Made against all odds on the stunning fringes of New Zealand’s Southern Alps, the Pinot Noirs of Central Otago are an enticing – if pricey – addition to premium wine lists. Tim Atkin MW follows in the footsteps of Gandalf
What would persuade anyone to throw themselves off a bridge, 43 metres above a tumbling torrent of cold water with a cord around their ankles? You can imagine the raised eyebrows in Queenstown when AJ Hackett mentioned the idea of creating the world’s first bungee jump to his mates. ‘AJ, you’ve got more chance of playing for the All Blacks than making that work.’
But work it did. The original site on the Kawarau Bridge has spawned imitators, not just in Central Otago, but all over the world. Since it opened in 1988, tens of thousands of people have paid NZ$180 (approx £90) for little more than an adrenaline rush and the pleasure of soiling their underwear.
Bungee jumping wasn’t the only business to arouse local derision at the time. Just after Rob Hay bought the spectacular site that was to become Chard Farm Winery – coincidentally opposite the Kawarau Bridge – he overheard some sheep farmers talking about ‘those grapeys’ in a nearby hotel. ‘Waste of bloody good merino country, if you ask me,’ said one of them dismissively.
It is remarkable how much Central Otago has achieved in a short time, especially given its shaky beginnings. The first winery was created as long ago as 1864, but that was an aberration. The modern wine ‘industry’ actually dates from the mid-1970s with the planting of a few experimental vineyards. Ann Pinckney’s initial release from Taramea Wines in 1985 was the first commercial Central wine since the 1860s.
A new frontier
The pioneers – Pinckney, Alan Brady (Gibbston Valley Winery), Rolfe and Lois Mills (Rippon Vineyard), Verdun Burgess (Black Ridge Vineyard) and Bill Grant (William Hill Wines, now Shaky Bridge) – were a motley bunch: a journalist, a carpenter, two nurses, a goat breeder and a school teacher. What united them was a belief that, against the advice of academics and viticulturists, there was a future here.
‘They worked together from the start, setting up the Central Otago Grape Growers’ Association,’ says the Mills’ son, Nick, who now runs Rippon Vineyard.
To be fair to the experts, almost no one believed that grapes would prosper south of the Cook Strait, let alone in Central Otago. In 1967, six years before the first plantings in Marlborough (the region now responsible for 70% of New Zealand’s wine), Alister McKissock, scientific officer at the Te Kauwhata viticulture and winemaking research station, wrote that, ‘conditions in the South Island do not appear to favour grape growing for wine production. Low night temperatures during summer months are not conducive to maturing grapes.’
On paper, it didn’t look good. Heat summation is calculated in terms of growing degree days, and most of Central wasn’t warm enough. What the numbers didn’t convey however, says Brady, is that ‘the clarity of the atmosphere and solar radiation are much higher than in Northern Europe. Here, at latitude 45° south, we have two hours more daylight in summer than Auckland, and 11% higher solar radiation than the northern grape growing latitude of 50° north. The earth is closer to the sun during the southern growing season.’
As history has shown, the pioneers were right. Central has grown to be one of the most exciting wine regions in the southern hemisphere, particularly for Pinot Noir. Statistically, it is comparatively small, with only 1,543ha of New Zealand’s 33,600 ha of vineyards, but it makes a disproportionate amount of noise for its size. Isolated it may be, but Central Otago’s winemakers know how to create a buzz.
The first thing to be said about Central is that it is outrageously beautiful. Of all New Zealand’s spectacular landscapes, this is its most dramatic: a region of snow-crenellated mountains, blue lakes, jagged gorges and fast-moving rivers. Little wonder it attracts so many tourists, or that The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit were filmed here.
Central is remarkable in other ways, too: its vineyards are the most southerly in the world, right ‘at the edge of possibility’, according to Felton Road’s Nigel Greening. ‘It’s what I call the bumblebee paradox,’ he adds. ‘Bees shouldn’t be able to fly, much like we shouldn’t really be able to grow good grapes on a consistent basis.
| CENTRAL OTAGO AT A GLANCE
Location: 45° South
Despite its southerly latitude, Central succeeds for numerous reasons. First, it is the driest region in New Zealand with 350mm to 450mm of rain (compared with a forget-about-your-hosepipe-bans 9m on the west coast). Of the major Pinot Noir growing regions, only Chile is drier.
Secondly, it is inland and protected from the worst of New Zealand’s weather by the Southern Alps. The region has a semi-continental climate, with low humidity and less disease pressure than wetter areas. Central has warm, even hot, summers and very cold winters, with significant diurnal variation during the growing season.
Central has high levels of UV light (40% above average for its latitude). Is this due to depleted ozone levels or air clarity? Whatever the answer, it explains the deep colour of many Central Pinots, as grape skins thicken in response. The vines here get plenty of sunlight for photosynthesis, but grapes ripen later than most Pinot regions. The period between flowering and harvest is two weeks longer in Central than in Oregon or Burgundy.
Central’s soils are different from elsewhere in New Zealand. There is no actual limestone here, but due to the dry climate there is an accumulation of pedogenic lime. This, says Roger Gibson of Lowburn Ferry Wines, is created in soil when ‘carbon dioxide dissolved in water meets with calcium released from the parent material (schist) as it weathers and is chemically broken down’. The process is slow, but in the absence of plentiful rain to wash it away, the lime has built up over thousands of years. ‘The result,’ he adds, ‘is a soil profile with similarities to one formed by limestone of marine origin.’
There is currently talk within Central about the wisdom of creating sub-appellations. There are certainly differences between the growing regions, but delineating them would be a ‘can of worms’, says Brady. Hay agrees: ‘We need to have the discussion in 25 years.
A lot of our vineyards are still so young.’
For all that, there are six identifiable sub-regions. Gibbston, the closest to Queenstown, is the coolest and highest. It can produce fantastic wines, albeit in an elegant style, but suffers from vintage variation: in some years, flowering doesn’t happen until after Christmas. The number of wineries using unblended Gibbston fruit is therefore comparatively small: Coal Pit Wines, Wild Irishman Wines, Valli Vineyards, Hawkshead Wines, Brennan Wines, Two Paddocks, Gibbston Valley Winery, Mount Rosa Winery and George Town Vineyard. Others with vineyards and wineries here, such as Peregerine Wines, Chard Farm Winery and Mount Edward Winery, prefer regional blends.
Wanaka to the north is the smallest sub-region and is slightly warmer than Gibbston, with vineyards situated around Lake Wanaka. Rippon Vineyard and Maude Wines are the best-known names here.
Further south, the Alexandra Basin is also considered a cool area, although it is much warmer than Gibbston during the day and cooler at night. Dean Shaw of The Central Otago Wine Company describes the resulting wines as ‘more feminine’ than the Gibbston style. Alex, as it is known, is
exposed and affected by southerly winds. Producers to look out for include Two Paddocks, Three Miners Vineyards and Grasshopper Rock Winery.
The Cromwell Basin is the engine room of the Central wine industry. The pioneers started in Wanaka, Gibbston and Alex, but Lake Dunstan’s proximity and Cromwell’s location further inland offers better protection against frost and means it can pick three weeks ahead of Gibbston. Bannockburn is Cromwell Basin‘s best-known sub-region. This north-facing bowl on the south bank of Kawarau River is warm by local standards.
Battle of Bannockburn
Even though it is treated as a single area, Bannockburn has two very different terroirs: sand close to Cairnmuir Road in the east and schist and clay to the west around Domain and Felton Roads. This is the most heavily planted of the sub-regions, producing grapes for brands such as Mount Difficulty Wines, Felton Road, Carrick Wines and Wild Earth Wines.
It is also the home of the Calvert Vineyard, which sells grapes to three of New Zealand’s best Pinot producers: Felton Road, Pyramid Valley (from North Canterbury) and Craggy Range (from Hawkes Bay). The differences between the three wines are fascinating.
The two remaining basin sub-regions, Bendigo and Lowburn/Pisa, are situated on either side of Lake Dunstan, an artificial body of water created in 1992 by the construction of the Clyde Dam. Bendigo on the east bank is the warmest area in Central – so warm it can grow Syrah successfully – but also makes some of the densest Pinots.
The top wineries are Prophet’s Rock Vineyard, Misha’s Vineyard and Quartz Reef Wine. On the west side of the lake, Lowburn/Pisa is a large, mostly low-lying area that stretches for 25 kilometres. It is flanked by the Pisa mountain range to the west and some of its best sites are on slopes or rolling hills. The leading producers are Pisa Range Estate, Surveyor Thomson Wines, Burn Cottage Vineyard and Pisa Moorings Vineyard, but lots of wineries own vineyards or buy fruit from here.
The boom in plantings and proliferation of brands reflects Central’s success. But rapid expansion has its downside, too. It is expensive to grow grapes and make wine here, which is one reason why around 50 labels are produced by two large contract winemaking facilities, VinPro and the Central Otago Winemaking Company (CowCo), and a further 50 are vinified at other wineries. Of the 115 labels in the region, only 15 have their own wineries.
Is there too much wine in Central? Or, more specifically, too much Pinot, since the grape accounts for 70% of production?
There are some very good Rieslings (Carrick Wines, Felton Road, Mount Edward Winery, Rippon Vineyard), Chardonnays (Chard Farm Winery, Felton Road) and Pinot Gris (Misha’s Vineyard, Peregrine Wines and Quartz Reef Wine), but Pinot pays the bills. Or, rather, doesn’t, in some cases.
‘There’s quite a bit of oversupply,’ says Steve Farquharson of Wooing Tree Vineyard, ‘and a lot of wine ends up on the bulk market.’ And that’s when the sums stop making sense, according to Felton Road’s Greening. ‘You need to sell your wine at £15 or above retail in the UK, or you are doing so at a loss.’ For Farquharson the break-even point is higher, at £20.
There are few wineries with significant economies of scale in Central. The biggest include Chard Farm Winery, Akarua Wines, Carrick Wines and Felton Road, but even they are small by international standards.
There are a few boutique producers who sell their wines at high prices, but a growing number are struggling to find distribution. Who needs an unknown Central Pinot on a wine list at £60 when Burgundy sells better?
Central versus the world
The challenge for Central is to make world-class wines, rather than very good ones. Of the 115 wineries, I’d pick a dozen whose Pinots could go toe to toe with the best of the New and Old Worlds: Bald Hills Vineyard, Burn Cottage Vineyard, Chard Farm Winery, Coal Pit Wines, Doctors Flat Vineyard, Felton Road, Gibbston Valley Winery, Grasshopper Rock Winery, Mount Difficulty Wines, Mount Edward Winery, Rippon Vineyard and Valli Vineyards.
Yet too many Central Pinots seem over-priced in the international market, especially when set against generic and village-level red Burgundies from 2009 and 2010. Maybe the comparison is unfair. Burgundy has had over a century to master Pinot Noir, Central Otago a mere 25 years.
But one thing is for sure: as its vines get older and its winemakers more experienced, the most southerly wine region on the planet will continue to confound expectations
| TIM’S TOP CENTRAL PINOT NOIRS
I make no apologies for choosing six wines from the 2010 vintage. It was one of the most successful years ever in Central Otago, producing wines with impressive concentration
Burn Cottage Vineyard Pinot Noir 2010, Cromwell Basin
Spice and pepper in evidence on the nose and palate, with freshness underpinned by some savoury whole-bunch tannins. This biodynamic wine is long and wonderfully classy.
£25.79, Les Caves de Pyrène, 01483 538820
Doctors Flat Vineyard Pinot Noir 2010, Bannockburn
Steve Davies makes organic Pinots of great complexity. This is rich and concentrated, with dark, smoky fruit flavours, stemmy whole bunch notes and a lingering finish.
Felton Road Calvert Vineyard Pinot Noir 2010, Bannockburn
The most elegant of winemaker Blair Walter’s single vineyard releases, this biodynamic Pinot shows freshness, structure and feline balance. Cherry and red fruits with a hint of spice, well integrated oak and bright minerality.
£18, Cornish Point Wines, 020 8351 2595
Grasshopper Rock Winery Pinot Noir 2010, Alexandra Basin
The densest, most complete Pinot yet from Phil Handford. Still young and concentrated, with red and black fruits on the palate, textured tannins, stylish oak and a fine, savoury finish.
Rippon Vineyard Emma’s Block Mature Vine Pinot Noir 2010, Wanaka
Burgundian pale in colour and similarly subtle on the palate, this sleek Pinot is succulent and sweet, with freshness and stony minerality. Long and fine.
£31.10 (for 2009 vintage), Lea & Sandeman, 020 7244 0522
Valli Vineyards Gibbston Valley Vineyard Pinot Noir 2010
This is as good as Gibbston gets: savoury whole bunch notes add structure and perfume to the silky fruit flavours. Scented, balanced and long.
Valli Vineyards imported by Cadman Fine Wines, 0845 121 4011