Meeting Ann Pinckney, Vine Legend
In the car with Ann Pinckney and some of her pets
We’re driving up a steep and winding driveway to a plateau at the top of her property, Ann Pinckney and I, where some of her original vines – among the very first ever planted in Central Otago – from the early 1980s still grow. In the back of the car with us are three dogs clearly used to car life. They hopped in the back and got into their seats side by side without discussion as if they’ve always sat this way. When I comment to Ann about her dogs she responds that they’re usually back there with a goat she also has as a pet. Today the goat is out grazing one of the paddocks. When we get to the top of the hill and step out of the car we’re quickly surrounded by a flock of pet chickens.
Ann Pinckney was the first person to plant vitis vinifera vines commercially in Central Otago in the modern era. The very first vines in the region were actually established in the 1860s by Jean Desire Feraud, a French settler to the region, for his Monte Christo winery in Clyde, in a different valley of Central Otago than Ann’s Speargrass Flats. The region had grown significantly thanks to the gold rush and Feraud saw it as an opportunity to serve the area with quality wine. When he sold his property in the late 1880s the site included over 1200 vines, planted from cuttings he imported from Australia, as well as orchard fruits, several thousand mixed berry bushes and a half acre of strawberries. He used the fruit to make various sorts of cordials, distillates and vinegars for cooking. His original vines were propagated in multiple locations on the South island. Walking beside his original winery, unidentified, dark-berried, old vines still wrap and climb sections along the side of the stone building.
the Monte Christo Winery building, still intact in Clyde
Even with Feraud’s previous successes, at the time Ann began her work with vines in the mid-1970s, it was universally understood that Central Otago was too cold to grow grapes. Vineyards had been established further north in New Zealand and viticultural research stations were even in country but Otago’s cold semi-continental climate was viewed too extreme for vines. Asking Ann about her determination to try anyway she explains that Central Otago already had an established, albeit small, orchard industry. She was certain that if the region could ripen tree fruits it could also ripen grapes.
We walk from the car to where the trees surrounding her house open up near the edge of the hill. On the way the ground is covered in horse manure where she explains she kept her pony until recently. The plan has been to use his droppings to help enrich the health of the soils so she can begin planting again organically.
We step around the corner, just past the pony’s recent home, and there are vines so full of canopy they look like bushes. They’re surrounded by fencing to keep out Otago’s infestation of rabbits. From her original 1980s vineyards established on this plateau, Ann managed to save these few hundred vines of Riesling and Gewurztraminer, as well as one rogue Chasselas. Up here at around 1100 ft, she says, the vines have never been frosted. Even so, they have sat unwatered and uncultivated for the last several years but still produce fruit. In a desert climate with very little rain that is a testament to their hardiness, at least partially thanks to vine age. In 2016 she managed to harvest 17 kilograms of fruit and made 10 liters of wine with it as an experiment. With such little volume it was easy to forget about so the wine was left unattended. She shows it to us. The amber-gold colored wine has been oxidized. Its aromas are muted but in the mouth it so clearly tastes of the ginger and rose blossom spice of Gewurztraminer and the finish is mouthwatering. You can see from it the site could grow interesting fruit.
Ann Pinckney beside her Gewurztraminer vines
Ann’s comment about the site’s lack of frost is not insignificant. Frost proves one of the biggest challenges in Central Otago’s marginal growing climate. One of the most important factors to consider when establishing new vineyards in the region is not just soil or sun exposure but its natural frost protection. Lower elevations sites are more likely to suffer damage from cold, but higher sites can be hit just as easily if poorly situated. Most locals make the point though that no site is truly frost free. Huge weather systems occasionally blow north from Antarctica creating a genuine freeze through the region that can’t be avoided by anyone regardless of elevation.
Along with a series of personal setbacks, frost proved the demise of Ann’s previous career in viticulture. While her still existing high elevation vines have survived every frost in the region, she had expanded her vineyard plantings to include a site down below. At the end of the 1980s the region was hit by a deep freeze and the lower elevation site lost its vines. Her production was cut in half. Even so, Ann explains the set back wouldn’t have been enough to stop her work in viticulture except that in the same year her mother’s health declined. Ann chose to step out of farming and step into taking care of her mother. It was her mother’s generosity that first helped Ann begin growing vines.
Her very first vineyard was planted in a deeply cold subzone in Dalefield on her mother’s home property. Ann explains she knew it was unlikely to do very well by grapes but it was the land she had access to at the time and her thought was that if she could get vines in that area anywhere close to ripening it meant vines could ripen essentially throughout the rest of Central Otago. Her intention was to test the far outer limit for cold. The experiment worked. At the end of the 1970s she found the 250 vines she planted on her mother’s property in Dalefield could grow. So, a year later she found property in the slightly warmer area of Speargrass Flats and propagated own root vines with cuttings from the original site. As she explains, even then she knew the site wouldn’t be as warm as further inland near Bannockburn but it was where she had the chance to establish vines so she took it. She gave herself ten years to prove not only that vines could successfully grow in Central Otago but also that they could produce commercially successful wine. Then she set about traveling around the world to work in vineyards and learn more about how to grow vines in a cold climate region.
looking into uncultivated Gewurztraminer vines at Ann Pinckney’s Taramea vineyard
Ann’s determination proved pivotal for Central Otago. To gain more insight she worked and studied viticulture in Australia, France, Italy, Alsace, and Germany, eventually befriending Dr Helmut Becker, a professor of viticulture at Geisenheim University in Germany. Once she returned to her vineyards he served as a long-distance advisor to dealing with everything from frost setbacks to pruning to selecting best varieties. Her global studies helped her establish not only her own vineyards but also advise others being planted in the region.
Soon after getting started, Ann met and befriended two other viticultural pioneers of Central Otago, Alan Brady and Rolfe Mills. The three of them planted in three distinct subregions of Central Otago, each placed along the outer edges of the region – Ann first in Dalefield and then at the site where she still lives in Speargrass Flats near Queenstown, Alan in Gibbston Valley, and Rolfe on the opposite side of the region on the shores of Lake Wanaka. Through the isolation of spearheading an industry in a region otherwise unrecognized and so remote they’re shared community would keep them going in the venture. Together they would also problem solve vineyard issues.
The three growers would also make their first wines together on Ann’s Speargrass property in a several year process of trial and error. The area had never even seen fermentation tanks, a traditional wine press, or barrels and there were very little supplies available generally. Central Otago was a region essentially near the bottom of the world. It was so remote life in general, let alone winemaking, was a process of making due with what could be found. Their first fermentation vessels were food-grade safe milk tanks used in farming of the region. It turned out the acidity of the wine leached unpleasant flavors from the rubber in a way that wasn’t an issue for milk. They lost that vintage. Grapes were pressed by hand, and, at the end of the process, wines were filtered before bottling using clean women’s knickers. It would take ten years of trial and error from when Ann established vines until the first commercial bottling would be released.
In 1985, the group made the first successful wine on the property from Ann’s Gewurztraminer, as well as a Chasselas from Rolfe’s vines in Wanaka. In 1987, the winery would finally be bonded and the first official commercial wines would be made on the property – a Gewurztraminer from Ann’s vineyard bottled under her winery label Taramea, and a Pinot Noir from Alan’s label Gibbston Valley. The same year Rolfe also successfully made his first Pinot Noir under his label Rippon though it was held a bit longer before release than Alan’s wine.
The success of these first wines would finally change people’s minds on Central Otago. By 1988, the group’s wines would already be featured in an international cool climate symposium in Auckland grabbing the attention of international professionals like Jancis Robinson. Rolfe’s Chasselas bottled for his Rippon winery would be among the first wines to prove Central Otago could successfully make quality wine. By the early 1990s, wines from Central Otago were already being sold in the UK. Among the first to be recognized commercially there was a 1989 Taramea dry Gewurztraminer. A 1990 Gibbston Valley Pinot would also find its way to London where Jancis Robinson tasted it during dinner with a friend alongside a wine from Alsace and another from Burgundy. The experience increased her interest in New Zealand wine. By the early 1990s outside interest turned its attention to Central Otago and new plantings began to go into the central areas of the region in what is now known as the Cromwell Basin or Lake Dunstan subzone beginning first in Bannockburn.
Though Ann Pinckney has not made commercial wine since the mid 1990s she explains that her intention is to use cuttings from the vines still growing on site to reestablish a vineyard in the same spot she once planted on the plateau near her house in Speargrass Flats. The site down below where her vineyard suffered frost damage has since been sold for houses. With its proximity to Queenstown, it’s a part of Central Otago where residential land prices standout. For most developers the higher prices for residential land mean vineyards have not been a worthy venture. Even so, Ann explains, the value of land cannot be thought of only in relation to short term gain. For her, the upper plateau is an area worth investing in vines.
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