthusiasm – the enthusiasm of having my beliefs overturned in the most positive and exciting way. I have enjoyed tasting Central Otago Pinot Noir over the years but rarely found myself selecting them from a wine list or a wine shop for my own personal pleasure. They were rarely, if ever, the first option in Pinot Noir that I would find myself recommending to a guest to be enjoyed with food.
When I take a closer look at my own beliefs that led to the regular ranking of Central Otago Pinot Noir below other Pinot Noir wines, it often came back to high alcohol, over concentration and often an overly generous use of new oak. They represented the opposite of what I like to recommend with food – a digest style of wine. With this in mind, I often chose Pinot Noir from Martinborough or Marlborough instead, regions I felt produced more elegant and restrained styles of Pinot Noir.
The wines which I had the opportunity to taste in late January wiped the slate clean for me. Not only did I get to try wines from exciting producers I had not yet discovered but far more importantly I had the chance to understand the wines through the people, the culture and the landscape of this magical place. For anybody who has visited New Zealand, you will understand what I mean when I say that the colours there seem brighter, the personalities bigger and the energy for life so great. I finally understood this “dialled up” expression I perceived in their wines was merely a translation of life in this truly beautiful place.
The styles were so varied, I could not describe anymore in once sentence what I think Central Otago Pinot Noir taste like. I ask you to bear with me a moment. I mean this in a good way. In fact, the only common factor I could find to all the wines I tasted is that they gained in finesse. Think about it: Burgundy often comes up as a reference point when it comes to Pinot Noir. However, can we generalise in one sentence the taste of Burgundy?
To understand Central Otago Pinot Noir one needs to first consider all the information in the equation.
The geography within the region
The impact of the sub regions on the style of the wines is much more important than what I once used to believe. The main sub regions are Gibbston, Bannockburn, Cromwell Basin, Pisa, Wanaka and Alexandra. Wines produced in the coolest region of Gibbston tend to show some savoury and spicy characters and are generally very mineral with lots of energy and tension. In contrast, wines produced in Bendigo tend to be more opulent with more fruit weight and smoothness. Each of the sub-regions impart subtle differences in the wine, the same way a wine from Gevrey Chambertin will taste very different from a wine from Savigny-les-Beaune or Mercurey.
The Human Factor
However, this is not a rule of thumb, the human factor is also having a massive impact on the style of the wines. It was fascinating to see through the tastings that each winemaker has his own personal interpretation and that there is definitely not one current of thought on how to make wine there. In term of vinification, some prefer to destem fully, others prefer to use the full bunches, others incorporate a portion of full bunches to the tank. The amount of new oak used varies widely but French oak seems to be the common choice. Many of the winemakers have gained experience in other countries or are of foreign origins and this seems to also have an impact on the style of wine produced.
Other Winemaking Choices
Finally, plenty of other factors have an impact on the style of the wines such as the age of the vines, the clone selection, the type of viticulture (biodynamic, conventional, etc.), the rootstock used or the fact in certain cases that the vines are not grafted, etc.
So, the question is: what makes Pinot Noir from Central Otago so unique and are we looking at potentially one of the most exciting regions in the world for this grape? For me the answer to the first question is “Terroir”. While I truly believe that the answer to the second question is “yes” I am still convinced that “Time” is one of the key element in achieving this status.
Central Otago’s Terroir
Terroir encompasses more factors than just the soil. Yes of course the soil is the base support of the vine plant but everything surrounding it has its influence. Central Otago is the Southernmost wine region in the world. The climate is truly continental with hot and dry summers and very cold winters. The region is shaped by mountain ranges and lakes.
The beauty of the place can be breath-taking at time. For many years, people were convinced that grapes could not ripen in such conditions. I think great terroirs share two things in common: beauty and the ability to impart a sense of place to wine while embracing diversity. A Gevrey Chambertin will never taste like a Pommard or a Givry, however all these wines, as different as they are, taste like Burgundy. When it comes to Central Otago Pinot Noir, the diversity is now huge but I believe that the sense of place is there; the terroir links them all and speaks through them.
Timing: Central Otago’s Moment
Time is the second very important factor in trying to define Central Otago uniqueness and potential. New Zealand is one of the newest wine regions were people decided to settle and make wine. The first vineyards were planted in Central Otago during the Gold Rush period but were soon after abandoned.
The region had to wait until the late 1970s to see experimental vineyards being planted and the first commercial Pinot Noir was released in 1987 by Gibbston Valley winery. To compare, if we look at Burgundy, we are talking about over a thousand years of trials and experiments and the concept of terroir with its multitude of “climats” is well understood at this point. If we consider that it took about 20 years for the pioneers of Central Otago to conclude that Pinot Noir was the most suitable red grape variety for the region and another 10 years for them to start understanding how to nurture it and how to vinify it in ways which does not create some “fruit bombs”, then it all starts making sense.
This region is just at the beginning of a very exciting journey, a journey of evolution, revolution and constant rethinking. I truly believe that it is a region to watch closely as it has the potential to equal Burgundy in term of quality while embracing its own style but only time will tell.
I have put below some of my favourite wines and producers. I selected wines from people who I personally met and who convinced me not only for the quality of their wines but also by the nature of their character and passion. Their kindness, generosity, personality and spontaneity reflects in their wines and that is why I decided to talk about them even though unfortunately, most of them are not directly represented in Ireland yet.
Situated in the North of Central Otago, in the sub-region of Wanaka, Rippon estate, originally a farm, has been the property of the same family for many generations. Nick and his wife are now running the estate following biodynamic principles. The Pinot Noir vines are ungrafted. This must be one of the most beautiful vineyards on the planet (and apparently is one of the most photographed). The atmosphere in the place is incredibly peaceful and relaxed. Over the course of a few days, I think I have seen Nick wearing shoes only once to a point that I even wondered if I shouldn’t have spent the rest of the trip bare foot as it seemed a very cool and stress-free attitude to adopt and maybe a way to feel more grounded to the land you stand on?
From their entry level Pinot Noir to their single vineyard wines, the quality is just outstanding. The schist soil confers a tension, purity and minerality which is simply magical. The wines can feel a little austere in their youth and you might want to cellar them 4-5 years before opening them but believe me, it is well worth it.
The estate produces also a beautiful dry Riesling, an incredibly digest and food-friendly Gewurztraminer and a seriously good Gamay in a style that reminds me of some of the top producers in Morgon. In Summary, whatever you can find from this producer, just buy it!
Quartz Reef Estate
Situated in Bendigo sub-region, the estate was created in 1996 by Rudy Bauer. Rudy was born in Austria and has worked in different countries and wineries. Rudy makes some of the finest wines in the region and was elected Champion Winemaker of the Year by the Royal Agricultural Society of New Zealand in 1999. His knowledge of Central Otago is second to none and beneath his reserved personality and somehow dry sense of humour hides a really charming character with a very generous heart.
The vineyard is run following biodynamic principles. His wines always show an intense concentration of flavours with a full and fleshy texture, compact structure in their youth and yet a very vibrant and refreshing acidity. In a way, the wines reflect perfectly Rudy himself: a core generosity enveloped in a more restrained shell. With age, the wines gain in complexity and take some more savoury tones such as cured meat, smoke, dried aromatic herbs, etc… and are characterised by a unique sapidity. His sparkling wine is also a reference in the country. Unfortunately, the wines are not available in Ireland at the moment.
Prophet’s Rock Estate
The first thing I noticed when meeting Paul Pujol was his bubbly blue eyes and genius welcoming smile. Despite his French name, Paul is Kiwi but speaks pretty good French thanks to a few years spent working in Alsace, the Languedoc and Burgundy. Prophet’s Rock Estate was founded in 1999 in the sub-region of Bendigo, at the end of a dirt track, in the middle of nowhere. Once again, this is very special scenery once you find it. The wines show the darker fruit characters of Bendigo while remaining elegant, balanced, bright and digest.
For the first time in 2015, Francois Millet, oenologist at Domaine Comte de Vogüé, made a cuvee in partnership with Paul called “Antipodes”. The wine is made exactly the same way as the wines from De Vogüé: 100% destemmed, wild ferment, only 1 single punch down during vinification, maturation 17 months in 228L French oak barrel with no racking and no filtration. Only 12 barrels were produced. The wine is not on the market yet but I would love to put my hand on a couple of bottles at some point.
This estate is not imported in Ireland.
Another very bubbly personality from this lady winemaker called Sarah-Kate. Once again, the approach to things seem extremely relaxed in this winery and laughter punctuates the conversation regularly. The estate is situated in Wanaka sub-region. Depending of the vintage, the wines are made with 60 to 100% whole bunches.
The young vintages are always very perfumed (citrus peel, star anise, floral, little red berries) while the older vintages gain in savoury aromas of kombu, soy sauce and smoked meat. Maude produces wines with very juicy, crunchy characters, mouth-watering acidity and fine-grained firm tannins. However, the 2014 seemed a little bit atypical with riper character and a more robust style. Personally, I preferred the more ethereal style of the 2010 and 2015.
This is another producer currently looking for distribution in Ireland.
These were the first wines I tasted on my first day in New Zealand and they set the standards very high. Claudio, the general manager of the estate, is Brazilian but has been living in New Zealand for many years.
He is another very charming, happy character, who I had the chance to meet during my trip. The vineyard is run biodynamically and is situated in the sub-region of Lowburn.
The wines are mineral, focused, with great purity, savoury tones and digest characters. The 2012 is the current vintage available through Berry Brothers.
Apparently, the wines are on many Michelin-star restaurant in London and I certainly understand why.
Some of my favourites Central Otago Pinot Noirs available in Ireland
Rippon Estate Pinot Noir, Wanaka, 2011 RRP €45 – available at Whelehans wines
Rippon Estate Pinot Noir, Emma’s Block, 2012 – RRP €70 – available at Whelehans wines
RUA Pinot Noir, Arakua, Bannockburn, 2014 – RRP €27.99 – available at Baggot Street wines, Drink Store in Stoneybatter, Green Man Wines.
Felton Road, Calvert Vineyard, 2015 – RRP €55 – available at 64 wines
Te Wahi 2014, Bannockburn & Northburn- RRP€90 – available in Jus de Vine
Burnt Cottage “Moonlight Race” Pinot Noir, 2014 – RRP €47.99 – available at Green Man Wines, Thomas Woodberry’s in Galway.
Since then Julie’s passion for wine has grown immensely. She has been a sommelier for over 12 years. In April 2016, Julie represented the Irish Guild of Sommeliers at the Sommelier World Championship and finished 3rd overall and was the highest placed woman.
Julie is currently working part-time at the Greenhouse restaurant as well as running her own consultancy business called down2wine.ie.