Pinot Noir in Central Otago

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

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