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
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.
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.
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