New Zealand’s Central Otago-Pinot Noir In-Depth: Introduction

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“Want the inside track on Central Otago Pinot Noir? Look no further. You are cordially invited to attend an E’sensual Pinot Adventure in Central Otago, 29th July to 1st August 2010.”

Click to enlarge - photo courtesy of Central Otago Winegrowers Association. Please visit their content rich site at http://www.cowa.org.nz/

I have a strong appreciation for the wines of New Zealand, and in particular that nation’s Pinot Noirs.  That appreciation was sparked in large part when I attended Pinot 2007, the triennial exploration and celebration of New Zealand Pinot, an event which I reported on at length here on the Gang of Pour.  Since then, I’ve made it a point to sample New Zealand Pinots whenever I can, and I continue to be impressed with the quality and sheer enjoyment these wines provide.  But more than that, New Zealand pinots are really beginning to define a unique style for this most expressive grape—not quite Burgundian, not really Californian or Oregonian in style, either, but a unique style that is only beginning to be defined and which continues to evolve.  And like both France and the U.S., the various places in New Zealand where Pinot grows are each beginning to develop their own unique characteristics, distinct from one another, reflecting the varied terroir that defines each region, and New Zealand as a whole.

So when the invitation above arrived in my email, I couldn’t wait to go.  For this was an opportunity to explore in depth the region that has become the most important source of quality New Zealand Pinot Noir—Central Otago.  There are excellent Pinot grown elsewhere in New Zealand—Martinborough, Waipara, and Marlborough to name the most well-known—but Central Otago has quickly established itself as the leading region for New Zealand Pinot Noir.  And as the region has grown in stature, it is beginning to define itself not just by its regional identity within New Zealand, but by the various subregions that exist there as well.

Imagine, if you will, that you were given the chance to visit Burgundy, say around the time of Philip the Bold (or perhaps earlier), and could explore the different styles of wine in the villages of Vosne Romanee, Chambolle Musigny, or Volnay just as the wines from each of those villages was being recognized as distinct from one another.  Or California 40 or 50 years ago, when regions such as Russian River and Anderson Valley were just being recognized as producing different styles of Pinots and were mapped accordingly into their respective AVA’s?  Such is the case with Central Otago Pinot Noir in the early 21st Century:  a relatively new, but clearly promising region, already producing excellent Pinot Noir, but now focused on fostering and identifying the unique characteristics of each of its subregions.  And the E’Sensual Pinot Adventure was promised to be an opportunity to explore these subregions in detail, truly a chance to get in “on the ground floor” and understand one of the world’s most exciting regions for Pinot Noir, in depth.  I couldn’t wait to go.

Central Otago and its Subregions

Map courtesy of www.cowa.org.nz/

If you love Pinot Noir as I do, then there’s a good chance you’re a bit obsessed with the question of where your Pinot Noir comes from.  More so than any other variety, the terroir of Pinot, and the various places that define the wine’s terroir, are terribly important with this grape.  Pinot Noir offers transparency—the ability to reflect all of the factors that exist in the location where the grapes are grown in the finished wine.  Soil (including type, nutrients, density, drainage, etc.), climate (rain, heat, wine, frost), exposure (in relation to the sun, including elevation and slope), light (both intensity and length during the growing season), and many other factors help define what any given Pinot Noir will become—and will explain why Pinot Noir from even adjacent vineyards can taste so very differently.

Central Otago, located in the southern part of New Zealand’s South Island, is the only wine growing region in the country that is not primarily influenced by maritime climatic conditions.  Located in a semi-arid interior area surrounded by Alpine mountains at the 45th parallel (about the same as Oregon’s Willamette Valley and the northern Rhone Valley), the area has a climate that is unique for New Zealand.  It is one of the hottest, coldest, and driest regions in NZ, with the most extreme differences in temperatures over the growing season.  Rainfall is evenly distributed over the region but rarely impacts the harvest negatively.  Not so frost, which can be a problem, especially early in the season, and also at harvest time, particularly in Gibbston; planting on slopes (preferably North-facing) is essential in most of the subregions as this helps reduce the risk as cold air settles down the slopes.  One difference between New Zealand and northern hemisphere wine regions is that solar radiation is much more intense (about 11% more at 45°S than at 50°N), in part due to lower ozone levels in the atmosphere in the southern hemisphere.  Soils are mainly schist, or mixed schist-greywacke alluvium.

Central Otago is ringed by mountains and cut through by river gorges and some fairly large lakes.  This has created individual pockets that define the subregions within Central Otago.  Each has somewhat different altitude, temperatures and diurnal variations, and, perhaps most importantly, accumulated growing degree days (GDD) which define the accumulated heat available to ripen the grapes.  This ranges from a low of 870-950 in Gibbston, to a high of 1100 in Bannockburn.  The high mountains also impact the available sunlight, as some vineyard subregions are in the shadows from the mountains much earlier than other subregions.

The following are brief descriptions of Central Otago’s subregions.  Note that the following descriptions of the “typicity” of the Pinot Noirs of each subregion are taken from the materials provided by Central Otago Pinot Noir, Ltd.  I have my own impressions below, but this presumably represents how the wineries of the regions see their own wines as reflected by the respective terroirs of each subregion.

Gibbston

The most westerly region and closest to Central Otago’s largest city, Queenstown, Gibbston was the first region planted to Pinot Noir.  It occupies the north-facing slopes of a narrow gorge of the Kawarau River as it flows from Queenstown to Cromwell.  It is the coolest and highest of the subregions, and the region most prone to damage from both early and late-season frosts.  Harvest often doesn’t take place until late April.

Wine typicity:  red fruit and dried herb aromatics with backbones of acidity.

Wanaka

The northern-most region, it borders Lake Wanaka.  The region’s prominence and reputation is large based on Rippon Vineyard & Winery, both because that winery was one of the first (and best) in the region, but also because its vineyard location on the edge of the lake with high mountains rising in the distance is one of the most beautiful (and most photographed) in the world.  Wanaka is relatively cool, only slightly warmer than Gibbston, but the influence of the lake provides significant protection from frost, and the harvest is usually a bit earlier.

Wine typicity:  red fruit aromas, savory tones, complexity and minerality.

Alexandra

The most southerly subregion and in the middle range of heat and GDD, its topography is one of the most varied.  It also has the widest diurnal variation of temperature, with cooler nights helping to moderate the hotter-than-average days.  Soils and orientations of the vineyards are also widely varied, with the vineyards spread out over a larger area than the other subregions.

Wine typicity:  spice notes with overt fruit, rich in aromatics, however lighter in fruit tannin structure.

Cromwell

OK, here’s where things get even a bit more complicated, as “Cromwell” really defines a large area that is further subdivided into three distinct subregions.  Using “Cromwell” as a kind of umbrella subregion, nearly 70% of Central Otago’s vineyards are located here.  Overall it is the warmest region, with the earliest harvest.  But within Cromwell there are really three subregions that have distinct characteristics:

Lowburn/Pisa

View of Lake Dunston with Lowburn/Pisa in the distance, taken from Bendigo - click to enlarge

Located north of the town of Cromwell on the west side of the Greater Cromwell Valley (Lowburn is toward the south, Pisa to the north of this region), this subregion has the largest potentially plantable area, but very few northerly slopes.  It is one of the warmest regions, although mountain shadows reduce direct sunlight by at least 30 minutes per day as compared to Bendigo, which is situated on the opposite side of the valley.  Its soil is more gravelly, reflecting its proximity to the river.

Wine typicity:  upfront aromatics, high tones with red to darker fruits, ripe fruit tannins, however delicate rather than structural wines.

Bendigo

Occupying the opposite (east) side of the Greater Cromwell Valley, toward the north (i.e, opposite Pisa rather than Lowburn), on a north/west facting ridge, it is the warmest subregion, and the most recently planted.  It has greater sun exposure than the other regions due to its northwesterly aspect.

Wine typicity:  darker fruits with structural tension from fruit tannins.

Bannockburn

Bannockburn, taken from atop the vineyards at Akarua - click to enlarge

The most intensively planted of the subregions, and arguably the most famous, largely because of two of New Zealand’s most well-known and respected wineries, Mt. Difficulty and Felton Road, both of which are located here (literally next door to each other).  The vineyards are on north-facing slopes overlooking the Kawarau River, but the region is lower and warmer than Gibbston to the west, and also drier.  This region is also divided to some extent based on differences in soil:  the east side of this region is Cairnmuir, with lighter soils of sand and gravels, while to the west is Felton Road, with more clay and schist.

Wine typicity:  spice, darker fruits and complexity, with well-defined but fine tannin structure.

The E'Sensual group. Author, Bennett Traub, back row 3rd from the right - click to enlarge

So with that background, I joined the E’Sensual Pinot group on a chilly July evening at the Mt. Difficulty winery to begin exploring Central Otago in depth.  I was joined in the program by a terrific group of 12 fellow winelovers and professionals, mostly sommeliers or restaurateurs (and a retailer or two) from New Zealand and Australia, plus one each from Singapore and Hong Kong.  I was the only American.  There was a lot of knowledge about wine, and especially New Zealand wines, represented here, although I was interested to note that few had much experience with American wines in general, or Pinot Noir in particular, which isn’t really surprising given the limited distribution the finer American wines have in these markets.  It seems they mostly see the big names like Mondavi, Gallo, K-J, and the like.  As a result, their general impression was that most American wines are too expensive in their markets, an impression that was confirmed when I noted that the few American wines on local retailers’ shelves were priced a good 20-40% above the U.S. price.  Those that had some experience with American Pinot were mostly of the impression that Oregon is really the epicenter of quality domestic Pinot Noir.

Anyway, for the next 4 days we would be immersed in the world of Central Otago Pinot Noir, beginning with a short survey of some recent vintages, followed by visits and tastings in each of the subregions.

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Related posts:

  1. Conclusion: New Zealand’s Central Otago-Pinot Noir In-Depth
  2. New Zealand’s Central Otago-Pinot Noir In-Depth-Overview and Vertical Tasting
  3. Touring New Zealand’s Central Otago Subregions
  4. 1999 Dehlinger Russian River Valley Pinot Noir Estate
  5. 2008 Cornerstone Cellars Willamette Valley Pinot Noir

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