Central Crush – An insight into the Central Otago Wine Industry
Recently I was lucky enough attend Central Crush, an annual trade fieldtrip held in the southernmost winegrowing region of the world, and arguably one of the most stunning, Central Otago. A collaboration of proprietors, winemakers, viticulturists, sales and industry people, Central Crush is a three day event that allows the wine pioneers of Otago (and as I found, they really are pioneers) to showcase every aspect of their incredible industry to the trade.
Day 1 – A Landscape of Extremes
On arrival in Central we were whisked off towards Cromwell for our first winery visit at Mt Difficulty, Bannockburn. After being treated to a fantastic restaurant lunch, accompanied by several vintages of Mt Difficulty Pinot Noir of course, we were lead to a fascinating masterclass taken by the infamous Matt Dicey (Mt Difficulty) and Duncan Forsyth (Mount Edward). Here Matt and Duncan guided us through the array of differences between sub-regions, something that we see highlighted more and more often in the bottle and on the label. Their wealth of knowledge and serious passion for Central Otago was evident as we tasted and talked through 12 different Pinot Noir from Gibbston, Wanaka, Alexandra, Lowburn, Bendigo and Bannockburn. Though all of the wines looked great and showed sub-regional differences well, I was quietly happy when I saw that the first wine that we were to sample was Valli’s 2010 Gibbston Valley Pinot Noir, gold medal and trophy winner at the London International Wine & Spirit Show in 2012. It did not disappoint, and is a great example of how well Central Otago Pinot Noir is doing on the international stage.
Throughout the tasting, Matt and Duncan emphasized how influential millions of years of geological changes have been on what we see in the wines today. Soils are made up of glacial derived schist, silt loams and fine sands, and have been altered by intense glacial activity over millions of years. Much of Central was even once (around 16 million years ago) an enormous shallow lake, Lake Manuherikia. We also discovered that the climate can be as extreme as the landscape with New Zealand’s wettest location, Milford Sound, and driest just east of Central Otago’s vineyard plantings, all within 150km of each other!
Day 2 – Small Scale, Big Appeal
Somewhat wearily, after experiencing a spectacular three course meal at Wooing Tree Vineyard the evening before (with five wines matched to every course), on the morning of day two we arrived at Aurum’s cellar door in Cromwell. We were greeted by Lucie Lawrence (Aurum Winemaker) for a much needed breakfast, kindly put on by the Aurum team, and then given the grand tour of their winemaking facilities, which continued to help put into perspective the relatively small scale and uniqueness of Otago’s offerings.
The first commercial vintage of Central Otago Pinot Noir was produced in 1987 by pioneer Alan Brady of Gibbston Valley. Today, Central Otago wines still only make up around 4% of New Zealand’s entire wine production (80% of this is Pinot Noir). Amazing when you think about the excellent awareness and reputation that wines from this region have in our own country, and increasingly around the globe.
Next stop was VinPro. What was once a mobile wine bottling facility that serviced the greater region, is now a fully functioning wine making, warehousing and bottling facility that oversees the production of wines for around 20 different Central Otago producers at any one time. Guided in our ‘high vis’ by Dave Sutton (VinPro Assistant Winemaker), we were privileged to try vat and barrels samples of some of the upcoming 2014 Wooing Tree wines. At Vinpro the winery team work with the proprietors of each vineyard, and have the freedom to make decisions about the direction that each wine will head in. An overwhelming thought with so many wineries using VinPro’s expertise.
For the rest of the day we were treated to yet another fantastic lunch and tour of Prophet’s Rock’s Bendigo vineyard. That afternoon we had been given a literal overview of Lowburn, Piza and Bendigo by Rudi Bauer (Quartz Reef Winemaker). Standing on a rise overlooking these sub-regions, Rudi explained the different soil types and vineyard aspects, the changes that he had seen during his time in Central Otago, and the encroachment of dairy dry stock farms into the Cromwell Basin. Yet another ‘Central’ wine pioneer, Rudi Bauer completed his Viticulture and Winemaking degrees in Austria before working vintages around the world, then settling and forming Quartz Reef in Bendigo in 1996. He summed up his initial experience of arriving in a untapped and rugged yet beautiful wine region by commenting that in the early days he would sometimes wake up and think “what is wrong with me”, and then look around and think “actually, nothing’s wrong”.
A bus trip out to Alexandra where the wonderful team at Two Paddocks hosted our second amazing masterclass was followed by dinner at Northburn Station back in Bendigo that evening. There had been a buzz around Central’s close knit wine community since our arrival, as parts of Northburn Station had just been sold to the international giant that is Moet Hennessy, owners of Cloudy Bay. The general consensus that evening appeared to be that this was a good thing, and having a larger player in Central Otago would provide even more positive exposure for the region. I found this quite a surprising response. Another example of how the region embraces change and work together for the common goal.
Day 3 – A Sense of Place
Our final day in this spectacular part of the world began at Domain Road Vineyard in Bannockburn, owned by Graeme and Gillian Crosbie who have a long association with the area. Bannockburn was once a busy township during the gold rush of the 1860’s and remnants of sluicings can still be found in the form of hills and mounds scattered around the region.
Our picking skills were then put to the test at Doctors Flat, where Steve Davies (owner) demonstrated his preferred pruning technique and trustingly allowed the group to bring in the last of his Pinot Noir grapes. There was some discussion on organic growing practices and it seems that many Central wineries such as Doctors Flat are using, or moving to, this method of viticulture to maintain soil health and achieve the best possible product in the vineyard and bottle.
Last but not least was a farewell lunch prepared by Duncan Forsyth and some talented Mount Edward staff. A range of wines from supporting wineries across the region were laid out in front of us to accompany a meal of roasted pork (selected from Duncan’s property especially for the occasion) and superbly cooked seasonal vegetables. The final musings of Duncan, about what some might call terroir or sub-regionality in Central Otago, seemed to sum up the overall impression that I taken from this trip. Every vineyard that we visited and wine that we tried, both red and white, showed a real sense of place. Gone are the days of Central Pinot being touted as big bold and brash. We are now seeing a maturing of the region and a great understanding of what each site and sub-region can do. And Central Otago has world class wines to show for it.
-- Katie Merrie, Wineseeker