Vintage Variation and the History of Central Otago Pinot Noir

Vintage Variation and the History of Central Otago Pinot Noir

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Central Otago Pinot Noir Vintage Tasting

Producers in Central Otago pulled older vintages of their Pinot noir as representatives of previous vintages going back to 2001. The tasting served as both an opportunity to discuss the peculiar conditions of each vintage and the history of the region’s winemaking. While the tasting did give insight into the aging potential of the region it also revealed how much winemaking styles have changed for the producers poured. There was clear difference from the older vintage wines to the more recent vintages we’d tasted in other part of the two days in Central Otago. There was only one wine from each year presented so the tasting experience was limited to a single wine set alongside the insights of the winemakers on how that year went. Even so, the discussion was very insightful and it was fascinating to taste through the wines. It provided an interesting introduction to the quite varied growing conditions year to year in Central Otago.

The Wines 

Quartz Reef 2001 Pinot noir

Opening with tertiary aromatics of oiled leather and hints of tobacco the Quartz Reef 2001 transforms on the palate to a youthful, still jaw-tightening Pinot bright with acidity. Even so the flavors are more of fruit leather with accents of oiled leather than fresh, though they have not fallen off the plateau of drinkability. That said, it seems best to drink this wine now if not two or three years ago. The quartz crunch sapidity native to the region shows through the length of this wine, while supple tannin is met by balancing acidity.

Mt Difficulty 2002 Pipe Clay Terrace Pinot noir

Snug, dense aromatics of cherry bark and cherry blossom are followed by a dense fruit-built palate spun through with spice and quartz mineral crunch. With air the flavors open into powdered baking spices of nutmeg, ginger and clove. The wine is lightly angular while still showing fine tannin balanced by acidity. Lightly tactile mouthfeel. Drink now.

Felton Road 2003 Block 3 Pinot noir

With aromatics of cherry and earth lifted by a fresh fir tree note the palate turns to dried red fruits – plum, cherry and raspberry – full with spice and a finish of herbs and leather. Tertiary flavors mix here with bright acidity and that Central Otago crunch that stimulates the palate carrying the wine into a long finish. The palate opens fresh then shifts to fruit leather on the midpalate and finishes with a spiced, herbal and leather close. Drink now or in the next couple years.

Amisfield 2006 Pinot noir

Spiced alpine berries move nose to palate and mix in the mouth with notes of fresh picked tobacco dressed on a structure of succulent, firm tannin with balancing acidity and a wash of sapidity. With a quick, clean finish the flavors close followed by a persistent feeling of palate stimulation. Energetic and stimulating.

Prophet’s Rock 2007 Pinot noir

Subdued aromatics lead to a compact and concentrated palate with mineral depth and length. With air the wine opens to a mix of dried red berries with dried blackberry and currant. A dense midpalate and compact presentation offer still fresh acidity and firm, ample while non-aggressive tannin.

Mount Edward 2008 Pinot noir

Spiced dried fruits on the nose reveal fresh acidity through the palate with flavors of dried fruits and fresh picked herbs all spiced and zesty. Again that mineral, quartz crunch palate stimulation shows here bringing an energetic element all the way through the finish where a lift of cedar and cherry powder suddenly appear. This wine gains freshness with air after opening with notes of fresh melon and spice appearing in the midpalate and nose.

Talking through the Vintages and the Region’s Wine History

from left: Paul Pujol, Rudi Bauer, Matt Dicey, Duncan Forsyth at Prophet’s Rock in Bendigo

Prophet’s Rock hosted our tasting and for the discussion Duncan Forsyth of Mount Edward, Rudi Bauer of Quartz Reef, Matt Dicey of Mt Difficulty and Paul Pujol of Prophet’s Rock were present. In discussing the vintage conditions through the wines, the quartet also discussed their understanding of the history of wine in Central Otago.

While the region’s first vines and first commercial release wine in 1987 came from the Gibbston subregion, it was vineyards being established in the Cromwell Basin that really established the future success of Central Otago. Reasonable yields were more easily achieved in Cromwell, allowing vintners a better shot at the economic viability necessary to chase true quality.

Gibbston sits in one of the most marginal sections of Central Otago with fruit from the vines in the subzone sometimes decimated before it can be brought in by cold, sometimes unable to get truly ripe. But, like any truly marginal growing region, the vintages it works produce some of the most exciting wines of Central Otago.

As the winemaker quartet described, wines coming out of Cromwell Basin for the first time helped show that Central Otago could make riper style wines in comparison to the austerity first shown from Gibbston. The revelation led to a planting boom in Central Otago and a shift in the epicenter of viticulture to the younger region. Cromwell Basin still holds the highest concentration of vineyards today.

Before 2002, winemakers in the larger region were used to finding austerity in their fruit and struggling to get extraction in the cellar or fruit weight from the vines. Then in 2002 the area was hit with a hot vintage, which on the young vines of the region led to exuberant fruit expression and a ripe, fruit forward, approachable vintage style. As the quartet explained, the 2002 vintage changed the perspective of Central Otago wines and brought more attention to the area at a time when people wanted big wines. At the same time, winemakers in the region were relatively young and excited for the possibility of such expressive fruit after expecting they would always struggle to go beyond austerity of expression. As the winemakers claim, in their youth, most of them happily went with the ripe fruit presence of the vintage and tended towards that style for a few years after as well. At the same time, as they explain, the success of the 2002 vintage also eventually created a new issue of having to show people that the region could do more than just deliver fruit forward wines.

The winemakers describe 2003 as a more even keel vintage in terms of weather, with steady temperatures, leading to more elegant wines.

Both the 2004 and 2005 vintages were cold, showing a return to the growing conditions more typical to those prior to 2002, and giving winemakers a revisit of what they were previously used to working with in terms of fruit expression.

In 2006, warmer conditions led to higher levels of extraction but on fruit that was also more structural. As a result, many people made bigger wines with more rusticity. As the winemakers explain, the combination also led to an interest in cleaner wines overall with a desire to find more finesse in the cellar.

By 2007, the region had been well enough established, and there were enough vineyards surpassing juvenile vines that winemakers began to find the familiarity with the region needed to begin shifting into personal expression of style. At the same time, 2007 was an almost devastating vintage. Paul Pujol, whose wine represented the year described it as the most traumatic vintage of his winemaking career. Snow fell every month of the growing season bringing cold temperatures especially through the early season. Even more, there was ample precipitation during flowering, leading to painfully low yields as well as serious concentration in the wines from the utterly small clusters and tiny berry size. Even so, many of the berries came in without seeds, making it possible to make ultra concentrated wines, not from extraction but from the innate fruit character, without overly assertive tannin.

The 2008 harvest was marked by rain creating huge berries and bunches with less overall concentration in the wines as a result.

The Winemaker Quartet: from left: Paul Pujol, Rudi Bauer, Matt Dicey, Duncan Forsyth

As the conversation continued, Jamie Goode pointed out that with the older vines present in the region today we have begun to see more definition and distinction from the vines, thereby also making the winemaker’s individual intent more apparent through the wines. Duncan Forsyth agrees, stating that he sees a wider fan of variation in styles from winemakers throughout the region. This is also the mark of a region that has begun to find its maturity. While young regions can often show great variation in quality, the exuberance of young vines tends to dictate style (allowing for site discrepancy of course). Central Otago, on the other hand, has an exciting base level of quality that allows for both the particularities of site and the winemaker’s stylistic interest to be more apparent in the wines overall.

Conversations with Central Otago winemakers over the two days we were there also revealed a base level of curiosity that is rather high for any region. There is a lot of experience working abroad showing from many of the winemakers as well as a clear interest in tasting global examples of wine and considering where the wines of their region stand alongside others of the world stage. This speaks well to the likely continued quality growth of the region. It is also admirable considering how geographically challenged Central Otago proves to be. In literal distance it is one of the most, if not the most, remote regions in the world from any other major region, facing, then, simple logistical and so also economic challenges in getting their wines distributed globally. The passion expressed by the Central Otago winemakers, and the persistence they show in such marginal growing conditions makes it well worth facing such difficulties to make sure the rest of us can get their wines in our glasses.

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