CEN­TRAL OTAGO WINE

Go Travel New Zealand - - Contents - By Alan Brady

“The vine­yards of Cen­tral Otago are the high­est and the fur­thest from the sea in New Zealand and the south­ern­most in the world.” It’s a claim we made with pride when

a few of us planted grapevines here in the early 1980s. And it still holds good. The dif­fer­ence is that back then the “south­ern­most” tag high­lighted our iso­la­tion from the rest of the wine world. Now, such as been the suc­cess of Cen­tral Otago Pinot Noir, the

world comes to us.

As things have turned out, that per­ceived iso­la­tion has been one of our great strengths. It forced us to learn to work to­gether, shar­ing ideas, equip­ment and knowl­edge as we be­gan to un­lock the se­cret of grow­ing grapes in this stun­ningly beau­ti­ful land­scape. We were dream­ers, mo­ti­vated and ex­cited by pos­si­bil­i­ties, we weren’t fright­ened of the un­known…. and ev­ery­body thought we were mad.

Which meant that be­fore we ever pro­duced a bot­tle of wine our rep­u­ta­tion was spread­ing! For­tu­nately one of the first va­ri­eties we planted was as stub­born and in­di­vid­u­al­is­tic as we were. Pinot Noir loved it here. It grew eas­ily and ripened con­sis­tently in our con­di­tions. And as ev­ery­body knows, Pinot is very picky about where it grows. So by good for­tune rather than any great fore­sight or wis­dom on our part, we had stum­bled on what is now recog­nised as one of the great places in the world to grow this va­ri­ety.

Cen­tral Otago is de­fined by it’s cli­mate, blue skies, harsh frosts, hot sum­mer sun, spec­tac­u­lar spring blos­som and vivid au­tumn colours. By it’s ge­ol­ogy - high snowy moun­tains, shin­ing lakes, deep mys­te­ri­ous river gorges that have yielded for­tunes in gold, haunt­ingly empty ta­ble lands stud­ded with dramatic schist rock sculp­tures and sleepy vil­lages cling­ing to the mem­ory of their gold­min­ing pasts.

It’s about the sum­mer smells of wild thyme and roses and winters with roar­ing log fires, ski­ing and skat­ing on nat­u­ral ice. And for me Cen­tral is also about its peo­ple, rugged as the land­scape and in­de­pen­dent with an un­der­stated strength of char­ac­ter, and a twin­kle in their eyes. Like the gold­min­ers who came here 150 years ago, they’re still re­spond­ing to the chal­lenge of this raw land.

As wine­mak­ers, we’re the new­com­ers. We’re here be­cause Cen­tral Otago ap­peals to our senses. And when you add Pinot Noir to that mix you have a po­tent recipe that leads quickly to ob­ses­sion - and some would say a to­tal loss of all rea­son and san­ity.

As well as Pinot Noir you’ll also find some good Pinot Gris here and small quan­ti­ties of good Chardon­nay, Gewursz­traminer, Pinot Blanc and Sauvignon Blanc. The pi­o­neer spirit hasn’t died ei­ther and a few are ex­per­i­ment­ing with va­ri­eties from ei­ther end of Europe in­clud­ing Gruner Velt­liner and Tem­parnillo, with in­ter­est­ing re­sults. But 70% of ev­ery­thing we pro­duce is Pinot; it’s what gets us out of bed in the morn­ing and wakes us in the mid­dle of the night think­ing about what we could have done bet­ter in the vine­yard or the win­ery.

When the first com­mer­cial wines of this era were re­leased in 1987 there were only four tiny pro­duc­ers and less than 10 hectares of vines. Today there are over 100 com­pa­nies pro­duc­ing Cen­tral Otago wine and the planted area is ap­proach­ing 2000 hectares. We are New Zealand’s third largest wine­grow­ing re­gion and our wines are ex­ported to over 40 coun­tries around the world.

Run­ning par­al­lel to the de­vel­op­ment of wine­grow­ing here has been the growth of tourism. Queenstown, which is within an hour’s drive of all of the ma­jor vine­yards, is New Zealand’s most im­por­tant tourism cen­tre. With an in­ter­na­tional air­port and reg­u­lar flights to ma­jor Aus­tralian cities, the re­sort recorded a record 2.75 mil­lion guest nights last year, 1.8 mil­lion of them in­ter­na­tional visi­tors.

As the wine and vis­i­tor in­dus­tries have grown, so has wine tourism. The spec­tac­u­lar land­scape and

rel­a­tively easy ac­cess to winer­ies has seen the de­vel­op­ment of many fine cel­lar door fa­cil­i­ties and restau­rants in the Gibb­ston, Ban­nock­burn, Cromwell and Wanaka sub-re­gions. A num­ber of wine tour op­er­a­tions are based in Queenstown and can in­tro­duce visi­tors to our sto­ries and some of the faces and per­son­al­i­ties be­hind the wines. And I hope, give then a glimpse of the pas­sion we have for this re­gion and for Pinot Noir.

So where to for Cen­tral Otago wine­grow­ing in the fu­ture? First and fore­most we must keep do­ing what we are do­ing but do­ing it bet­ter, build­ing year by year on our ex­pe­ri­ence of our con­di­tions and ter­roir. We have achieved an in­ter­na­tional rep­u­ta­tion not be­cause of the clev­er­ness of our mar­ket­ing but be­cause of the qual­ity of our wines. Pinot Noir con­sumers are a dis­cern­ing bunch and can be as pas­sion­ate and de­mand­ing as those of who grow and make the wine.

Vine age is in­creas­ingly be­com­ing a fac­tor in wine qual­ity. Some of the old­est Pinot Noir vines are those I planted in 1982-84 and they are still pro­duc­ing a sin­gle vine­yard wine. A high per­cent­age of the re­gional vine­yard is reach­ing the magic 1520 years and the fu­ture will show wines that are more about the soil, min­er­al­ity and del­i­cacy than fruit and youth­ful ea­ger­ness.

The sub re­gions are com­ing into their own and wines are be­gin­ning

to be listed in restau­rants as ‘Ban­nock­burn,’ ‘Gibb­ston,’ ‘Wanaka,’ etc. And it won’t stop there. Some of us be­lieve the purest ex­pres­sion of Pinot Noir is cap­tured in wines that con­vey the essence of a spe­cific site and sea­son. The Bur­gun­di­ans know that. So it may not be long be­fore com­sumers are choos­ing their Cen­tral Otago wines based on their knowl­edge and en­joy­ment of the unique­ness of aro­mas, flavours and tex­tu­ral char­ac­ters in wines from spe­cific small parcels of land.

It’s hap­pen­ing now. Just look at the length­en­ing list of sin­gle vine­yard wines al­ready be­ing pro­duced.

We’ve come a long way but we’re not there yet and I hope we’re not com­pla­cent. We’ve learned a lot about our soils, our cli­mate … our ter­roir. But 30 years is a mere heart­beat in the his­tory of grape­grow­ing and wine­mak­ing and we know we’ll go on learn­ing for gen­er­a­tions to come.

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