Re­gional pro­file: Cen­tral Otago

One of the most southerly wine re­gions on the planet, New Zealand’s Cen­tral Otago is home to dra­matic scenery and el­e­gant Pinot Noir. Anne Kre­biehl MW takes us on a tour and high­lights the pro­duc­ers and wines you need to know

Decanter - - CONTENTS - Anne Kre­biehl MW is a free­lance wine writer, ed­u­ca­tor, con­sul­tant and judge

Join Anne Kre­biehl MW for a guided tour of New Zealand’s stun­ning Pinot Noir heart­land

‘WE ARE THE dri­est, we are the cold­est, we are the hottest. There is some­thing strik­ing and ex­treme about the cli­mate here.’ This is how wine­maker Lu­cie Lawrence de­scribes Cen­tral Otago. She is right. Ev­ery­thing about this re­mote re­gion is in­tense: its stark beauty of jagged peaks, naked rock, crys­talline sky and the turquoise of deep, glacier-fed lakes. Ev­ery­thing seems height­ened, the fresh­ness of the air, the fierce­ness of the sun, the heart­stop­ping brisk­ness of the cold wa­ter.

‘All of those things make our Pinots what they are and work for other va­ri­eties, too,’ says Lawrence, who runs Au­rum Wines in Low­burn with her hus­band Brook. It is these ex­tremes that put Cen­tral Otago Pinot Noir on the map. To­day, how­ever, they are chan­nelled into poise and a stylis­tic shift is in full swing.

The rise of Cen­tral Otago as a wine re­gion is as ex­tra­or­di­nary as its land­scape. Barely 20ha of vine­yards in 1990 grew to 280ha by 2000 and to 1,921ha to­day. Of that to­tal, 1,500ha is Pinot Noir – that’s 79%. ‘I am blown away,’ says Alan Brady of Gibb­ston Val­ley Win­ery, who planted the first com­mer­cial vine­yard in Gibb­ston Val­ley in 1983. ‘We’ve grown a lot in a very short time,’ he adds.

Pinot coun­try

For Brady, Cen­tral Otago and Pinot Noir have gone hand in hand. ‘We were very lucky that one of the first va­ri­eties we planted ex­per­i­men­tally was Pinot Noir. It put its hand up from year one al­most. It grew eas­ily and when it started pro­duc­ing fruit, it ripened more con­sis­tently than al­most any­thing else. So it’s noth­ing to do with our wis­dom or in­sight. It was just that Pinot Noir in­di­cated that it found a home here – that was our good for­tune,’ he notes. In soils of deep silty loams, al­lu­vial grav­els, schist, quartz, sand, clay and loess, cul­ti­vat­ing Pinot meant hard work and a steep learn­ing curve.

At times it also de­manded nerves of steel, in this semi-con­ti­nen­tal cli­mate that is a hub for ski­ing in win­ter and wa­ter­sports in sum­mer. High di­ur­nal swings and vin­tage vari­a­tion

‘The rise of Cen­tral Otago as a wine re­gion is as ex­tra­or­di­nary as its land­scape’

are a given. ‘There have been no two vin­tages I’ve worked here that have been even re­motely sim­i­lar,’ ex­plains Paul Pu­jol, wine­maker at Prophet’s Rock in Bendigo. ‘With time you get more re­laxed about that. When I first got here it snowed in the vine­yard as vines were just com­ing into flow­er­ing. But de­spite cold spells and heat­waves we are able to suc­cess­fully ripen Pinot in all of these vin­tages, even with sea­sons that are dra­mat­i­cally dif­fer­ent.’

Com­ing of age

By the turn of the mil­len­nium, Pinot Noir had al­most be­come the sub­ject of Cen­tral Otago’s sec­ond gold rush. Lots of in­vest­ment flooded in, then ended in 2008 with the global fi­nan­cial cri­sis. For Rudi Bauer, viti­cul­tural vet­eran, bio­dy­namic pi­o­neer and wine­maker at Quartz Reef in Bendigo, this abrupt halt to plant­ings rep­re­sented a great op­por­tu­nity. ‘It meant that the av­er­age age of vine­yards fi­nally grew, in­stead of get­ting younger and younger. To­day peo­ple have es­tab­lished vine­yards where they get real site ex­pres­sion.’ Look­ing back he notes a distinct shift in per­spec­tive: ‘Now that we have a sense of ma­tu­rity we no longer need to be loud. Now wine­mak­ers are as hum­ble as the viti­cul­tur­ists al­ways were. They lis­ten to the vine.’

‘We are all evolv­ing our style. Our un­der­stand­ing and con­nec­tion to the land is get­ting deeper’ Lu­cie Lawrence

The best among them know how to farm in or­der to chan­nel Cen­tral Otago’s un­doubted ripeness into bril­liance: ‘I grew up here, eat­ing plums, nec­tarines, peaches, with the juice run­ning down my arms,’ re­calls An­drew Don­ald­son, owner of Ak­itu in Wanaka. ‘You can’t ig­nore fruit in Cen­tral Otago and you shouldn’t, but you can­not make huge fruit bombs. What you want is sub­tle, el­e­gant.’

Francis Hutt, wine­maker at Car­rick Wines in Ban­nock­burn, com­ments: ‘I am now see­ing ear­lier pick­ing, more fi­nesse. We are no longer try­ing to prove to the world that our wines can age – we know that they do. So we can re­lax a lit­tle in our ex­trac­tion. I can see more el­e­gance with less time on skins, less new oak and fewer punch-downs.’

Lawrence of Au­rum con­tin­ues: ‘We are all evolv­ing our style. Our un­der­stand­ing and con­nec­tion to the land is deep­en­ing. There are no mas­sive changes, just gen­tle evo­lu­tion.’ Peter Bar­tle, who makes wines for nu­mer­ous clients at Cen­tral Otago’s cus­tom crush fa­cil­ity VinPro agrees. ‘When it comes to Pinot Noir we are cer­tainly us­ing a lot less new oak and while I’ve al­ways pre­ferred pick­ing early, now that’s the norm,’ he says. But Bar­tle also calls out on Cen­tral Otago’s other grapes: ‘Ries­ling is just amaz­ing – lots of cit­rus – and Chardon­nay is start­ing to do very well in Cen­tral Otago.’ He also talks about an evo­lu­tion of dry, tex­tured Pinot Noir rosés.

Site se­lec­tion

With so much fo­cus on un­der­stand­ing sites, the distinct sub-re­gion­al­ity of Cen­tral Otago has also be­come clear: Gibb­ston Val­ley, Ban­nock­burn, Alexan­dra, Bendigo, Wanaka and Cromwell/Pisa/Low­burn are all distinct in terms of cli­mate, as­pect, al­ti­tude and ex­po­sure. Gibb­ston Val­ley along the Kawa­rau River is the coolest and high­est; while Ban­nock­burn, Bendigo and Alexan­dra are the warm­est. Al­ti­tude also comes into play, with north­fac­ing hill­sides ex­ploited for their sun­shine and ven­ti­la­tion.

‘In the early days we thought Cen­tral Otago was one re­gion, but as we started see­ing fruit from these dif­fer­ent vine­yards we re­alised it’s a num­ber of dif­fer­ent sub-re­gions. As a wine­maker it’s lovely see­ing that, it’s ex­cit­ing,’ says Grant Tay­lor of Valli Vine­yards, who has made wine in Cen­tral Otago since the 1980s and was among the first to draw at­ten­tion to the sub-re­gions with his sep­a­rate bot­tlings from Ban­nock­burn and Gibb­ston Val­ley.

Some wine­mak­ers, such as Blair Wal­ter of Fel­ton Road, would like to for­malise this sooner rather than later. ‘The wine­mak­ers

of Ban­nock­burn are cer­tainly in­ter­ested to pur­sue an ap­pli­ca­tion for a GI [Ge­o­graph­i­cal In­di­ca­tion] for the sub-re­gion. We think we owe it to our cus­tomers and busi­nesses to de­fine the sub-re­gions and where they start and stop,’ Wal­ter ex­plains. ‘I think we are at the ap­pro­pri­ate mo­ment now, es­pe­cially for a sub-re­gion like Ban­nock­burn where the bound­aries are rel­a­tively easy to de­fine. Some of the other sub-re­gions are also easy, oth­ers will be a bit trick­ier.’

Con­tentious as any map­ping al­ways is, it surely is just an­other stage in Cen­tral Otago’s de­vel­op­ment. Tay­lor sums the sit­u­a­tion up: ‘It’s al­ways been chang­ing. I like what’s hap­pen­ing: more peo­ple com­ing here, tak­ing the wine to a wider market. But it’s still an evolv­ing re­gion, which makes it in­ter­est­ing, see­ing it grow, de­velop and change – and that is still go­ing on.’

Left: Rip­pon vine­yards by Lake Wanaka

Right: Rudi Bauer, the wine­maker at Quartz Reef

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