Funded by owner, Andrew Donaldson (right) in 2003, The Akitu winery is based in New Zealand’s Central Otago. Until now, Akitu produced just two wines: the A1 and A2 Pinots Noir, from their 12 hectares of Pinot vineyard in the Wanaka sub-region, planted on schist and rock soils. This year saw the addition of their first white wine, but the dedication to Pinot Noir has not wavered: the new wine is a Pinot Noir Blanc. It’s not the first white (or rather, very pale pink) Pinot Noir I have tasted from Central Otago, and a few that are on the market like Wooing Tree’s ‘Blondie’ have quickly become big sellers, but Andrew says it was tasting a German example from the Ahr Valley that inspired his wine.
I met up with Andrew and winemaker PJ Charteris to taste the wines. Andrew tells me that early consultants told him his very cool site was “extremely marginal,” with some doubt over what could be acheived. But the wines have quickly earned a reputation for excellence. I would be tasting the 2018 vintage wines, a year where Andrew describes the heat as “unrelenting.” Winemakers chart ‘Growing Degree Days’, basically a measure of heat accumulation during the ripening season, and in 2016 Akitu measured 1000 GDD, in the cooler 2017 only 900, but in 2018 there were 1165 Growing Degree Days, a significantly hot vintage where their cool site benefited from its sheltered position and allowed a longer ‘hang time’ for the fruit on the vine.
Winemaker PJ is well-suited to their normally cool site, hailing as he does from the Hunter Valley in Australia, a notoriously cool and damp corner of the country. He is sure their site does produce a more elegant fruit because of its more marginal location compared to other Central Otago regions like Bendigo and Cromwell. The Akitu Pinots are elegant, but have some serious structure too, something on which he has strong opinions: “All the hipster winemakers in Australia love Negronis,” he quips, taking a swipe at the very pale PInots on the market, “so they’re all saying ‘let’s make our wines look like a Negroni’, whereas I’m more interested in building structure and texture; seeing what I can do with stem tannins for example.”
The ‘A2’ is made with a percentage of whole bunches and aged in 12% new French oak, while ‘A1’ is aged in 25% new French oak, with the majority of fruit from the ‘Abel’ Pinot clone, also known as the ‘Gumboot’ clone. Legend has it that all of New Zealand’s Able clone vineyards were propagated from a single cutting taken from Domaine de la Romanée-Conti in Burgundy, and smuggled into the country down someone’s gumboot in the mid-1970s.
Andrew says that A1 is the wine he always dreamed of making : “The best we could possibly do; a detailed wine.” The A2 he describes as his “give me another glass,” wine, “I’m not worried about medals and reviews.” The new white Pinot “rounds out the portfolio – just give me the summer sun and a plate of food.”
PJ explains that the Blanc comes from a block that always has so much potential, but where the promise is often spoiled by frost before harvest. So they decided to pick it a little earlier and make this wine from it. PJ exposes it to a little oxygen specifically to encourage a colour that is not white, but not too vibrantly pink either, more light bronze. “That adds an additional phenolic element, and it’s also left on its lees to build texture.”
The wines are certified sustainable, but owner Andrew is keen to move to organic viticulture, and to that end PJ has been studying with organic and biodynamic winemakers, and he enthuses over new cultivation equipment that would allow under vine hoeing to remove weeds without using herbicides, but also with compacting the soil.