New Zealand

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Marlborough

with Lauren Eads on a boat heading to Waterfall Bay

Marlborough turned out to be one of my favorite parts of our travels through New Zealand. The diversity of wine styles with good quality available on the ground there was both surprising and inspiring as I was able to find stand out wines of Chardonnay, Pinot, Syrah, Methode Traditionelle, Riesling, Gewurztraminer, and, yes, Sauvignon Blanc. What is available from Sauvignon there in Marlborough covers a far more significant range than we have any idea of here in the US market. Our selection here is far more limited.

While there is something very old school country about the central parts of Marlborough in its feel, the region also holds unbelievable beauty. Here’s the Instagram collection from our time on the ground in Marlborough.

Surprise pleasure of the trip so far – Impressive tasting on Methode Traditionelle wines from Methode Marlborough. All made from Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier, Chardonnay in blend or individually, aged at least 18 months on lees though most shown here much longer. Wines from left: Daniel Le Brun Rosé NV, Tobu Rewa Reserve Blanc de Noir 2012, Johanneshof Cellars 2008 EMMI Brut, Nautilus Cuvée Brut NV, Hunter’s MiruMiru Reserve 2011, Spy Valley 2011 Echelon, Huia Blanc de Blancs 2010, Allan Scott Cecilia Vintage, No 1 Family Estate Virginia Cuvée. A range of styles here but good quality and pleasure through each of the wines. #nzwine @nzwinegrowers @nzwineusa @hunterswinesnz @huia_vineyards @nautilusestate @tohuwines @spyvalleywine @johanneshofwine @allanscottwines @no1familyestate @methodemarlborough

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Nice to see the elegance that develops in aged Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc. A much broader range of styles showing through a large regional tasting of current and library releases of the variety than what appears in the United States. Here one of the stand-outs: the Catalina Sounds, Sounds of White, 2013 Sauvignon Blanc from Marlborough’s Waihopai Valley, made only in large oak foudre to bring texture with minimal flavor influence, bottled after six months. Nice subtlety with notes of rose leaf, elderflower and pleasing delicate green accents. Delicate and subtle with still persistent palate stimulation through a long finish. Nicely done. Really pleasing example in the 2015 release as well. #nzwine @nzwinegrowers @nzwineusa @catalinasounds

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Oh heck YES. Get your neck on one of these. #nzwine @nzwinegrowers @nzwineusa @zephyrwine

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Oh thank the lord god I am on a boat. Marlborough Sounds heading to Waterfall Bay. #nzwine @nzwinegrowers @nzwineusa

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To read more on beautiful stand out examples of Sauvignon Blanc from Marlborough: http://wakawakawinereviews.com/2017/01/27/the-pleasing-surprise-of-marlborough-sauvignon-blanc/

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North Canterbury

limestone hills in Waipara Valley and throughout North Canterbury

As any of you that know me personally or have been following my writing know, I am slow to form opinion when it comes to wine growers, winemakers, wine regions or styles, preferring to take a step-back-while-go-in-depth observational approach. This style of wine study and research works for me as I hunt around listening and observing a person, place, or wine-in-the-glass, letting the information come into view to reveal its own shape.

Listening to people I follow along what they say, listening for what beliefs, values, and other information must be true for them to say what they say, and listen in this way for a long time mapping them in my head before asking questions. I wait until enough of their personal landscape forms in my mind for me to see what questions I have – where I am missing information and need more insight to understand them, and if the implied views I hear from them are accurate to what they mean.

I do something similar with wine though the mapping happens differently there, less from what is said, of course, and more through something like the wine’s aesthetic shape and how it points to where it’s from and what it wants to be.

All of this is prelude to say, I feel as though I have a lot more study to do on North Canterbury wines before I can make more developed assertions about the region. In the meantime I have a range of observations from tastings through the place that make me curious to better understand the area’s big picture.

While there we did regional overview tastings beginning with a large tasting of wines from all over North Canterbury, then moving through a series of overview tastings focused on smaller subregions of the area. We homed in on Waipara and Waikari Valleys as well as Weka Pass and Banks Peninsula while there, on aromatics whites, then on Chardonnays, and finally on various reds.

The variation in quality through the tastings was significant. There was a broad range between top stand out wines and others that felt more timid, as if the people behind them were still discovering what it means to make wine in a more nascent way. There is also a very light, almost watery character to some of the wines from North Canterbury – though I am reluctant to use the word watery as it implies thinness in a way I don’t quite mean – that worked against its structure at times. There was also significant contrast in structural finesse among the wines that highlighted the importance not only of finding the right site but also of its necessary farming. Site quality is of course relevant to any region and some area’s are further into understanding how that shows up than others.

Overall my impression from the regional tastings of North Canterbury was that it feels relatively early in that process – as if there is potential for greatness there and people are still doing a bit of hopping about to find the sites that can bring it with the right farming.

The structural nature of the wines and that lighter character compels me at the same time. It’s something I feel drawn to keep an eye on and hopefully return to at a slower pace, walking sites that have shown themselves well with their growers to understand what has made them leap to the fore over others.

In some subzones it is clear limestone plays a role. There is high concentration of calcareous rock through sections of North Canterbury. Too much bi-carbonate from such stone throws vines into a growing crisis where they suffer deficiencies that upset their ability not only to grow but also ripen fruit. Such stone degraded into just enough clay, for example, however, and you get an exciting tension and palate stimulation unlike that possible from any other soil. That snap-snug-zip that forms in wines from such just-right edgy sites is why some growers hunt the edge of calcareous viability. In North Canterbury, Pyramid Valley is one of the prime examples of growers that sought to plant in exactly the right mix buying land loaded with limestone with a few midslopes of just the right mineral mix.

Following are some of my stand out wines from our tastings in North Canterbury. I look forward to keeping an eye on the place, and getting back there to have more time to slow down, listen and taste.

Pyramid Valley Chardonnay

Pyramid Valley Chardonnays from their home vineyard in Waikari Valley show a lovely range of expressions between wines. The estate bottlings are made from specific vineyards planted about their property based on extensive soil studies to find just the right mineral balance in the soils to support vines. While they make Pinot as well, there was greater consistency in quality vintage to vintage from the Chardonnay that I found pleasing. We were given the chance to taste their whites back to first bottlings from the property.

Lion’s Tooth offered a graceful expression of that lighter, delicate, almost watery (in a pleasing way) presence I saw in other wines of the region with lovely floral notes and a mix of fruits from citrus through stone all carried through a long mouth cleansing finish.

The Field of Fire brought power and concentration, coming in strong to the palate, in some vintages almost feral. It is a wine that would hold up to almost anything at the table without relying on imposed power to carry such strength of presence. To put that another way, it isn’t armor from the cellar that makes Field of Fire but an innate, sinewy tenacity to the fruit.

Incredibly, the two sites are within visual distance from each other on the Pyramid Valley property. While there are no doubt some contrasts in cellar approach, they are more than that a testament to how very specific and distinct a vineyard’s own voice can be.

Bell Hill

One of the stand out Pinots of North Canterbury is no doubt Bell Hill in the Weka Pass. It’s a wine that’s generated a cult following from wine geeks and wine lovers world wide. We were able to taste multiple vintages of the wine and they share among them a sense of force and concentration that comes in strong at the front of the palate then spins into a long graceful finish. The 2013 offered poised generosity carrying lightly wild notes in a cultivated frame. It’s a combination that makes the wine memorable and intriguing.

Alan McCorkindale Sparkling Wines

Alan McCorkindale makes both still and sparkling wines from North Canterbury but it was his sparkling wines that grabbed my attention. We were able to taste them across a range of vintages, all focused on Chardonnay. The density, depth and concentration carried through a long, mouthwatering finish made the wines simultaneously rich and easily drinkable. The older vintages offered that lovely balance of aged character carrying dusty dried fruits and a long carriage of mouthwatering acidity.

Black Estate

Black Estate was my surprise stand out from the Waipara Valley of North Canterbury. I hadn’t heard of their wines prior to our visit but I’ve become an interested fan. (They also have an utterly genuine, kind winemaker, who was a pleasure to talk to.) We were able to sit down to enjoy a bottle of their Cabernet Franc over a picnic dinner (where I ate all the potatoes), which was the perfect setting for this wine. It carries friendly, while focused flavor in a refreshingly open weave that invests in freshness and length. The wine carried a snappy finish that avoids being high strung.

The wines from Black Estate were also a good reminder at the value of context. We tried them in the regional tastings and I had noticed their reds but at the same time in the midst of tasting a series of several ten wines I felt unable to properly assess them – I tend to avoid reviewing wines in walk around tastings, instead looking for stand outs I want to spend more time with later. Getting to return to the Cabernet Franc over dinner was the perfect solution. It was a delicious, nicely made wine to enjoy with friends.

For just a bit more on North Canterbury here are a few other posts on the region: 

Photos from North Canterbury: http://wakawakawinereviews.com/2017/02/15/photos-from-north-canterbury/

Adventures in Christchurch: http://wakawakawinereviews.com/2017/02/16/adventures-in-christchurch/

Nick Stock created an overview video on North Canterbury wine regions for the Pinot Noir NZ event. You can see it here: https://vimeo.com/203942360

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Adventures in Christchurch

After departing Central Otago we headed to North Canterbury for a series of regional tastings as well as time in the city of Christchurch. Christchurch has been embattled by a series of severe earthquakes and this summer (it’s summer for them now) horrible wildfires as well. In 2011 the area was hit with a 6.3 earthquake that caused damage the region is still recovering from. This late 2016 brought a 7.8 earthquake just outside the area. The more serious damage and loss of life occurred in the 2011 quake, which caused buildings throughout the city to collapse. New buildings codes have since been instituted that require structures to be built to survive tremors rated up to 9 on the Richter scale. As a result, Christchurch today has the safest buildings in the world. Even so, the city is still recovering.

Walking downtown empty lots dot the landscape. Most today have been filled with art installations to make the lots into interactive space. One of the coolest examples was an outdoor public dance floor complete with surround sound speakers, dance lights, and a disco ball. For a $2 coin anyone can plug in their ipod or phone to play 30 minutes of music. Daniel Toral, David Keck, Jamie Goode and I spent an evening wandering the city and busted into a full session on the dance floor (shown above). (From what I can tell, we’re all horrible dancers but dang was it fun.)

Traveling the world of wine it’s fun to find new hangouts in other countries. They become a sort of comfort in the midst of so much change. Shop Eight in downtown Christchurch was one of those places – it felt great to hang out and it was easy to feel at home with the menu even in seeing unusual offerings. The food selection features a seasonal menu of small plates with a range of local produce, seafoods and meats meant to pair well with her eclectic-while-tasty menu of wines and beers. We had a great time exploring around the menu.

After selecting our wines we asked the server to go ahead and bring us her favorite food options. The wine menu has a focus on freshness with an array of options from the quirky side. They’re wines that bridge the gap between wine and beer lovers, which I find refreshing in the right circumstances.

The Naturalist 2016 sparkling wine from Cambridge Road was our first wine of the evening. Cambridge Road makes fantastic Pinot noir from the Martinborough region on the North island (some of my stand out wines from the trip), as well as Syrah, and then also plays with more experimental projects exploring vinification with low sulfur and lower intervention sparkling wine methods. The Naturalist was one such example – a refreshing and delicious, savory methode ancestrale sparkling wine made of equal portions Pinot Gris and Sauvignon Blanc. It relies on wild fermentation and no added sulfur, and while the wine is certainly wild in the glass with sediment and textural density, it is also clean without worry of being pristine. It’s one of those bridge the gap wines that reaches towards the advantages of beer without going rogue into unbearable faults. It hits more at a level like spending several days camping on the beach with an outdoor shower, rather than either living in a germ free clean room of formica and steel on the one hand, or falling into a swamp with poor drainage or little water flow on the other. It also comes in at only 11.5% alcohol. Super easy to drink.

The Black Star 2016 Field Blend of Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris and Gewurztraminer from Waitaki Valley fruit made by Theo Coles goes a bit farther with the camping metaphor. It’s more like you’ve been camping on that same beach for several days with an outdoor shower and are now coming down from that handful of shrooms you ate this afternoon. The lights are still bright so that sunset is killing it but it’s also giving you way more feels than you have usually, your stomach is a little more sensitive and you’re not really ready to eat yet. Even so, you’re there to drink it in and enjoy it. The cofermented varieties certainly create some of what’s unusual about this wine but it’s also just meant to be funky without going full microbial. It’s made without sulfur and drinks well with a bit of chill on it.

After leaving Shop Eight we wandered around the city and found our way to an incredible playground that’s been built since the devastating 2011 earthquake, the Margaret Mahy. It’s an incredible installation with loads of fun for kids of all ages. The four of us had a great time running up and back down slides, racing on ziplines and not-quite peeing ourselves on a series of buried trampolines. Then we wandered down the road to the late night beer garden and drank a beer.

Christchurch is experiencing devastating wildfires right now. The 2016 earthquakes gratefully did far less damage to the city than those in 2011 but the coastline was seriously hit with many communities getting hampered by road loss from the heaving effect of the tremors. The fires now come at a difficult time when people were just recovering from structural damage. It’s a beautiful and special region full of utterly genuine and somehow gentle people. I hope the fires ease quickly and that people stay safe. I’m grateful for such a fun night in their city.

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Photos from North Canterbury

After traveling Central Otago we flew to North Canterbury where we toured and tasted for two days through the Waipara and Waikari Valleys with an adventurous train ride through the Weka Valley, before then spending the evening in the Banks Peninsula. The excursion included a night in Christchurch too that was amazing as you can see below.

Following is the collection of photos I shared to Instagram from our time in North Canterbury including our travels from the area. There are multiple videos included along the way. Be sure to watch them too. Wine professionals being ridiculous. Too funny.

Mountains of limestone in Waipara. #nzwine @nzwinegrowers @nzwineusa

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More idyllic New Zealand countryside here the Three Peaks in Waipara of North Canterbury. The folds, cut and lift of the fault lines are visible throughout this region where the plates are pushing against each other causing mountain uplifts surrounded by canyons. Sizesble earthquakes happen here regularly with the last serious one being Mid 2016 and before that Early 2011. Both caused significant damage through the area and multi-billion dollar demolish and rebuilding projects in Christchurch. Stone masons and builders came from all over the world to repair the city. Today it holds the safest buildings in the world, built to withstand earthquakes over 8 and even up to 9 on the Richter scale. #nzwine @nzwinegrowers @nzwineusa

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Central Otago and Waitaki Pinot 

One of the opening features of the recent Pinot Noir NZ 2017 event were wonderfully done videos made by Mike Bennie and Nick Stock. The videos brilliantly dug into each of the Pinot growing regions of New Zealand individually giving a good feel for the people and place of each region in a few minutes of focused interviews with the key players of the wine community.

Check out Mike Bennie‘s (I love that guy) nicely done look at Central Otago and Waitaki Pinot Noir. Thanks to Pinot Noir NZ for posting the video!

Central Otago and Waitaki Pinot Noir NZ 2017 Mike Bennie from Pinot Noir NZ on Vimeo.

 

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Central Otago Pinot Noir

the view from Rippon along Lake Wanaka

Our first day in New Zealand included a walk around tasting hosted by Mount Edward winery in Central Otago. Producers poured two wines each – both Pinot noir – of their choosing. While some offered multiple vintages others selected different cuvées from the same release year. The tasting was an interesting first look at wines for our trip.

While a relatively young region, Central Otago has done well at establishing itself quickly on the world stage for quality Pinot with its own distinctive varietal expression. Younger vines and younger winemakers established an initial reputation for more fruit focused and rounder wines than what one sees from the region today. As vintners have gained experience and become more familiar with their own dirt, and vineyard plantings have expanded into newer subzones that early enthusiasm has deepened into another level of confidence that shows through a greater diversification of styles. At the same time, our several days in Central Otago plus time with the producers later in the trip during the Pinot Noir NZ festivities in Wellington showed that the initial enthusiasm remains. I was impressed with the verve and curiosity that seems common through the people of Central Otago.

Central Otago is one of the most remote growing regions in New Zealand. In the southern part of the southern island it stands as one of the most distant viticultural zones in the world from both other major wine regions and wine markets. Getting off the plane the landscape immediately struck me with familiarity. It shares so much in common with my home in Alaska. The commonality showed through peoples’ personalities there too. I found myself interacting with people in Central Otago as if I’d long known them, and would have to occasionally remind myself it was my first visit and first meeting with them too. I obviously can’t help but have an affection for the area as a result. The quality of the wines shown during our visits was also reliable. That is, the base line of quality for Central Otago was relatively high. If there was issue with a wine it was more often about stylistic preference than winemaking faults.

Central Otago’s presence on the world stage is also coupled with the region’s producers having a strong investment with study abroad. Producers we met tended to speak in relation to other viticultural areas around the world they’d spent time as well as wines they’re often tasting. A surprisingly high proportion of them have spent time working in Willamette Valley, for example, as well as attending Oregon’s International Pinot Noir Celebration. Central Otago though also has an incredibly strong history with Burgundy. The two areas have had an official exchange program for over 11 years that includes support for winemakers to travel and work between the two regions, with program participants placed in major houses for harvest in which ever of the two they are visiting. The program is quite significant with Central Otago being the only growing region in the world that Burgundy does that sort of official exchange.

Following are a handful of the stand out Pinots from the walk around tasting our first night in Central Otago.

Mount Edward

Duncan Forsyth and Anna Riederer poured two vintages of their Mount Edward Pinot noir – the 2013 regional blend and the 2011 Muirkirk Vineyard. The wines speak to the regional signature of Central Otago with their midpalate density, deep toned red fruits and glittering acidity but they also show layers of flavor and a kind of jovial confidence I find pleasing. The Muirkirk carries greater complexity and depth to the Central Otago Pinot, which is refreshing and satisfying. There is plenty of savor here nose through palate with notes of tobacco and just picked herbs housed in mouth stimulating sapidity on the Muirkirk. There is plenty of fruit to the wine but it isn’t about that, rather its about the layers of flavor. Supple tannin gives a sense of something to chew on while that mouth stimulation carries through to a long finish.

Rippon

Nick Mills of Rippon poured their 2013 and 2010 Pinots made from older vines on their home vineyard. You’d be hard pressed to find someone that doesn’t like these wines as their beautifully made and from a distinctive site. If you ever have opportunity to speak with Nick about his family estate and the history of the area it’s also well worth doing. He presented on the subject at the recent Pinot Noir NZ 2017 event and shared his thoughts and practice of taking a multi-generational view to the land. It was an inspiring talk. (Alder Yarrow published a transcript of Nick’s PN NZ 17 talk on his site Vinography that is worth reading. Here’s the direct link to that article: http://www.vinography.com/archives/2017/02/turangawhaewhae_a_maori_expres.html).

The Rippon 2013 offers nuanced perfume full of aromatic woods that persist through to the palate with ample sapidity through a persistent finish. The acidity is mouthwatering and a pleasure, well integrated into a vibrant leanness that carries ample flavor through a lean frame. The 2010 was my favorite of the two, offering additional depth from a bit of bottle age.

Growing up in remote Alaska one of the things I became familiar with was this sense of concentrated aromas and flavors that come from miniaturized plants. Much of the land in Alaska is tundra, which consists, essentially, of a multitude of wild berry and wild tea plants grown in miniature because of the difficult and wet soils beneath them. Walking across tundra is this overwhelming experience of releasing mixed and highly perfumed scents. Because the plants have grown so slowly and so small their scents and flavors are more concentrated and so then also more powerful to experience. Walking over them breaks their aromas free so that every step uncovers a new overwhelming fragrance of wild cranberry mixed with labrador tea to wild blueberry rubbed by a fresh break of pine and a smudge of peat. Growing up with such smells is what led me eventually into the world of wine – outside extreme environments such as Alaskan tundra a glass of wine is the only place left to find such complex scent.

The 2010 Rippon lifts from the glass with that intensity of smell, a multitude of unexpected and concentrated flavors like the smells from a walk across fresh broken tundra. There is a wildness to it carrying a multitude of miniaturized plants. The palate starts dense and savory then lifts into mouth watering sapidity and a flash of those same tundra scents. It’s a wine with plenty of density that moves fresh and lively through the palate.

Prophet’s Rock

Paul Pujol poured both a current and older vintage of his Prophet’s Rock Pinot from their Home Vineyard. The 2009 was one of my stand out wines from the entire trip through New Zealand. As he explained, it was an unusual vintage where fruit came in with uniquely pale color while still having ample tannin. It became important, then, to avoid over extracting for color as it would lead to too much tannin in the glass. The 2009 from Prophet’s Rock offers a wonderfully delicate persistence on both the nose and palate. It’s somehow ethereal, engaging and stimulating drinking simultaneously pretty and savory with an enlivening lightness. It was a wine I wanted to sit and enjoy through the evening.

The 2014 offers notes at a deeper register compared to the lifted prettiness of the 2009. There is immediately greater density and depth to the aromatics that point in the direction of brooding without quite going that far. The palate too offers more power in comparison but still pours through a light bodied frame. I am a fan of that balance Paul pulls off in his Pinot of bringing impressive depth and nuance in still a mouthwatering subtlety. Refreshing, savory and pretty.

Aurum

the Kawarau River of Central Otago

I somehow managed to miss taking a photo of the Aurum 2014 Madeline Pinot Noir (even though I tasted it through multiple vintages no less!) so I’ve snuck in a photo of the beautiful Kawarau River, which we crossed on our way to visit Aurum instead – my apologies though if you want to see the label it is on their own site here: https://aurumwines.co.nz/notes_files/stacks_image_1000.jpg.

Winemaker Lucie Lawrence does the Madeline Pinot entirely as foot tread whole bunch from the 667 clone, which she feels does well with stem inclusion from her home vineyard. The wine is dense and needs time in cellar to fully release its pleasure but it is full, nose through palate, with lush aromatics of rose petal and bush that swaddle a savory backbone. The tannin is ample but succulent rather than aggressive and the acidity comes in with nice balancing length. Let this sit in bottle for a few more years to allow the dense weave of the wine to open but with that it has a lot to offer.

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the Kawarua River in Central Otago

As any of you that have followed me for a while know, after in depth trips through a region I like to compile my Instagram photos from the excursion here so that the collection is easier to locate. It’s something various people have asked me to do and has proven fun to revisit.

The last two-plus weeks I’ve been traveling New Zealand wine countries. The New Zealand Wine Growers have put together a truly incredible itinerary. It’s been remarkable. There has also been enough to do in each area that I’ve decided it’s too much to put into just one New Zealand Instagram collection here. Instead, I’ll go ahead and compile the photo collections here by region starting where my trip started, with Central Otago. Between Instagram collections I’ll also post write ups of the associated place and the wines we tasted. Be sure to check out the three pieces already posted here on Central Otago wines. They’re linked below.

Really lovely wines made by a lovely winemaker. Beautiful intensity and intelligence housed in a delicate, pretty, finessed wine with a light palate and pleasing texture. Here Paul Pujol of Prophet’s Rock making wine from a moderate elevation glacial terrace with underlying chalk and lime in Central Otago. He destems his Pinot then avoids punch downs or pump overs keeping the cap wet with a light sprinkling from a watering can in order to allow delicate fruit expression with balanced structure. As he explains, working harvest in Musigny, he learned the lesson that “a mineral terroir supports no extraction.” Having already seen something like this from his site here in Bendigo the comment clicked and when he returned his approach shifted. Pinots all unfined, unfiltered and lovely. #nzwine @nzwinegrowers @paulpujol @nzwineusa

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Mountains of schist through Central Otago. #nzwine @nzwinegrowers @nzwineusa

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To read more on my travels in Central Otago here are three articles I’ve posted here so far.

Stand out Rieslings in Central Otago: http://wakawakawinereviews.com/2017/01/24/two-stand-out-rieslings-from-central-otago/

A subregions Pinot noir Tasting: http://wakawakawinereviews.com/2017/01/25/pinot-noir-in-central-otago/

Vintage Variation and the History of Central Otago: http://wakawakawinereviews.com/2017/01/25/vintage-variation-and-the-history-of-central-otago-pinot-noir/

Cheers!

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Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc

Looking over vineyards in the Riverlands area of Marlborough

Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc has a clear reputation for quality and expression globally. Winemakers through the region are impressively skilled at creating reliable wines that are both technically sound and on point. It’s near impossible to find a faulty Marlborough Sauvignon. The precision and consistency has served them well on the world stage ensuring that people know what to expect from the category. Consumers have responded enthusiastically. Even winery names that are otherwise unrecognized can benefit from the power of the regional brand with consumers having a sense of what to expect from the wine simply because of the region and variety association.

The strength of Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc has its disadvantages too. Such an established type can become entrenched with those same consumer expectations limiting producer options while closing consumer expectations to the idea of being surprised. I’ve always admired how effectively vintners from the area established their wines so powerfully on the world stage. At the same time in a US context the repetitiveness of the style has been challenging for me. Those same expectations of knowing what I’m going to get from Marlborough Sauvignon has made me less likely to seek it out rather than more.

These last two days, then, here on the ground tasting in Marlborough have been a wonderful surprise. I’ve actually gotten progressively more excited by the wines as we’ve tasted more. My enthusiasm has been peaked by the range of other successful wines from varieties such as Riesling, Pinot Noir, and even a solid Bordeaux blend as well. The sparkling wines from the area too include some of the nicest I’ve had recently. I’ll be writing more about both the Methode Marlborough sparkling wines and the various other varieties that have been stand outs here separately. Most of all though I’ve been relieved to find quite a range of styles on Sauvignon Blanc. It’s been refreshing and has reinspired my interest in the region. Additionally, we’ve been able to taste quite a few older vintages of Sauvignon, even going back to 2008, that has proved insightful. It’s been good to see how elegantly the wines can age.

While the US market (and others worldwide as well) has tended towards a rather narrow expression of Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc, a broader range of styles from the variety has always existed here in Marlborough. Smaller, boutique level grower-winemakers doing the work from farming to cellar are to thank. Their work too helped ignite the now international category by recognizing what the region has to offer – vibrant acidity combined with aromatic intensity – and so attracting the larger producers with the marketing capital to move wines worldwide.

Cool climate viticulture combined with the elevated UV levels of the area mean vines retain their acidity while still developing intensity on both the nose and palate. The area hosts a preponderance of high draining sedimentary soils ranging from sand to clay but throughout the region lifted aromatics remain the focus. Where sandy soils encourage those aromatics even further they also tend to create more supple phenolics. Clay, on other hand, creates more muscle and concentration. The wines here, then, of course cover that range.

Here are a handful of stand out examples of Sauvignon Blanc from the last two days.

The Seresin Marama captures an elegant while friendly expression of Sauvignon Blanc aromatics, rounding the edges of the ample acidity generated by the region through the palate. The result is a surprising and pleasant Sauvignon Blanc that carries sophistication in subtlety and a more casual though not unthought feel on the palate.

Giesen wines are all about sophistication with power. The Fuder Sauvignon Blanc delivers intensity through graceful concentration and a brilliantly executed use of oak. It’s a barrel fermented style that seamlessly weds the two – oak and variety – and is a good reminder of why the cellar approach became so popular. Delicious and elegantly done.

Catalina Sounds has captured subtlety from the variety through their Sounds of White Sauvignon Blanc. It ages beautifully becoming progressively more elegant with time in bottle. The 2013 vintage showed off nuance with delicate layers of aroma and flavor while still offering mouthwatering acidity and plenty of presence. I really enjoy the subtlety here.

Approachable and friendly, the Staete Landt Annabel uses oak for texture through the palate as well as a kind of textural layering to the aromatics. It brings depth to the wine. This is charming, and crowd pleasing while retaining nuance and avoiding the bore factor.

Brancott delivers a solid example of the Fume Blanc style with good integration of variety to oak hitting that midnote of the two seamlessly. Approachable quality. Nicely done.

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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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Tasting through Central Otago

Central Otago master class on Pinot noir of the region, hosted by Lucy Lawrence of Aurum and Grant Taylor of Valli

Aurum winery hosted a Central Otago Pinot noir master class for us with panelists Lucy Lawrence of Aurum and Grant Taylor of Valli. In attendance too were winemakers from each of the other wineries represented. The class focused on structure in pinot noir with a look at climate variation between the subregions as well as vinification techniques in the cellar.

Soils within Central Otago are largely schist based, an unusual characteristic for any subregion in the world. Few are dominated by schist to the extent this area is. Within the schist soils there is still significant variation with some sites showcasing gravel while others feature such rock more pulverized into sand. In some areas(generally at lower elevations) clay has mixed with the two to bring a more robust, muscular quality alongside the intense sapidity of the schist soils. What I found common among the Pinot noirs we tasted was a persistent quartz crunch palate stimulation to the wines. In some it was so intense the palate was ignited by these enlivening sparks while others it felt like more of a light sprinkling pop-pop-pop through the wines. It’s a sort of stimulation I greatly enjoy and in the best wines it brought another level of depth and energy to their overall presentation.

Central Otago proves to be a complex region defined by a central curving valley that follows a series of mountain lakes carved on either side by mountain ranges. So while the center of the region runs north-south along the line of lakes, the area continues over the mountains east-west as well. The variation, then, of climate subtleties between the subregions is significant even if subtle. What ties them all together is the overall marginal nature of the climate and the mountains of schist. Snow fall can be seen in the region’s mountains throughout summer and we even witnessed it accumulating in a snow storm at higher elevations, rain at lower during our two days there. As a result the diurnal shift has a healthy impact on the vines though day time temperatures remain moderate.

The master class was delineated by paired wines discussed side by side to offer greater insight into the climactic conditions of their subregions, as well as considerations of winery technique. All wines selected were from the 2013 vintage.

Flight 1

Both wines were aged in around 1/3 new oak, and fermented on about 30% whole cluster.

Quartz Reef 2013 Bendigo Single Vineyard Pinot noir Bendigo

With bright fruit friendly aromatics and an underlying savory note on the nose, the Quartz Reef moves through the palate with red fruits and a savory crunch. There is a massive push of sapidity here intensified by angular tannin and balancing acidity.

Valli 2013 Gibbston Vineyard Pinot noir Gibbston

While the Valli opens with earthier, spiced and more savory aromatics it flips on the palate to spiced red fruits in a deeper register than seen on the Quartz Reef, still carrying a focus first on acidity and then finer tannin.

The Quartz Reef had the acidity to balance its tannin but the tannin clearly won in the combination and came in a bit angular and tactile, though not aggressively so. It turns out Bendigo tends to bring more tannin to its wines as the area receives very little rainfall, so in its desert climate clusters tend towards thicker skins and smaller clusters. Gibbston, on the other hand, has a cooler climate and seems to be the edgiest subregion with the lowest overall yields of Central Otago. Wines from Gibbston tend to wash the mouth with acidity while the tannin slips in easily beneath.

As the winemakers present described, Gibbston tends towards more floral spice and apparent acidity while Bendigo offers more cherry fruit and can tend towards greater ripeness and higher potential alcohol in comparison.

Flight 2

Felton Road 2013 Block 3 Bannockburn

The vines here are 97% own rooted, planted in 1992. All biodynamic and organic since 2002.

Savory, dark red fruit aromatics come in a bit muted on the palate initially then become more cherry fruited with air. There is a vibrant sapidity throughout with a compact range of flavors highlighting dark herbs and spice character and loads of palate stimulation. Floral notes lift through the back of the palate as the wine opens with air. Finer tannin here with balancing acidity.

Maude 2013 Mt Maude Vineyard Wanaka

Vines here were planted in 1994.

With midtone cherry blossom on both the nose and palate the Maude Pinot offers a bit lighter, more feminine expression with plenty of palate stimulation and just a bit of angular tension through the finish. Small pixelated flavors carry through persistent acidity and tannin both.

The older vines of Central Otago have shifted the overall expression of the wines. As the vines have settled in with age the wines have also become less fruit centered and deeper toned. Central Otago’s initial reputation in Pinot rested in powerful, fruit forward wines with plenty of midpalate. Those wines originate primarily with the verve of a younger region. Winemakers over the couple days we were present described their own exuberance as well as the ripening power of younger vines as being behind that style. Such wines can still be found through Central Otago but as the region has gained maturity the styles have fanned into a greater range of expression. At the same time older vines that handle climactic variation through vintages have given winemakers an easier time for making lighter bodied wines.

As Blair Walter of Felton Road explained, older vines get more stable both in harvest size and also in their ability to self-regulate through weather changes. Young vines on the other hand tend to race to ripening, with sugars often outpacing the chemistry of the rest of the wine. In many cases, to better balance the tannin and acidities of the younger vines winemakers need to let the fruit hang longer, thus creating wines with comparatively higher alcohols. As vines age they also tend to offer a more harmonious relationship between flavor and structure, alcohol and finesse.

The oldest vines in Central Otago are around 25 years of age. The first commercial release from the region was in 1987. Since the earliest vineyards were planted many have gone through replants thanks to frost or freeze but also from the process of dialing in best varieties for the area.

As described by the winemakers at the tasting, Bannockburn as a subregion tends towards simple fruits in young vines but develops more depth of flavor and earthiness with age. Bannockburn also has the highest vineyard concentration currently of the subregions of Central Otago. Wanaka has a long, dry growing season. It is cooler than many of the other subregions and receives more rain as well thanks to the nearby Lake Wanaka, but vineyards closer to the lake also benefit from its moderating influence avoiding genuine frost concerns.

Flight 3

Domaine Thomson 2013 Surveyor Thomson Lowburn

Showing a bigger aromatic footprint than the previous wines and a rounder palate presence as well. The Domaine Thomson carries notes of dark red fruit lightly spiced throughout with a more open, wider reaching weave and a bit less concentration than the previous wines.

Ceres 2013 Composition Bannockburn

Notes of cherry and plum spiced with black tea move through the palate to a clean close with a dry finish. The tannin here is smooth through the mouth while certainly apparent and give a snug, complete finish to the wine. The acidity continues to persist long after the flavors while still lingering with savory spice and the mineral sapidity of the region.

As described by the tasting’s winemakers, Lowburn tends to create quite distinct wines in its youth that become more synchronous with the region overall as they age. Claudio Heye of Domaine Thomson explains that Lowburn Pinot noir tends to be richer with more fruit forward flavors. In his view the higher proportion of gravel in the area includes reflected light to increase ripening without higher ambient temperatures. Even so, as the region gains older vines with deeper roots they tend to be more expressive of soil type and drainage while younger vines tend to show off clone and climate. So, with the preponderance of schist through the region, as the vine ages it tends to be more expressive of schist and the architectural differences of gravel to sand to clay through the subregion than of the microclimate distinctions between subregions. Because of the relative youth of the area’s vineyards winemakers feel they are still very much getting to know the peculiarities of Central Otago’s subzones.

Winemaker Matt Dicey of Ceres and Mt Difficulty has found that younger vines in Central Otago tend to not give more structure from more cellar extraction, so instead winemaker efforts to pull more from the fruit contributed to the bigger wine reputation of the region. As the vines have aged, though, he finds that the clusters are also giving more structure innately to the wines. In this way, he says, it is easier to focus on the texture and elegance of the wine rather than on trying to build its form on the palate.

As Dicey explains, his biggest lesson in the last 15 to 18 years has been letting go of the science to embrace the art of winemaking, thinking more holistically to allow the flow in the process of winemaking to happen. Integral to that process has not been ignoring the science as much as simply knowing the individual steps within the process more intimately. As the basics become more familiar there is less of a need to focus on them.

Flight 4

Prophet’s Rock 2013 Home Vineyard Bendigo

100% destemmed and grown on a glacial terrace of chalk and lime.

Really pretty with notes of wild cherry and cherry bark and light forest accents this wine offers richer complex scents that carry from the nose then lifted through the palate. The palate offers pleasing density while still feeling delicate with deep red violet fruits sprinkled through with spice and a savory element through a long finish. Supple, lightly tactile tannin comes in with balancing acidity for a nice sense of delicacy and persistent.

Aurum 2013 Madeline Lowburn

100% whole cluster.

With lifted aromatics of cultivated rose blossom, bush and bramble and a body of savory depth, this wine opens with an expressive nose and follows with a taut, firm palate. It needs time in bottle to show all it has to offer but there is a lot of depth and substance here with an underlying sense of pure fruit and a nice purity to the wine overall with pleasing palate tension. It is simultaneously feminine and strong in its expression with ample tannin that is still succulent and not aggressive. Notes of rose bloom carry throughout.

In this flight the conversation focused around cellar choices as they relate to growing conditions primarily in relation to the choice to do whole bunch fermentation or not. Winemaker Lucy Lawrence of Aurum explained that she made the Madeline whole cluster Pinot originally as a cellar experiment and was fascinated to find the approach did not simply change something like tannin structure but instead the entire form of fermentation. As she described, the kinetics, temperature changes and arc of fermentation were all entirely different when done with full clusters included. Then in the end she also liked the overall presentation of the wine. While most of the Aurum wines are not done 100% whole cluster the Madeline is.

Paul Pujol of Prophet’s Rock points out that the choice of whole cluster depends too on the climate and drainage of the site as differing growing conditions impact the lignification of the stems. The elevation and intensity of the soils – underlying chalk and lime – at the Prophet’s Rock site in Bendigo, Pujol expains, mean the wines can easily revolve around structural intensity or extraction and his experience there over time has been much more about taking away techniques to find harmony. In other words, while the more valley floor growing conditions of the Aurum vineyard support a lovely expression of whole cluster fermentation in Pinot it is not clear the mountain conditions of the Prophet’s Rock do as well.

To read and see (he got more photos than I did) more about the Master Class tasting in Central Otago, check out the venerable Jamie Goode‘s write up here: http://www.wineanorak.com/wineblog/new-zealand/central-otago-pinot-noir-masterclass-focusing-on-structure

Copyright 2017 all rights reserved. When sharing or forwarding, please attribute to WakawakaWineReviews.com.