I have been a big advocate of Otago Pinots Noir for several years now, since tasting the great 1998 vintage back in 2000. In fact, Grant revealed that I was in some way responsible for his wines being in this country, as I had put his new UK Agent, Raeburn Fine Wines, in touch with him a couple of years ago. Grant is best known as the winemaker at the excellent Gibbston Valley, one of the leading lights of Central Otago, but this was a tasting of his own, personal project: the tiny Valli Vineyards Estate, making Pinot Noir from just a few hectares of vines in Gibbston and Bannockburn. Grant loves to quote a 19th century Italian oenologist, Romeo Bragato, who surveying the country in 1895 wrote: “There is no better country on the face of this earth for the production of Burgundy grapes than Central Otago”.
The fact that it took the New Zealanders the best part of a century to heed that advice is a source of amazement to Grant, who is committed to this, the worlds southernmost winemaking region (at 45% south) yet is aware that the industry is in its infancy. Grant is very unassuming character, who is open and honest about his wines, and in many cases hyper-critical. He says that his early career as a cabinetmaker is probably responsible for the fastidious side to his nature. His track record with Pinot Noir is impeccable, including the International Wine Challenge trophy for the 2000 release from Gibbston Valley.
Grant is now on his 40th vintage as a winemaker, having worked two vintages per year for many years, including 15 years in Napa, where he studied at the famous UC Davies school as a winemaker. He also spent three years in Oregon, and a couple of years with Domaine Dujac in Burgundy.
Valli Vineyards was founded in 1998, with a few hectares of prime vineyard in Gibbston, planted with Pommard and Dijon clones. The vines are close planted at 1.25 metres, which is much closer than many estates in the New World, because it makes them unsuitable for machine working. Despite this, Grant says his winemaking is “not really Burgundian”, but it seems to me to be a pragmatic take on traditional Burgundian techniques. He says he has “given up” on wild yeasts for example, and now starts fermentation with ambient yeast before inoculating with the best cultured yeasts he has found for his particular circumstances. Around 60-70% new French oak is used for ageing. Seasoning and toasting is an area about which he is fanatical, wanting the oak to be mellow and subtle enough so that new barrel aromas are barely noticeable, and the quality of his fruit can take centre stage.
The 2002s on tasting here were amongst the ripest and most concentrated of the tasting. According to Grant: “Most Otago winemakers consider 2002 our finest vintage to date”. The 2003’s are still in barrel, but Grant is equally enthusiastic about these, saying they have the potential to be equally good.
Interestingly, I had dinner with Grant after this tasting, where we drunk a couple of old Burgundies; the 1990 Nuits St-George Clos St-Jacques from Rousseau, and the magnificent 1979 Clos St-Jacques from Domaine Fernand-Pernot. Grant was in raptures over these wines, bemoaning the fact that he just didn’t get to taste enough of them, and pondering the thought that he and the other producers of Pinot Noir in New Zealand might be off to a flying start, but still had a long way to go.
I thought the wines of Valli Estate were excellent by and large. There seems to be a notable progression in concentration from the 1998s to the 2002s, which is possibly due to increasing vine age, and perhaps Grant discovering more about his little plot of earth in Gibbston. He produces two wines, one from his own Gibbston vineyard, and one from grapes purchased from the Bannockburn region. Both wines have copious fruit, depth and structure, though the Gibbston seems to have a little more elegance, the Bannockburn a little more lushness. It is far too early to say that Central Otago is truly a rival for the Côte de Nuits in producing the world’s greatest Pinots Noir, but the wines of Valli Vineyards confirm the early promise of this region.
The tasting was not blind. Prices shown for available vintages are retail prices from Raeburn Fine Wines.
Valli Vineyards (NZ) Colleen’s Vineyard, Gibbston Pinot Noir 1998
Quite a pale colour, with a creamy, earthy nose that has soft vegetal notes and a little animal nuance, but a core of clean fruit. Very dry, with a tight orange and raspberry fruited palate. Quite light, with plenty of acidity but perhaps lacks a little weight and texture. Deliciously juicy, light and tasty and the length is excellent, but maybe just drying out slightly? Very good indeed/excellent.
Valli Vineyards (NZ) Colleen’s Vineyard, Gibbston Pinot Noir 1999
Good rich colour, hinting at brick. Slightly more coffee-bean, espresso nose, but lovely fruit too with a little more perfume of truffle and old roses; soft and earthy. More sweetness on the palate, with a touch of strawberry and a hint of brown sugar. Terrific length here of sweet fruit and integrated tannins. Drinking beautifully, and excellent.
Valli Vineyards (NZ) Colleen’s Vineyard, Gibbston Pinot Noir 2000
There is a ruby intensity at the core, and just a hint of warmer tones on the rim. Seems immediately more concentrated, with rounded, tightly-wound cherry fruit and complex herbal and farmyardy notes emerging. Also a little green edge of cardamom and pepper, but not at all unpleasant. Good mouthfeel, with pure fruit and balanced tannins and acidity, and again the length is there. Very good indeed/excellent.
Valli Vineyards (NZ) Colleen’s Vineyard, Gibbston Pinot Noir 2001. £19.50
Quite a solid garnet colour. Big, spicy, toasty oak nose at first, but this is open and very Burgundian, with a gamy, dense quality and good concentration. The palate has good fruit sweetness, but there is a lot of complexity here with toast, cinnamon, tobacco and deeper blueberry flavours. Very good length and concentration. Very good indeed/excellent.
Valli Vineyards (NZ) Bald Hills Vineyard, Bannockburn Pinot Noir 2001. £19.50
Until this vintage, the Bald Hills vineyard was designated on labels of the Bannockburn wine – as was Colleen’s vineyard on the Gibbston wine. The same fruit was used in 2002, but the labelling simplified. Deep velvety red colour. Still plenty of sweet spicy oak dominating the nose, against a density of rounded, tight, cherry and berry fruit and a sheen of chestnutty quality. Lovely weight in the mouth, with plenty of juicy cherry fruit that is fat and mouthwatering, finishing with a meaty support from tannins and good acidity. Very good indeed.
Valli Vineyards (NZ) Gibbston Pinot Noir 2002. £23.00
Dense ruby colour. The depth of fruit dominates the nose here, with a great, savoury perfume of red fruit, game and spice, edged with floral notes. There is a succulent fruit sweetness on the palate, with earthy berry flavours and an expansive, generous mid-palate. Long and pure, there’s an elegant orangy acidity and ripe tannins into the finish. Excellent.
Valli Vineyards (NZ) Bannockburn Pinot Noir 2002. £23.00
Lovely clear, deep garnet colour. Spicy pot-pourri aromas, with a toasty background and good depth and richness. This has fine quality on the palate, loaded with dry, savoury plum fruit that is thick textured and meaty, with chunky tannins. This has good balance and along, tangy finish that is full of robust character. Very good indeed.
PO Box 2101, Wakatipu, Central Otago.
Tel. 64 03 442 6778.