Driving Gibbston Valley with Alan Brady
walking Monte Rosa Lodge Vineyard in Gibbston Valley, the highest elevation vineyard in Central Otago
When he started planting vines in Gibbston Valley at the start of the 1980s, not only was Alan Brady establishing the first vineyards in the subzone, he was one of the first outsiders to move into the area in generations. Gibbston Valley had been populated by sheep farmers who farmed their flocks on expanses of land passed on to the next generation and then the next. Local crops were just that, local, generally used simply to feed the families that also farmed them. Alan’s goal, on the other hand, was to grow grape vines that could become a commercial venture, wine that could be enjoyed not only by he and his family but perhaps even abroad.
When she’d started planting in Dalefield several years earlier, Ann Pinckney had asked farmers throughout Central Otago what they’d noticed about weather and ripening patterns in the region. They told her crops in Gibbston Valley were generally ready ten days sooner than closer to Queenstown, where she’d planted, and crops in Bannockburn or through the Cromwell Basin were ready ten days sooner than Gibbston Valley. Queenstown was colder than Gibbston Valley, and Gibbston Valley colder than Bannockburn, in other words. She’d managed to ripen vines in her area near Queenstown so Gibbston Valley would too.
Even with Ann and Alan’s work, today many producers disagree. Subsequent generations of winemakers tend to say the area adequately ripens fruit only one out of three vintages. The other years, common knowledge goes, the fruit is too green and high acid, underripe due to colder weather.
Alan disagrees. The area ripens fruit. It is instead, he says, a matter of patience. In colder vintages, he explains, vines simply take longer to ripen but they always do. While many more people have since established vines in Gibbston Valley and the subregion is now full of outsiders, in truth, no one else has more experience with the area than Alan Brady.
On the day Alan and I drive and walk vineyards together, most producers have just finished picking Pinot Noir in the Cromwell Basin. In Gibbston Valley, we walk the highest elevation vineyard in all of Central Otago, at 470 meters it is one of the colder sites in a colder growing zone. Here Alan sources fruit for his small production wine label, Wild Irishman. Clusters in the rows we walk are all hens and chicks – differing sized berries – and the seeds are not yet lignified. As we taste through the rows I ask how long he thinks until he picks. A week to ten days, he says, the same timing as Ann Pinckney’s farmers’ expectations. When I ask he confirms, the site has successfully ripened fruit each of the several years since he started working with it. It’s also never been frosted.
Alan Brady with a bottle of Pinot from the site he first planted in Gibbston Valley and the first Pinot made there
It is also clear Alan’s claim that Gibbston ripens every year is at least partially a stylistic one.
The first Pinot of Central Otago came from its cold outer reaches of Gibbston Valley (through Alan’s first winery named for its valley home) and Wanaka (via Rolfe and Lois Mills Rippon). Along with Ann’s Taramea, these earliest wines first proved Central Otago could successfully grow grape vines and make commercially viable wines. When the area’s wines managed to gain attention as far afield as the United Kingdom in the early 1990s, outside investors began moving in to establish new vineyards not only in Alan’s Gibbston Valley but also further inland first into the Bannockburn subzone of the Cromwell Basin. Thanks to these outsiders, today, there are numerous tasting rooms in Gibbston Valley. It’s closer proximity to Queenstown makes it prime real estate for tourists. Even so, thanks to its warmer temperatures, there is more vineyard development in the Cromwell Basin
It was there, in the comparatively warmer Cromwell Basin, the wines that gave Central Otago its more substantial global reputation in the late 1990s and 2000s were grown. Through these newer plantings, Central Otago made its reputation with wines of generosity, Pinot with plenty of extraction and size. The earliest vineyards of the region were also established in its coldest spots. As the region grew, newer winemakers tended to make wines using techniques to increase the fruit’s natural palate presence relying on ripeness, plenty of oak, proportions of whole cluster and work during fermentation to pull more substance from the grapes. Alan’s own Gibbston Valley wines in the 1990s and early 2000s included 100% whole cluster and 100% new oak with plenty of ripeness.
Even so, in the coolest of years, wines grown in Gibbston Valley don’t readily lend themselves to balance at larger size. Earlier in the region, balance with bigger size tended to be gained by blending fruit from multiple sites. Vineyard designate wines have only become a more common venture in recent years.
As Central Otago has evolved, the stylistic range has also diversified to include fresher wines with more site transparency. But even for those that avoid over extraction, some producers simply prefer the natural roundness or darker flavors of warmer temperatures. The best from Gibbston Valley tends towards a more lifted and lighter palate presence with more pixelated flavors of mountain plants. For producers wanting fuller styles in single vineyard bottlings, then, such size can be grown more reliably further inland.
Alan recognizes his historical part in the pursuit of bigness. Some of his earlier wines depended on it. (It should be said they’ve also easily aged twenty years. Even still carrying the oak and stem signature they were made to celebrate, they also offer fresh acidity and supple tannin.) After forty years of vine growing and winemaking, he explains, he has gained confidence in nature and come to recognize that if we let it, it will do things for us. The fruit will get ripe and if we pick it in good condition, without much work in the cellar, it will make good wine. But on top of that confidence there has also been a change in perspective.
With a lifetime in wine, and having turned 80 last year, Alan says, he no longer feels he has anything to prove. At the same time, he recognizes it is a great privilege to make wine and share it with friends. Tasting his current wines with him it is also clear he means it. There is an easiness coupled with intelligence and relaxed sophistication to the wines that is pleasing.
We taste through several examples of his newest label, Wild Irishman. For a time he used the winery to explore regional diversity making single vineyard designate wines from sites in Bannockburn and Gibbston Valley. It’s fascinating to see the contrast in flavors between his Bannockburn wine and the Gibbston. Though they’re treated the same in the cellar, and both with a rather light touch, the Bannockburn bottling is deeper purple and rounder on the palate to the lifted, herbal blossoms and spindly tannin of the Gibbston wines. Both carry the fresh, diffused brightness of the region’s acidity.
Though he has retired now multiple times, Alan has found he simply likes making wine. After selling his part of Gibbston Valley, the winery he started in the valley of the same name, he founded and briefly led a second winery in the same valley, Mount Edward. There he intended to build a project he could manage single handedly. After several years he realized he was instead ready to step away from wine and sold. Eventually wine called him again and he founded Wild Irishman.
After exploring Bannockburn for several years he returned his focus only to Gibbston Valley. The region is, he says, his love. You can see it too in the naming of my favorite of his wines. His 2014 Macushla Pinot has little extraction but still plenty of flavor. The wine is lifted with notes of mountain thyme and tiny alpine flowers. On the palate the wine is beautifully integrated and complete, elegant with still plenty of presence. Through it all the wine is mouthwatering and savory, full of a rocky, mineral crunch with an ultra long finish. I ask him about the name, Macushla. It is gaelic, he explains, as he is Irish, and it translates as my darling, or more literally, my pulse. The name, he says, represents his life these forty years with Pinot noir.
For more on the founding history of the first vineyards in Central Otago, including those of Alan Brady in Gibbston Valley, as well as Rolfe Mills in Wanaka, and Ann Pinckney’s in Speargrass Flats: http://wakawakawinereviews.com/2017/04/24/ann-pinckney-vine-legend-the-start-of-central-otago-wine/
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