Central Otago Pinot Noir at IPNC

IPNC Central Otago Pinot Noir Seminar

At the recent International Pinot Noir Celebration I led an afternoon University of Pinot seminar on Central Otago Pinot Noir. Winemakers Lucie Lawrence of Aurum Wines, Duncan Forsyth of Mount Edward, and Paul Pujol of Prophet’s Rock were also present. Each presented one of their own wines and helped me present four other wines from the region as well. We decided to present six wines that offered investigative pairs into the history, soils and elevation, vintage variation, and stylistic range of the region. As the region is still quite young the seminar was meant to offer an exploration of Pinot from the area, rather than a definitive, conclusive view.

These six wines from Wild Irishman, Rippon, Aurum, Quartz Reef, Mount Edward, and Prophet’s Rock were from five vintages – 2010 to 2014. After designing the seminar in this way, we then added an additional wine from Doctor’s Flat in order to bring greater depth to the investigation of elevation.

The first two wines from the Wild Irishman and Rippon opened the conversation offering touchstones to the origins of Pinot Noir in Central Otago (To read more on this early history of Central Otago: Ann Pinckney, Alan Brady, Rippon.) as well as a look at two of the cooler sub-zones of the region.

Two wines from the 2012 vintage – Aurum and Quartz Reef – allowed us to consider sub-regional diversity and vintage as the two wines have similar levels of whole cluster, are grown at essentially similar elevations, and yet quite different soil types from two different sub-zones. Aurum and Mount Edward served as another pair – the two wines are from very close proximity but quite different vintages as well as differing fermentation choices.

Quartz Reef and Prophet’s Rock became another pair. They are from quite close proximity but very different elevations, which also means differing soil conditions. Finally, Prophet’s Rock and Doctor’s Flat are from differing sub-zones but both from higher elevation sites.

Following are notes on the wines, their vintages, and the stylistic choices of their winemakers.

The line up … @ipnc_pinot

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The 2014 vintage was a relatively even growing season – a bit on the cooler side without being cold. The moderate and steady temperatures are reflected generally in the wines, offering tannin structure in good balance to the flavor presence, while also showing less abundant tannin than the previous vintage. 2014 Pinots from Central Otago are generally good wines without quite as much structure to age as the 2013 and 2015 vintages.

Wild Irishman Macushla Pinot Noir 2014 Central Otago 13.5%

Owner-winemaker Alan Brady makes his Wild Irishman Macushla Pinot Noir from what seems to be the highest elevation vineyard in Central Otago, and is certainly the highest elevation site in the Gibbston area. While he also does a Three Colleens cuvee from the same vineyard, the Macushla he holds longer in barrel allowing 16 months of aging before bottling. The result is finer, more resolved tannin well integrated with the flavor and body of the wine. Gibbston Valley as a growing sub-zone is among the coolest portions of Central Otago with harvest times significantly later than the more central areas of Lowburn, Pisa, Bannockburn, or Bendigo. The cooler, higher elevation temperatures of this site showcase one of the hallmarks of Gibbston’s flavor profile – alpine herbs with aromatics and flavors that come with very fine leaves that still somehow carry concentration with subtlety. The Macushla Pinot is entirely de-stemmed.

Tasting: The 2014 Macushla shows the lightness and lift of Gibbston Valley with the understanding to avoid over extraction in a region and vintage that could otherwise lead to rough tannin and an imbalanced wine. Notes of dried herbs and dried roses with a savory persistence set alongside dark purple fruits on the midpalate and light hints of cedar. Nice structural focus on supple tannin washed through with glittering acidity set in good balance to the fruit. Persistent mineral line of palate stimulating sapidity through a long finish. Mouthwatering, fresh, flavorful and light footed. There is a nice sense of depth and energy with insight at the heart of this wine. It carries a purity that shows the confidence of a winemaker in his site – no need to over extract or obscure the fruit the site gives you when you trust the vines. A pleasure to taste. Only two barrels produced.

In general, the 2013 vintage in Central Otago brings ample tannin for aging, while also creating wines that need decanting. From the best producers that extra step reveals a wealth of subtlety. Spring conditions created a challenging start to the year but temperatures became more even later in the growing season, and most especially in the weeks leading to harvest. Avoiding extreme temperatures, the vintage shows wines with good flavor and structure both in good balance.

Rippon “Rippon” Pinot Noir 2013 Central Otago 13%

The Mills family regard their Rippon bottling of Pinot Noir as the voice of the farm. Treated as a self-contained and self-sustaining farm, they view Rippon as the equivalent of a lieu diet with the winery, Rippon, being named after the Rippon lieu dit, rather than the other way around. That is, this particular bottling should be understood as an expression of the Rippon farm made by the Rippon winery, thus the double inclusion of the name Rippon on the label. Winemaker Nick Mills includes whole cluster in the fermentation only from vines he feels are adapted well enough to the site to express what he calls the noble phenolics of the place. The older vines that are well adjusted to the place’s unique growing conditions, he feels include distinctive, expressive, and pleasing phenolic matter that benefits rather than obscures the final wine. In order to determine which vines would count as ready in this way he relies on tasting both seed and stems. When there is a positive physical response to chewing this portion of the vine material it is included in the fermentation. When there is instead an experience of astringency or bitterness, the stems are disregarded. The Rippon Rippon Pinot Noir tends to be around 30% stem inclusion, and includes wine from all portions of the Rippon vineyards including both the original vine sites beside Lake Wanaka as well as some of the younger vines from the upper blocks of the property. The Wanaka area is one of the coldest sub-zones of Central Otago and Rippon has proven to be one of the few successful growing area within it as its vineyards are moderated by the neighboring lake helping it to avoid the most extreme frosts (though the site does not escape frost). It also never reaches extreme heat.

Tasting: Hints of cocoa and cedar on the nose are followed by chewy but firm tannin on the palate though these broaden and open with air. Flavors of cocoa, gunmetal and a mix of dark fruits – black plum skin, fresh black currant, and a squeeze of fresh blackberry – but the wine is more about earthy, woodsy (as in forest and dried grasses) notes than fruit. Through the finish firm, dark resinous notes appear from use of stem – these also recede and further integrate with air and are not unpleasant even when more apparent. There is a pleasing depth and natural concentration here coupled with a fresh, purity of energy that feels distinctive of site. With air, chalky tannin marries to that fresh, high tone acidity of the region for a long finish. This wine is quite young and would do well with decanting before serving, and some time in cellar.

Warm (not at all hot) temperatures opened the 2012 vintage and carried the remainder of the season. While much of the rest of New Zealand had a genuinely challenging year, Central Otago’s continental location protected it. The warm and even growing conditions created wines with succulent flavor and often more supple, silky tannin. It is generally a seductive vintage offering elegant Pinot Noir that also retains the structural integrity for plenty of depth and age-ability.

Aurum Mathilde Pinot Noir 2012 Central Otago 13%

The Aurum estate grows along the shores of Lake Dunstan in the Lowburn-Pisa intersection. Sitting directly beside the lake, Aurum hosts moderate temperatures with the lake helping to keep it from suffering from either too much heat or severe cold. Growing from wind blown loess soils of decomposed schist common to the lower elevation sites of the region, Aurum Pinots tend to have the finer, textured tannin and pleasantly bright red flavors common to sandy and loess soils. Aurum winemaker Lucie Lawrence likes to focus on exploring texture as a way to bring complexity to her wines whether that be in Pinot Noir or Pinot Gris. In Pinot Noir she makes three cuvees from the family-owned vineyard. The estate Pinot is entirely destemmed and meant to offer a pure expression of site. She also makes a 100% whole cluster fermentation Pinot, the Madeline, which is both delicious and instructive to drink. As the wine is made full whole cluster, while at the same time with minimal handling, the tannin of the wine is ample while also succulent and perfumed. The wine needs time in bottle and air upon opening and is well worth it. The Mathilde is made as what Lawrence describes as a more sophisticated, grown-up expression of the estate, focusing on particular clones from the site as well as about 25% whole cluster inclusion.

Tasting: Very lightly minty, lightly cedar, rose and red fruit aromatics lift from the glass and carry into the palate where subtle accents of dark chocolate mint and a lightly resinous accent also appear. Perfumed throughout, the palate is mouthwatering and lengthy with supple tannin that turns pleasantly dry through the ultra long finish. Flavor fills the mouth while remaining elegant and restrained, carried on a lifted and energetic palate. The structure and overall presentation are at the same time textural and spindly, characteristic of its site and lighter, windblown soils. The wine opens significantly with air and should be decanted to fully enjoy. It is also especially lovely alongside food.

Quartz Reef Pinot Noir 2012 Central Otago 14%

Quartz Reef was the first to develop vineyard land in the Bendigo growing area of Central Otago. Owner-winemaker Rudi Bauer recognized the growing potential of the sub-region and worked with the owner of the Bendigo sheep station to establish the necessary infrastructure for vineyards to enter the area. He was the first to plant there, and selected a moderately sloped site with rolling flats below to plant and farm biodynamically. The Pinot from the site is also used to make some of the best sparkling wine of the country with the vintage sparkling being a particular stand out. Bauer should be properly regarded as one of the fore fathers of the region – not a total pioneer in the sense of being the first to grow and make wine but nevertheless one of the first truly professional winemakers, and by now also one of the, if not the, longest standing professional winemaker in the region. His work helped elevate the quality of winemaking in the area while also helping to grow the overall wine culture. Bauer’s focus on camaraderie, information sharing, and global perspective are definitive of Central Otago’s wine community.

Tasting: Light cedar notes open the aromatics but disappear moving into the palate where red fruit flavors of candied cherries, pomegranate and candied rose petal come to the fore. There is a profound mineral line here that is both savory and glittering carrying the wine along with its bright while diffuse, high tone acidity through an ultra long finish. This wine carries the generous flavor and succulence of the vintage while showing a pleasing combination of lifted frame and depth. I especially like the distinctive presence of the rocky, silica charge of the sub-zone. Pleasing depth of spice characteristic of the subregion and accents of light tar that are a pleasure here. Hints of chocolate mint appear on the finish. Impressive structure well balanced to the fruit that entirely avoids being overbearing and shows the winemakers understanding of his site. This wine will age forever.

The 2011 vintage was more varied than those that followed it. Beginning rather warm, vine growth took a jump start in the spring pointing to what seemed like it would be a swift and early season. Within a month, however, conditions changed leading to cold temperatures and ample wind. Growth slowed bringing potential harvest back to a more standard timeframe. As harvest approach, the final weeks regained enough warmth to ripen the fruit. Wines from the region tend to be rather varied in 2011. Warmer sub-zones tended to do best from the 2011 harvest as they were able to harness plenty of temperature for flavor development and structural balance while also capturing the freshness and focus of the cool stretch.

Mount Edward Morrison Vineyard Pinot Noir 2011 Central Otago 13.5%

Mount Edward farms several sites in differing sub-zones of Central Otago. The Morrison vineyard grows from the flats near the shores of Lake Dunstan, reaching up a slopeside overlooking the region. As a result there is ample diversity to the site. Sitting in the Lowburn-Pisa intersection, the Morrison Vineyard hosts warmer temperatures for the region (relatively speaking – that is in no way to call this site overly warm or anything even remotely resembling hot temperatures) while remaining moderate. To put that another way, it is more moderate and even than the Gibbston Valley or Wanaka areas, while not quite as warm as Bannockburn. Winemaker Duncan Forsythe likes to make single vineyard cuvees from his various sites in years that warrant it, while blending across sites for his main estate cuvee. He also experiments with varying degrees of whole cluster inclusion depending on vintage.

Tasting: Aromatics of dark chocolate mint and wet herbs carry into the palate alongside dark fruits accented by sweet, late summer blossoms and a finish of wet tobacco. Lots of palate presence here housed in savory, chewy tannin washed through with acidity. A touch of heat peppers the finish but the wine stays juicy all the way through to close. There are ample while supple tannins here well-balanced by acidity that carries into a long finish. This Morrison Vineyard shows off the advantages of a warmer site (relatively speaking – this is still a very cool climate after all) in a cold vintage bringing depth of flavor and plenty of acidity while still avoiding green notes or the problems of under-ripeness. The whole cluster here avoids any sort of aggressive tannin while at the same time creating a wine of amplitude. Be sure to serve at cellar temperature.

Relatively even temperatures and weather conditions throughout the 2010 vintage also hosted just a touch more, still even, warmth in the later portions of the growing season. Wines tend to bring a combination of flavor, flesh, and structure with plenty of subtlety and depth from the best producers.

Prophet’s Rock Pinot Noir 2010 Central Otago 13.9%

Growing on one of the highest glacial terraces in Central Otago, Prophet’s Rock benefits from the unique soil structure resulting from the older soils of these upper terraces. Sitting at around 1250 ft elevation, schist top soil turns to light clay – formed from the fine particles of eroded schist simply due to soil age – with layers of chalk. In effect, both soil drainage and pH are unique for the site and the tannin profile and mouthfeel prove unique for the resulting wines as well. Sitting on a moderately steep slope, the vineyard tends to avoid the worst of the region’s potential frost, though due to its higher elevation it can still be harvested quite late in cooler vintages. Winemaker Paul Pujol has experimented with stem inclusion from this site but feels the vineyard’s wines ultimately are best revealed without it. He has also done a lot to reduce extraction as much as possible keeping the cap wet through fermentation while only doing one punch down through the entire length of fermentation and no pump overs.

Tasting: A pleasing balance of pure red fruits and flowers carrying depth of spice and a mineral-earthy accent carried by chalky tannin washed with acidity. Shows the amplitude and breadth of its vintage as well as the pure, bright while diffuse, high tone acidity of Central Otago. Deftly puts its broader structure alongside balancing fruit and a persistent mineral component that carries through the long finish. This wine needs to be decanted upon opening as there is a wealth of subtlety and evolution in the glass that reveals itself with air. A healthy respect for both site and vintage shows here. Most of all this wine is about subtlety – there is a lovely purity, clarity, and intelligence to this wine that is well wed to its deliciousness.

Bonus Wine

After having designed the seminar around the previous six wines we decided to add one additional wine, the Doctor’s Flat Pinot Noir, as it brings an additional layer of insight to the exploration by giving another high elevation reference to the tasting. The above information on the 2014 vintage is of course also relevant to this particular Doctor’s Flat wine.

Doctor’s Flat Pinot Noir 2014 Central Otago 13.5%

Doctor’s Flat stands on the top terrace of the Bannockburn area of Central Otago. It’s a unique site as it sits more exposed to wind and its cooling effect than much of the rest of the subregion where the most famous vineyards are more protected in the curve of hillsides that hug around a bay of Lake Dunstan. Sitting a little over 900 ft in elevation, the site grows not on the oldest glacial terrace of the region, but on one of the older ones. The schist parent material, then, is more decomposed to include more available mineral nutrients in the subsoils with some light clay occurring from the fine decomposed particles as well as small amounts of chalk. The combination of cooler temperatures with wind exposure and decomposed soils tend to lead to smaller yields with red fruit notes from this site, as well as chalky tannin. Owner-winemaker Steve Davies likes to play with some stem inclusion, though he has been exploring how much since his first vintage. Today he tends to hover around 30% stem inclusion.

Tasting: With 30% whole bunch underlying this wine hints of stem inclusion in the form of minty-cedar notes lift from the nose and also hover in the center of the palate. Tasting the wine multiple times over half a year it is also clear that the stems are continuing to integrate. Currently they bring a fresh top note to the nose, while at the same time carrying a kind of secondary mid-note – think of it as the sort of two tone experience enjoyed from just roasted green hatch chiles. The chiles first reveal that wispy green breath-of-fresh air lift that fills the nose and are quickly followed by almost-caramelized dark tones from the roasting that fill the aromatics at a lower register. The same carries into the mouth where fresh red fruits burst across the palate, carried by pleasantly chalky tannin, a mix of savory cocoa and Mexican spices, and a long mouthwatering finish.

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