20 Apr 2012
No wine-growing land in our part of the world is more influenced by people than Central Otago, in New Zealand’s South Island.
The most southerly wine-growing region in the world is also one of the newest fine wine regions. There was barely a stick in the ground when Lake Dunstan was formed over the Clutha River in 1992 during the creation of the Clyde hydro-electric dam
It is hard to imagine the vista now without this vast body of water, about which sit 70 per cent of Central Otago’s vineyards, although Rudi Bauer, winemaker and owner of Quartz Reef, recalls it well. Austrian-born Bauer first visited the region in 1986.
“The fruit from down there was extremely good,” he says, referring to the apricots, cherries and other stone fruit grown at that time.
There were only two or three fledgling wine-growing properties then. Now Bauer sources grapes from around the lake and has significant plantings in the sub-region of Bendigo, a short distance to the east.
The day before I visited he’d just received the paperwork for his vineyards’ biodynamic certification. Many in Otago have adopted this holistic (Austrian) system of farm management, most famously the internationally lauded Felton Road, 20 minutes’ drive south in the sub-region of Bannockburn.
Central is a barren yet bountiful landscape significantly affected by human activity. It has yielded some of the world’s finest stone fruit – and lots of gold. Now it is the vines, especially those of the mercurial black cultivar pinot noir, that mine its mineral-rich soils. Plantings have doubled in just a decade to more than 1500 hectares, although it is one of New Zealand’s smaller regions, with just 4.5 per cent of the country’s total plantings.
It took the pinot noirs of Burgundy centuries to acquire the lustre they richly deserve; Central Otago has managed to assume a mantle of reverence in less than a quarter of a century.
This reputation is set to climb with the quality of the 2010 harvest, which has yielded some of the most exciting pinots I’ve tasted.
Yet – and this shows how hard it is to call a vintage early – 2010 crept up on many winegrowers.
As Matt Dicey of Mt Difficulty says: “It wasn’t a great summer, unlike 2008, which was a stonkingly good one. But when you look at figures it was much warmer than you realised. Phenolically these are some of the ripest wines we’ve had.” (Phenolics contribute to the power and “grip” of wine).
Strangely, during a tasting of 50-odd 2010 new releases in Auckland ahead of my visit to the region, I found myself comparing the best of the wines to a shiraz from Heathcote in Victoria, rather than pinots from any district. Heathcote was once at the centre of a gold rush, too. It’s in the acid, tannin tension of the wines that I see the similarity, and in many 2010 wines there’s commonly a sort of gunpowder-spent shotgun cartridge kind of spiciness also.
One afternoon, Jan Pinckney opened a bottle of her 2002 Northburn Station Pinot Noir. There were beautiful porcini mushroom and soy-developed characters, and an underlying raspberry pip fruit freshness. It was a pinot at its peak, in pristine condition.
“They told us we were mad to seal our pinot under screw cap,” Jan said.
Now it is hard to think of a producer in Central that doesn’t bottle under screw cap – affirming that people have as profound an influence on wine quality as the land they choose to grow it in.
What to drink
Earth’s End Pinot Noir 2009 (Central Otago, New Zealand)
Sourdough crusty smells, with gentle mixed cherry fruit and tangy peel. Gentle cherry fruit and stone tastes in the mouth, with gentle grip and sourdough mouth aromas. A round, easy and open mouthful and the perfect weight for warm summer evenings. 88/100, 8/10, $27.
Mt Difficulty Pinot Noir 2010 (Central Otago, New Zealand)
This is deep fruited and terra cotta smelling, with a Heathcote pepper and gunpowder character about. This is loaded with deep, slick fruit and serious tannins, but is still emphatically pinot noir. There’s a delicious curranty succulence and chewiness. 95(96)/100, 10/10, $60.
Quartz Reef Pinot Noir 2010 (Central Otago, New Zealand)
Pomegranate tangy on the nose and redolent with intense squeezed forest berry pips. Preserved citrus peel, too, plus iron-like smells. Huge gunpowdery palate, with a core of loganberry-like fruits. A powerful chewy pinot noir. 95/100, 9/10, $58.
Out of 100 = empiric rating. Out of 10 = hedonic – how much I like it. Brackets indicate the rating when drunk at its best.