Central Otago - Mid Winter Visit - Day 1

At the invitation of Central Otago Winegrowers Association, Michael travelled down to the much-acclaimed wine regions across Central.  The trip starts on a postcard perfect day, with clear, crisp, cold, sunny conditions from Wellington all the way down the South Island to Queenstown, where I was greeted, along with four fellow travelling companions and our tour guide for the day - and whisked to our first appointment of the morning.

Akarua is one of the major producers of Central Otago, with an impressive 130 hectares of vineyards, and another 26 hectares coming on stream this year. This is serious volume, when you consider the entire region encompasses just 2,000 hectares of vines in total. On arrival we quickly don a different kind of PPE than the rest of the world – hi-viz vests and gloves – as we try our hand at vine pruning. This is a critical task over winter, while the vines sleep to prepare for the next season’s spring growth.

Next, we’re into the winery to taste barrel-samples. An educational experience for the taste buds, we got the chance to taste wine grown from the same vineyard site, but with differing portions of whole-bunch in the ferment. 

This is perhaps a good time to take a breath and talk about winemaking of Pinot Noir – one of the world’s greatest wines that expresses the essence of Terroir. That is, the wine aromas, flavours, textures, and total experience of the wine will transform based on the grapes, the soils they grow in, the climate of the region, the micro-climate of the individual site, how the vines are grown, and how the fruit is treated in the winery. A key decision for winemakers is whether to “de-stem” the grape bunches as they arrive in the winery – removing the individual grapes from bunches – or leaving them in whole bunches.  If left as a whole bunch, the stems are included in the maceration and winemaking, bringing extra tannin, savoury grip, and structure. It is almost never used with Cabernet as it would bring an unwieldy astringency to the wine; for Pinot Noir, however, if the stems are ripe it can add more depth, richness, and longevity to the wine.

So back to our tasting – we try three samples of wine from the same vineyard, and from the same 2019 vintage, but with 0%, 50%, and 100% whole bunch.  They are all taken from old oak barrels, and as expected, the fully destemmed juice is bright and aromatic, with loads of fruit, light body, and low tannins. The whole bunch examples are completely different wines, deeper crimson in colour, herbaceous, and darker fruits. The final wine will become a crafted blend of these and other barrels, other vineyard sites, and all tasted and their portions in the end wine determined by the head winemaker as to what the desired character of the wine is.  We taste a selection of Akarua’s wines, from the sparking Brut, Chardonnay, and multiple Pinot Noirs, accompanied by a hearty lunch, before we are back in the van and on to our next visit.

On the road, James has given us a quick history of the region, from the first plantings in the 1860s through to present. As we approach his hillside cellar-door he points out the different geology – ranging from 350 million year old schist to far younger gravel soils mere thousands of years old. He has a new block of young vines where his crew are installing a new kind of irrigation. The slender pipes will run between the rows, under the ground and beneath the roots of thirsty weeds – the plan is to encourage the vines to dig deeper for water, and at the same time reduce evaporation and reduce the need to remove the weeds.  In the tasting room, he walks us through the full range of wines made by his brother Matt. The Riesling is superb, as is his top Pinot Noir from a single ‘Black Rabbit’ vineyard aptly named for nearby local fauna.

We are back down the slopes of Bannockburn, past Cromwell and next to the bottom of Lake Dunstan to the cellar door of Aurum wines.  Here we are greeted by three talented winemakers - Rudi from Quartz Reef, Steve from Doctor’s Flat, and Lucie from Aurum. We’re in for a treat– there are 13 wines to taste across the three wineries covering the full spectrum of what Central has to offer – Sparkling Rosé bubbles, Pinot Gris, Chardonnay, a unique Rosé made from skin-contact Pinot Gris, and of course several Pinot Noir … and all organic, too. Native Burgundian Lucie declines to compare her wines to the original French versions – “these are Central Otago wines, not Burgundy.” And right she is, there is a fruit purity to New Zealand wines that sets them apart from Old World examples.

Within Central we are discovering the variations of the sub-regions, Aurum is in Lowburn, Doctor’s Flat in Bannockburn, and Quartz Reef in Bendigo. For a wine-nerd like me, it is a superb experience to try miniature vertical tastings – tasting the same wines from the same sites but from different vintages, but also with wines that express the different regional characters. Bendigo often presents bolder and firmer wines, with chalky austere tannins, compared to Bannockburn wines that are often still full, but with a nuance of the ever-present wild thyme, and the Lowburn wines that seem more aromatic and perfumed. There is an energy to all these wines, and big contrasts in flavours and textures. Perhaps they also show the preferences of the individual winemakers too, and as we finish with Rudi’s top Quarz Reef ‘single ferment’ Pinot Noir 2018 he turns part-winemaker, part-philosopher and poet – he feels this wine, at just two years old, has yet to find its true expression. We are an impatient lot in NZ, and this is a 10-years wine rather than one to bust off the rack for a casual quaffer.

We have time to reflect on the day while headed back to our accommodation in Arrowtown, before meeting with a wider group of winemakers and enthusiasts for a private dinner at ‘The Blue Door’, where we are treated to a magnificent meal of Italian cuisine but one that champions local produce, all washed down with ample quantities of high quality local wine.

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