Akitu is a Central Otago producer I have followed for some time, so I was happy to meet up with owner, Andrew Donaldson, and winemaker, PJ Chartris, for a virtual tasting to celebrate the launch of their 2019 Pinot Noirs. This is an estate totally focused on Pinot Noir. As well as tasting the 2019 ‘A1’ and ‘A2’, there would be a chance to taste the 2021 vintage of their Pinot Noir Blanc.
Andrew, right, began by explaining the difficulties faced during Covid, with winemaker PJ based in the Hunter Valley Australia, and New Zealand in lockdown. “The vintage was made thanks to couriers and Zoom,” he says. Another challenge was fruit picking. Family teams from Vanuatu, who normally arrive for vintage across New Zealand, were unable to travel. During that time a new Vineyard Manager was also appointed, George Burnett. He has come from running the Pinot Noir vineyards for Craggy Range, and is committed to organic farming. The plan now is to move the entire Akitu operation to organics following trials over the past few years.
Another interesting change is to irrigation: they are about to change standard drip irrigation, where a hose that runs along the bottom wire of the vine trellis, dripping water on to the soil, to underground mid-row irrigation. Hoses are buried and feed water out, the idea being that the vine does not have such easy access to water from above, encouraging its roots to dig deeper.
Andrew also spoke about the recent change in weather variation. “We’re on a marginal site here, and weather variation has always intrigued me from a winemaking point of view.” He explains that, as well as a general warming trend, frost events are becoming increasingly rare and happening at unusual times. “Five or six frost events in Spring and Autumn were the norm, but we have recently had frosts in December and even January – the height of summer in the southern hemisphere.” He also spoke of 100 kilometere-per-hour winds that felled trees and damaged vineyards, and which local farmers say they have never seen before.
We were here mainly to taste the two Pinots from 2019, and PJ explained that the summer was cool – “barely average” – but March came good, with a healthy count of Growing Degree Days acheived by time of picking around the 18th of April. That resulted in fruit they were very happy with.
The vines are now 20 years old, and Andrew commented that “the robustness of the vineyard really helped us get through this vintage.”
(2021) This wine has gone really well for Akitu, the volume increasing again this year. It's a very young wine, but is dominated by cold ferment pear-drop and raspberry and cherry sweet notes. There is blossom and soft summer fruit there. In the mouth there does seem to be a considerable sweetness, but then orange and ripe red fruit surges through. There's a little tannin and chewiness at the core of this, with very good lemon zest acidity adding another thread to the finish. It's a fascinating wine of Ying and Yang qualities, substance and delicacy, sweetness and grown-up sourness, and interesting mix of light and heavier textures from front to back of palate. Interestingly, Andrew says "It is a white wine," when pressed, and PJ agrees, even though you will find its colour deeper than many a Provence rosé.
(2022) Whole bunches were upped from 25% to 35% for this vintage, with around 7% or 8% new oak. Beautiful pale and transluscent garnet to crimson in colour, and what a fantastically aromatic wine this is, pomegranate and a whole pot-pourri of spices and wild flowers, touches of rhubarb and beetroot earthiness. A core of succulent red fruit comes through, while the oak adds just a little coffee edge. The palate has weight and succulence to spare, a stripe of lean tannin and dry, pithy grapefruit acidity give this energy and length. Lots of spice, lots of espresso flitting around the edges, a hessian dryness to finish in a delicious and fascinating Pinot with a truly intriguing perfume, possibly enhanced by those whole bunches in the ferment. Price and stockist is for the previous vintage at time of review.
(2022) Around 65% Able clone in this vintage, more than in other years, as one block - Block F - suffered in the cool summer and did not produce the quality of fruit required. Aromatic like the A2, more cinammon and clove notes here perhaps, but a similar bowl of exotic spices, flowers and bold and succulent red fruits. There is maybe an extra layer of depth here - not exactly depth but a dark compote character, creamy and almost like a spiced plum pudding. Once again, there is a base of espresso and that hessian quality that is savoury. Very firm fruit on the palate, edged by liquorice and a depth of dark plum skins giving grip that the charming A2 doesn't quite possess. This is a structured Pinot, built for ageing I'd say, with a more rugged overall character, but the balance of taut tannins, acid and that brooding depth of fruit all in place. Price quoted below is per bottle equivalent when buying a case of 6 or 12.