This is the second part of a four-part report from my tour of some key New Zealand wine regions in 2020.
Towards the bottom of the South Island, ‘Central’ is a spectacular region, with glacial, flat-calm lakes surrounded by towering, snow-capped peaks. Queenstown is the gateway to the region, a town that has boomed in recent decades and is firmly on the ‘must see’ tourism trail, especially for adventure-seekers, but it remains a sparsely-populated and rural area at heart: travel outside the towns of Queenstown, Wanaka or Cromwell and mile after mile of rugged, former gold-mining country stretches before you, interrupted by white-water rivers, mountains and peaceful farms.
Responsible for only around 2% of New Zealand’s wine production, Pinot Noir dominates across the region, accounting for around 79% of plantings and being more or less the only red varietal of note, the remaining vineyard area being Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling and Gewürztraminer. Pinot Gris plantings have grown substantially, and there’s now more Pinot Gris planted than all the other white varieties added together.
A semi-continental climate sees cold winters and hot summers, but generally low humidity and mild, dry conditions during the growing season. Frost can be a risk here, particularly in Spring. There is good diurnal shift, helped by some altitude in many areas. Soils vary, mostly created by glacial action, but tend to be free-draining on stony, sometime slate bedrock, with clay or gravels in many areas.
Sub-regionality is becoming more and more the focus in Central Otago. Closest to Queenstown is Gibbston, where the wine industry dates back only to 1987. One of the highest and coolest sub regions, fruit ripens a little later and the wines are sometimes a little fresher in style. Continuing east, Bannockburn sits on the south bank of the Kawarau River, and is considerably warmer than Gibbston with harvest sometimes one month earlier. North of this, Cromwell, Lowburn and Pisa each lie to the west of the massive Lake Dunstan, the vines on the lower terraces of the Pisa Mountain range. On the Lake’s eastern shore, Bendigo is another premium area, one of the warmest and most widely planted, on the rocky soils. Two other areas are slightly more out-lying, but of high quality: Alexandra is the most southerly region, with a dry climate and big diurnal shift, while Wanaka is the most northerly, on the other side of the Pisa ranges, around the shores of Lake Wanaka, which mitigates frost risk and moderates temperatures.
One fascinating aspect of wine-growing in Central Otago is organic and biodynamic viticulture. All but one of the wine estates I visited is certified biodynamic, and as Blair Walter at Felton Road told me, a recent survey in the region discovered that 23% of all vineyards are certified organic or biodynamic, which they believe is the highest percentage of any wine region in the New World.
Some of the winemakers here – Blair Walter, Rudi Bauer at Quartz Reef, Nick Mills at Rippon – have been farming their land for 20 years or more. Just like the vines, they have grown-up on these soils, in this climate, and the ever-improving understanding of their vineyards is a story told here, and in many other regions of New Zealand.
After 30 hours of travel, the notion of tasting 30 wines from across Central at Domaine Thomson next morning could have been daunting, but the relaxed welcome from Claudio Heye and Kate Barnett, as well as the stunning setting of their brand-new cellar door facility high above Lake Dunstan, eased the pain considerably.
Domaine Thomson is owned by David Hall-Jones, a Hong Kong-based businessman. Intriguingly he owns two Domaines Thomson: this one in the Pisa sub-region, and Domaine Thomson Burgundy, based in Gevrey-Chambertin. Claudio and Kate take care of the Central Otago operation, the wines made by Dean Shaw of The Central Otago Wine Company, whom I first met back in 2006 and who makes excellent wines at his central facility for a number of clients.
Domaine Thomson is Biodynamically farmed (pictured here, their store of cow horns, used in making Biodynamic preparations). They are also entirely focused on Pinot Noir: 14 hectares planted as four distinct blocks: North Block, Terraces, South Block and Moon Block. Planted on deep gravel with some loess and clay. All work, including harvesting, is by hand on their sloping site, which has been certified organic since 2014.
I tasted wines from across Central Otago at Domaine Thomson.
Rudi Bauer bounds out of the door of his workmanlike cellar in the town of Cromwell with the warmest of welcomes. Austrian-born Rudi was there at the birth of the modern-day wine industry in Central Otago, first as winemaker at Rippon Estate way back in 1991, and founding Quartz Reef in 1996, a pioneer planting on virgin land. Love for Central Otago and his Bendigo sub-region courses through his veins.
As former Director of Central Otago Pinot Noir Limited, an organisation whose mission is to promote the Pinots of the region, Rudi is passionate about Pinot, and has also carved a reputation for making some of the best traditional method sparkling wines in New Zealand. But ever restless, recent projects include his Grüner Veltliner, the vineyards finally producing fruit of the quality he demands, and a new range of single block Pinot Noir wines.
Certified Biodynamic since 2011, the wines of Quartz Reef are elegant, refined but intense. Rudi plants at high density for the region, and says the ‘tribes’ of indigenous yeasts that have been developing over 25 years are one of the secrets of his wines. He is excited about a new de-stemmer machine – a detail, yes, but in an operation that’s all about the detail. He’s also excited about having been asked to join the tourism committee for the region, where “my job is to explain and encourage the region to be both progressive, and to look after the environment.”
The most famous name of Central Otago is also the standard-bearer for Biodynamic farming. Farmed organically since owner Nigel Greening and winemaker Blair Walter established the estate almost 20 years ago, their Bannockburn vineyards produce around 10,000 cases of some of New Zealand’s most sought-after wines. And therein lies an interesting fact: such is the demand for their top, single block wines that they are rarely seen on the open market, and yet their price is moderate and production has not increased. There are now many more expensive Pinots in New Zealand, though none with Felton Road’s reputation. Restricting price and production is entirely down to Nigel Greening’s personal philosophy, and Blair Walter’s conviction that they are running at optimum size.
I would be tasting mostly the Felton Road 2018’s which Blair describes as “a peculiar vintage,” with the hottest November to January period he has ever experienced, but then rain and snow leading to the coolest February in 14 years. “Harvest was early,” says, “but otherwise orthodox.” One concern is Phyloxerra. As we wander through the vineyard he says, “Blocks 3 and 5 are substantially on their own roots; they will go eventually.” The vineyards not having been planted on Phyloxerra-resistant rootstocks, there is now a plan to gradually replant everything over 10 years.
A new barrel cellar gives capacity for the top Block 3 Pinot Noir to stay in barrel longer – the barrels not needing to be to accommodate the next harvest – but other than that, winemaking is much as it has ever been, based on a Burgundian model, “Balancing tradition and technology.”
I last visited Carrick 15 years ago, and there have been many changes since: there’s a new head winemaker at the helm, the smart and quietly confident Rosie Menzies, and since my visit the estate has converted to organic viticulture and is now certified both as organic and sustainable, with Rosie employing Biodynamic practises too.
Rosie’s training and career have taken her to Hawke’s Bay and Marlborough, but also to wine estates in Europe and North America, as well as a five-year stint working in the London Wine Trade. Now here in Bannockburn her passion for the place is obvious as we walk around the vineyards in the early evening sun, a beautiful property with its terraced vineyards around a small lake. Although joining only in 2018, Rosie is not afraid to experiment, with natural and no-sulphur wines in the portfolio, as well as a recently added Pinot Blanc made in a dry, but broadly Alsace style.
It’s a relatively large portfolio here for the region, with Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Gris as well as the Pinot Blanc, and those small parcels of special wines. Quality is very consistent and the ‘natural’ wines come down firmly on the scrupulously clean and well-made side of the category.
I apologise to general manager and winemaker Claire Mulholland as she marches to the top of the steepest hill in their home vineyard, where I had wandered to see the small patch of Grüner and Riesling amidst a sea of Pinot Noir. The Sauvage family established Burn Cottage in 2002, having visited from their home in the USA where they farm wheat, cattle and cotton. They found this unique site, then used only for grazing sheep. It lies in a sheltered – almost hidden – amphitheatre of land, protected from prevailing winds and isolated from other vineyards. Sixty soil pits were dug and a variety of Pinot Noir clones were planted on five different rootstocks, the recipe tailored to the different soil profiles.
It is the perfect place to practice organic farming, and the Sauvages approached experienced Californian winemaker Ted Lemon of Littorai Wines, who was soon on board with the project. Lemon proposed that Burn Cottage be fully biodynamically farmed, and it has been since its inception – the first in Central Otago. Ted Lemon is still the estate’s consultant, but Claire Mulholland continues the work and the philosophy, the estate devoted to biodiversity and patiently nurturing the best from their vineyard sites.
Claire has international experience with Pinot Noir, having worked around the world, including in the Côte de Nuits at Domaine De l’Arlot and Domaine Dujac. She was head winemaker at Martinborough Vineyard and Amisfield before joining Burn Cottage. It’s a humble working farm, the wines made in a workaday industrial complex in nearby Cromwell, but the wines are as soulful as they are delicious.
I last met Nick Mills at the Central Otago Pinot Noir Festival when we sat together on a panel discussing various top-quality red Burgundy wines. His passion for a refined, delicate yet intense style of Pinot Noir was obvious then, as it is when you taste his own wines: “the wines should be like a thread with tensile strength, ” he says, “and you know wine is closer to vinegar than fruit juice: it should be digestible.” Those twin tenets of his winemaking philosophy – finesse with power, and savouriness/digestibility – are repeated at various points throughout my visit. A mantra, indeed.
Rippon’s wines are undoubtedly the product of a great vineyard site, as well as meticulous ‘natural’ winemaking. Nick’s passion for their spectacular family farm is whole-hearted, the vineyards sloping down to the banks of Lake Wanaka, and surrounded by the snow-clad peaks of the Southern Alps. The Mills family have farmed this land for generations, Nick’s father Rolfe planting the first experimental vines for wine in the 1970s, and releasing their first bottled wines in the 1980s. Today, Nick and is siblings are fully involved, live on the farm and cherish it as custodians of a very special place, they and their kids swimming in the lake, working the land by hand, and deeply connected to this rather special place.
Farmed biodynamically, with vines substantially on their own roots, vineyards are planted in two main zones, both composed of schist rock, but the lakeside site a relatively new ejection of gravel debris from waterfall creek which cascades from the 1800 metre peak that towers over the vineyard. On the hillside glacial deposits are mixed with large blocks of schist to form a 50-metre-high slope. But this is farm of micro-management, with dozens of individual plots vinified separately, and wines made with natural yeasts, minimal additions and without fining or filtering. Whole bunches are used in varying proportions, depending on Nick’s assessment of fruit as it arrives. It is a class act.
Steve Farquharson walks me around Wooing Tree’s large and contiguous vineyard that surrounds the winery and cellar door, but the vineyard itself is almost engulfed by the burgeoning town of Cromwell, and Steve tells of plans to relocate one patch of vineyard to develop commercial property on the site closest to the edge of town. It’s another pressure on wineries across the globe, as urbanisation creeps outward.
Wooing Tree is named after a massive Monterey Pine that sits in the middle of the vineyard, the property developed by Steve and his family after he returned from the UK, where he had worked in IT, but also studied viticulture, winemaking and wine commerce at Plumpton College. Wines are made at the VinPro contract winemaking facility by chief winemaker Peter Bartle.
Though there is Chardonnay and Pinot Gris in the portfolio, the estate is pretty much focused on Pinot Noir, including a hugely successful white Pinot Noir called ‘Blondie’, that launched a new category in the region and is their biggest seller. The vineyard is not farmed organically, but is certified sustainable. It is a more commercial venture than most of the more ’boutique’ properties I visited in Central Otago, but the wines are of great quality and as Steve poured vintages back through 2011, 2008, 2007 and 2005 he stressed – quite rightly – the cellaring potential of his wines.
Go to part III – Marlborough