Though I have heard about Central Otago’s famous Pinot Noir wines for years – and sampled some of them – I was completely unprepared for the magical experience of seeing the Central Otago wine region for the first time.
We had driven up from Queenstown through a desert-like landscape with steep, rocky mountains on both sides of the highway, surrounded by drab scenery in tans and greys. Then suddenly we went through a mountain pass and a dreamlike green and fertile valley opened up before us, with miles and miles of lush fields, pastures and vineyards surrounding a very large, elongated lake. It was beautiful.
We descended into the valley, went through the town of Cromwell and crossed Lake Dunstan, the long narrow body of water we had seen from the mountain pass. Lake Dunstan measures 26.4 square kilometers and it was formed when the Clutha River was dammed in 1982. Beginning in the mid-1800s, European settlers here had planted vineyards along smaller rivers in Central Otago’s mountainous areas. They also planted some fruit orchards in the valleys. But Lake Dunstan changed everything. In addition to supplying hydro-electric power through several dams, the creation of the lake enabled the farmers to irrigate their stone fruit orchards, access water for their sheep and cattle – and, of course, to plant many more vineyards.
Central Otago has a continental climate, a relative rarity in this island nation of New Zealand. But the region is far enough inland and it is insulated from the sea by the surrounding mountains and hills. There is a wide range of soils in this area, with good drainage due to layers of rock underneath. And because the climate is dry there is a wide diurnal variation in temperature which contributes significantly to the quality of the wines. In addition, the vineyards here tend to be sustainable and organically and/or biodynamically farmed, which adds complexity to the aromas and flavors of the wines.
With the region being so famous for its Pinot Noirs, I decided to concentrate mainly on tasting these wines – though there are small amounts of chardonnay, sauvignon blanc and riesling among the other (mainly white) grapes planted here. I found Central Otago Pinot Noir wines to be generally of very high quality because of their balance of fruit, acidity (sometimes added) and structure, and because they are fruit-forward without being overtly New World. (Personally, I missed the Burgundian earthiness in many of the wines. But then, I reminded myself, this isn’t Burgundy.)
In Central Otago, many of the wineries have “cellar doors” (the New Zealand term for winery tasting rooms) that are open to the public. Several also have lovely restaurants. If you plan to visit, do check the wineries’ websites to see if an appointment is necessary. In addition to tasting wines, Central Otago wineries are good places to learn about sustainable, organic and biodynamic farming practices and winemaking. Here is a short trip through the region, based on my recent visits and tastings.
Along Lake Dunstan, one of the most fervent supporters of the extraordinary terroir of Central Otago – and specifically the Bendigo sub-region – I met Rudi Bauer, a winemaker who established Quartz Reef winery in 1996. Luckily his was the first winery I visited in Central Otago because he took me up on the hillsides to view all the local wine regions on both sides of the lake. Bauer named his winery for the quartz which lies under his biodynamic vineyards. I also went to see the special preparations and tools for biodynamic practices that are housed neatly in an open shed next to his herb gardens at the bottom of a vineyard. Of the wines I tasted, his 2013 Quartz Reef Pinot Noir stood out because though it has nice burnt sugar fruit and fine tannins today, it’s clear the wine will also age well for some time. In fact the 2015 vintage of this wine will not even be released until next year (2018).
(Picture from AKARUA)
Also planted in 1996, Akarua was founded by Sir Clifford Skeggs, whose family had vacationed in the area years before. Currently his son David runs the enterprise, with winemaker Andrew Keenleyside. The winery has vineyards in several locations, and they are sustainably farmed. Akarua was the first to terrace their hillsides and at the time, people considered this to be a great folly. In fact terracing probably would not be allowed under today’s zoning codes but it does make a beautiful sight on the hillside, and very good wines. Winemaker Keenleyside uses some of his Pinot Noir to make excellent sparkling wines; unfortunately, I believe most of this stays in New Zealand. But if you’re in the area, you can drink the sparkling wines with lunch at the Akarua Wines & Kitchen restaurant in the picturesque nearby town of Arrowtown. In terms of still Pinot Noir wines, one of my favorites at Akarua was the 2016 Rua, a barrel-aged, early-drinking wine with big brambly, dark red fruit and soft, integrated tannins.
(Picture from CARRICK)
Located to the south of Lake Dunstan, the Carrick winery is in Central Otago’s Bannockburn sub-region, which is drier and warmer. The first vineyards were planted in 1993. Winemaker/owner Steve Green founded this winery; he and current winemaker Francis Hutt use wild yeast for all the wines – including the thoroughly delightful Pinot Gris, Chardonnay and Riesling I sampled. The 2015 and 2016 Pinot Noirs I tasted both had bright warm fruit which felt sweet on the palate. And the 2013 Excelsior Pinot Noir, I was fascinated to learn, was from own-root (ungrafted) vines planted in sandy soil; this wine is made only in the best vintages. The vineyards are organic and Carrick has recently established a vegetable garden to supply their upscale-casual restaurant.
At Felton Road, winemaker Blair Walter and the winery team became committed first to organic and then to biodynamic principles for their vineyards, which are also located in the warm Bannockburn area. For Pinot Noir, Walter uses 20-30% whole bunch clusters, as well as all natural yeast, and there is no fining of the wines. However, he, along with some of the other Central Otago winemakers, sometimes does acidify his Pinot Noirs. In addition to some very nice Chardonnay and Riesling, I tasted several vintages of the Block 5 Pinot Noir, where the fruit ranged from thick, spiced strawberry to light herbed strawberry on the palate; my favorite of the day was the young 2015 which was brambly and woody, with restrained fruit – a slightly more elegant wine but with some heft to it.
(Picture from BURN COTTAGE)
In 2002 Marquis and Dianne Sauvage, whose family also has a winery in the Pfalz region of Germany, purchased this vineyard property, which is in the Lowburn sub-region of Central Otago, west of Lake Dunstan. They brought in Ted Lemon of Littorai wines in Sebastopol, California, as a consultant and he guided them in transitioning their vineyards and farm to biodynamic and other natural winemaking practices. In fact the new winery they built has never had any commercial yeast in it. Claire Mulholland is the current associate winemaker on the team which produces only five wines, four of which are Pinot Noirs. The Pinot Noirs are all made with a combination of whole cluster and berries. At Burn Cottage I tasted a couple very good 2014 Pinot Noirs. In the 2014 Moonlight Race I was pleased to find classic Burgundy aromas including fruit with leathery greenery. It had a somewhat glyceryl mouthfeel and grippy tannins, and was balanced with dark red fruit and acidity in the finish. The 2014 Burn Cottage Vineyards Pinot Noir was a bit closed but it also seemed to have a good balance of fruit, tannin and acidity with dark fruit even in the longish finish; this wine will be best to drink in a year or two.
Maude Wines is named after its location on Mount Maude, where their vineyards were planted in 1994. The current winemaker is the founders’ daughter, Sarah-Kate (SK), who returned some years ago from winemaking in Australia to take the reins of the winery, along with her husband Dan Dineen. Many of their vineyards surround the family home where we ate a fresh, homemade lunch, joined sporadically by SK’s parents, the Wilsons, who founded Maude Wines. The winery, which is located in the Wanaka sub-region (toward Lake Wanaka, north of Lake Dunstan) gets twice as much rain as Cromwell to the south, but they are still able to grow some own-root vines here. They do source fruit from several other locations as well, for the various white and red wines they produce. At Maude, they have developed a rather unusual solera-style system for their reserve wines, which began with a base wine from 2004, and these wines will age for a decade or longer. However, one of the wines I was most charmed by was from a younger vineyard: the 2014 Kid’s Block had a good balance of tannins, classic spice notes including sous bois, yet it was light in feel with burnt cherry fruit.
(Picture from ARCHANGEL)
This unusual name for a winery refers to the parents of winery owners Mary and Ian Zurakowski. Both of their mothers were put in forced labor camps in Arkhangel’sk, Siberia, as Polish teenaguers during World War II. The girls traveled parallel paths through refugee camps in Africa, joining the WAFs and finally meeting each other and settling in Yorkshire, England with their husbands. Though Ian’s family moved away, he and Mary met up again by chance in the 1970s; they then married and moved to New Zealand in 1985. Mentored by Felton Road’s Nigel Greening, they purchased vineyards here in 2001, which are in the upper Clutha River valley, north of Cromwell. Along with some very good Riesling and Chardonnay, I particularly liked the 2013 Pinot Noir with buttery burnt sugar, dark fruit, leather and slightly grippy tannins.
Many of the Central Otago wineries export to numerous countries around the world. And they are in the process of increasing their exports. If you order a Pinot Noir from Central Otago from the wine list in a restaurant or purchase a bottle from a wine shop, you can generally expect to drink a quality wine with bright fruit, multi-faceted aromas, some acidity, fine tannins and good structure. The wines tend to pair well with fairly plain dishes such as roasted fowl, pork or lamb, as well as grilled salmon.
CONTACT INFO for wineries in Central Otago
Burn Cottage www.burncottage.com
Felton Road http://feltonroad.co.nz
Maude Wines www.maudewines.com
Quartz Reef www.quartzreef.co.nz
New Zealand wine website http://www.nzwine.com/