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.
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.
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.
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.
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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