On to New Zealand with an interesting flight into Queenstown, mountains either side of the plane as we came into land. Any qualms were soon allayed by the region we were in, Otago is simply one of the most beautiful regions I have ever visited. Lakes, mountains, unusual wildlife, small towns, little villages. Undoubtedly tourism keeps the economy buoyant, Queenstown itself is a busy town of 16,000 residents, which population doubles every night with visitors.
Otago is a relatively new vineyard region. There had been tentative plantings from the 19thC but when Northern Ireland born Alan Brady planted a first commercial vineyard in the Gibbston Valley in the early 1980s he was mocked for being a dreamer. Yet Brady had realised that at a latitude of 45˚C South the area was at a similar level to Burgundy at 45˚C North. Success followed as did other growers and Otago is now widely regarded in the wine world as one of the most promising, up and coming wine regions. Pinot Noir dominates (that Burgundy parallel) with 75% of planting, whites make up the rest with Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc (just 2%), Pinot Gris and Gewurztraminer amongst the most common grapes.
Fighting two problems: small turbines to combat frost in the air and netting to stop wax eyes from eating and damaging grapes
Within the region there are sub regions which do have different climates and geology. The Gibbston Valley, for example, is relatively cool and on schist whereas other major growing areas such as Bannockburn are warmer, more open and on sandy, silty soils. This has an effect on growing time, ripeness etc. We must also bear in mind that the wines being produced are from relatively young vines, most are around the 20 year old mark and will mature and produce more complex wines with age.
Not knowing the region at all I decided to take one of the wine tours available and travelled with Appellation Wine Tours, which proved to be a wise decision. We were taken to 4 wineries in different areas of the region and tasted over 20 wines, not to be recommended if driving. Our guide Gavin was very well informed, enthusiastic, patient and extremely helpful with a good sense of humour. He certainly made it a very good day for everybody. Lunch was provided too, a very good platter (vegetarian in my case) with a glass of choice at Wooing Tree winery in Cromwell.
The main domaines we visited were Mt. Rosa, Domain Road and Kinross which is a type of co-operative where 5 different wineries sell their wines.
Mt. Rosa is in Gibbston Valley and we tasted a range of whites and Pinot Noirs. The Sauvignon Blanc was textural and not your typical Kiwi SB, nice. I was unconvinced by the Pinot Gris but liked the Pinot Blanc 2017 with its fruity, melon flavours. Trish MacKenzie kindly poured 3 vintages of the Pinot Noir, it was interesting to see vintage difference from this relatively cool area. The 2016 was juicy and fruity, the 14 starting to show forest floor, earthy flavours. The 15 was much more austere, apparently it snowed at the end of harvest time. The Pinot Noir Reserve 2016 was more intense with oak influence.
Domain Road is in Bannockburn on a hillside with lovely views. The vines are covered in nets as most are in New Zealand because of the Wax Eye bird which eats grapes but also leaves some leaking juice so that rot can set in. They are a real nuisance. The Estate Pinot Noir 14 was plummy but already showing those earthy notes and the French oak was apparent. Single vineyard Defiance 2016 was more juicy and serious with the oak influence again. 2013 single vineyard Paradise Reserve was darker still. The best of the grapes are taken and given extra barrel ageing. However, the whites were much more to my taste to be honest. The Sauvignon Blanc 15 had typical NZ flavours but was subtle, concentrated and very clean, one of the best examples from NZ that I recall. Defiance Chardonnay 16 was barrel aged and though the wood gave crème brulée aromas the flavours were more subtle, stone fruits and spice. I liked it a lot. On to two Rieslings. Water Race 16 is very dry with only 9gms of residual sugar, not very aromatic but lime and citrus flavours more than compensated. Very refreshing. Duffer’s Creek 15 has 20gms of residual sugar and in an off dry style. Very appley on the nose with lime flavours again and a touch of sweetness. I very much liked this and bought some too!
Finally, on to Kinross. Coal Pit wines have been running since 2006, we tasted their Sauvignon Blanc 2011. Interesting to taste an older SB and what an aroma, sweetcorn! Classic NZ Sauvignon Blanc flavours. Hawkshead Riesling 2015 was organic and has 11gms of residual sugar. Very kerosene on the nose but clean, citrussy flavours. Domain Thomson’s Surveyor Thomson Pinot Noir 13 is made on biodynamic principles. This 5 year old wine was very mushroomy and savoury. Fascinating to taste Valli Pinot Noir Gibbston Valley 2016 made by Grant Taylor, 4 time winner of Decanter’s Best Pinot Noir in the world award. The fruit was apparent but there were already savoury notes and quite apparent oak. Finally, and appropriately, The Wild Irishman Macushla Pinot Noir 15. This is made by Alan Brady and with minimal intervention, a slight use of SO2 on bottling but otherwise a classic natural wine. Interesting to see that this was the favourite wine of others in the group with its wilder, spicy freshness. The godfather of Central Otago still leading the way!
I had the opportunity to taste other wines during my time in Queenstown. Carrick winery is organic and its Chardonnay 15 was one of the best examples of that grape that I have tasted in some time, delicious. Of other Pinots, I liked Prophet’s Rock 15 more than Two Paddocks 11. And that highlighted an issue for me. I found many of the Otago Pinots were showing very savoury flavours at a relatively early age. My personal taste is towards the fruitier Pinot and so, the younger bottles appealed more to me. There was also a lot of oak use, not all subtle either. So maybe it’s just me but I wasn’t completely convinced by Otago Pinots, much more so by the white wines. I go against expert opinion in saying this I have to say.
This really is the most stunning wine region and as vines mature and winegrowers learn more and more about their terroir and vines it will certainly produce increasingly good wines. I would be very, very happy to return and find out for myself one day.