Christine Austin returns to Otago and discovers that everything's gone green on the Pinot Noir front

Apparently yesterday was Pinot Noir day and while this is just a made-up date for the purposes of marketing, there is something about this time of year that requires a wine that can cope with both warm weather and the decidedly chilly days we have endured. Pinot Noir fits the bill perfectly and while I would love to drink Burgundy on a more regular basis, my go-to region for good Pinot is New Zealand.

As wine regions and vineyards have expanded in New Zealand, Central Otago, usually known as ‘Central’ has become a beacon of excellence for Pinot. The flavours are deep, fruity, concentrated and elegant. Some have described them as ‘fruit bombs’, but this character is diminishing as the vines age and winemaking expertise develops. I find that the cool-climate of Central Otago has developed Pinots with fabulous aromatics and silky tannins.

Located in the southern part of South Island it is one of the most beautiful wine growing regions I have visited. With snow-capped mountains, tumbling waterfalls, turquoise lakes and deep ravines this is an area that attracts thousands of visitors for its scenery and huge range of outdoor sports. This is the original home of bungee-jumping and if you like that kind of thing you can leap off bridges and ledges with no more than a piece of elastic keeping you safe. Most of this activity is in Queenstown, but if you drive through the mountain pass towards Cromwell you leave all that behind. You then enter the rugged countryside that was first explored by gold-diggers in the late 19th century.

Central is definitely a cool-climate grape growing region, you can tell that from the chill in the air in the mornings. But the light is clear and temperatures rise during the day and plummet at night – even in summer. Although this is the driest grape-growing part of New Zealand there is no shortage of water. Lakes and streams provide enough water to turn the landscape green, so long as you have the right permit.

It has been a few years since my previous visit to Central Otago and the difference I saw earlier this year is astonishing. The emerald green patches of vineyards that used to dot the hillsides have joined up and now form a continuous band of green across the slopes. There are vines are climbing even higher hills and one producer has terraced a steep hillside so they can get the most from their vines, land and sunshine.

One of the main changes is that big money has arrived. Cloudy Bay, owned by the international Louis Vuitton Moët Hennessy group has bought a stretch of hillside known as Te Wahi. Other producers are eyeing up vineyards and expanding, but even so there is still a pioneer spirit about the place. And since this is New Zealand with its clean and green ethos about everything, there is a definite trend to organic and biodynamic viticulture.

These are some of the best Central Otago Pinots.

Rudi Bauer mixes his biodynamic soil preparations 

Quartz Reef

Austrian-born Rudi Bauer arrived in New Zealand for a holiday 30 years ago and just never went back home. Now he has some of the finest land on a steep slope alongside Lake Dunstan planted to a particular clone of Pinot Noir which produces small berries packed with flavour. His vineyards are totally biodynamic which is akin to homeopathy for plants. This means that instead of using chemicals to treat the soil, it is all done with natural fertilisers and tiny quantities of specialist preparations that need to be mixed for hours in wooden barrels. Does it work? Certainly the wines have a delicious sheen of silkiness and vibrancy. Try Quartz Reef Pinot Noir 2015, Majestic £18.20 on a mix six deal.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Felton Road

This is quite possibly the best Pinot Noir produced by a Yorkshireman.   Owner Nigel Greening was born in Leeds although he now splits his life between the UK and New Zealand. Blair Walter is in charge of the vineyards and winemaking, and he, like Rudi at Quartz Reef, also works biodynamically. We walked through the Cornish Point vineyard which apparently yielded 67 pounds weight of gold in 1862. Now the yield is of top-quality grapes which are made into seriously good wines.

Try Felton Road Cornish Point 2015 (House of Townend £39.99) for elegant, cherry and plum fruit and silky tannins. Still young but this will age well.

Trade up to Felton Road Block 5 2015 (House of Townend £49.99) with deep, structured black fruit flavours and grippy, structured tannins. Try not to drink it for at least three years.

 

 

Nick Mills works biodynamically, and compost is a vital ingredient

Rippon Vineyards

Amongst the stunning beauty of Otago, Rippon stands out for its fabulous situation overlooking Lake Wanaka. Rolfe Mills was one of the pioneers of the region, planting vines in the 1970’s. Now his son Nick continues his work, with the vineyards now run on biodynamic lines, producing wines with purity of fruit and a lively, vivacious flavour.

Try Rippon Vineyards Mature Vines 2011 (Field and Fawcett £34.95).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Claire Mulholland, General Manager and winemaker at Burns Cottage

Burn Cottage 

A relatively new addition to the vineyards of Central, Burn Cottage is backed by serious investment and a biodynamic consultant from California, Ted Lemon. Planted across several hillsides this has all the elements to make great wine as the vines mature.

Try Moonlight Race 2014 (Corkingwines.com £31) for its deep damson fruit and carefully balanced freshness.

 

 

 

 

 

Sam Neill – at home in Central Otago

Two Paddocks Owned by actor Sam Neill but definitely not a ‘celebrity’ wine. He is clearly as proud of his wines as he is of his major acting successes. These wines have always shone with bright, juicy fruit but now they are gaining deeper flavours with dark cherry and raspberry fruit, floral notes and a sprinkle of baking spices.

Try Two Paddocks Picnic Pinot Noir 2012 (Field and Fawcett £22.85).

 

 

 

 

Mud House

Owned by a multi-national company and certainly produced on a much larger scale than all the hand-made, cosseted wines listed above, this is a fine introduction to Central Otago Pinot. Mud House is the one to reach for to taste that ripe, cherry and bramble fruit with silky, soft tannins at an affordable price.

Head to Majestic for Mud House Pinot Noir 2015 at £11.99 on a mix six deal.

 

About The Author

Christine Austin

Christine is a wine writer, broadcaster and a wine judge for several international wine competitions. She has a technical background and spent five years as a buyer for a major supermarket before moving to wine writing.She writes for The Yorkshire Post Magazine and organises the York Festival of Food and Drink. She has won both the Lanson and the Roederer prizes for wine writing.

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