Central Otago visit 2010

Shortly before leaving to visit New Zealand I tried Martinborough Vineyards Te Tera Pinot Noir 2006 which got me very interested to take a fresh look at NZ Pinot. Much lauded by critics in recent years I’ve been underwhelmed by dark sweet fruit-bombs that have lacked complexity and restraint. They have lacked restraint in pricing too. Fortunately I arrived in Otago with the Australian dollar strong against the kiwi and producers wary about raising prices when production is up and global demand is down (due to the financial crisis).

Central Otago is very beautiful, a desert with a snow fed river weaving its way across valley floor and between steep gorges and mountains.  It has the hottest driest Summers in NZ but the locals let us in on a secret, it snows every month of the year which it did while we were there in mid-Summer – just a few flakes, but there were cold days, and days you could water-ski too (the water is very cold always though, it’s melted snow).

They once mined for gold here.  Today orchards (cherries, apricots) benefit from cold nights, sunny days and irrigation from the river.  But people have been looking for something economic to do with the land (pine tree forestry turned out to be a dead-end).  Then someone planted some grapes, including Pinot Noir.  Today 85% of the vineyards are Pinot Noir with the other 15% divided amongst Riesling (another success), Pinot Gris, Chardonnay, and the ubiquitous Sauvignon Blanc.

Arround Bannockburn where we stayed it’s walking distance to about a dozen wineries.  Along Felton Road there are two of the very best producers: Mt Difficulty and, of course, Felton Road.

So what did I think?  Well, there are a lot of impressive wines being made off young vines, by inexperienced (with the vineyard or even Pinot Noir itself) winemakers.  You’d have to say the future looks very bright.  However, Otago wouldn’t be the first region in the world to show an impressive start followed by years, if not decades, of very slow, patchy, further improvement.  A bit like the gold rush of yesteryear this boom is bringing in investors and  a lot of plantings.  Many vineyards will be owned by people who aren’t really interested or knowledgeable about fine wine – and there will be financial pressures to cut corners.

Is there a style emerging ?  Probably the Felton Road dark, big fruited, dark cherry style is the most distinctly Otago wine.  It’s sort of like non-sparkling Australian ‘burgundy’, sweet exotic, with the best being quite complex for young wines.  I can see why millionaires come down here and start vineyards – it’s hedonistic wine that you don’t have to wait for.  Martinborough can produce big dark wines like this but they are more savoury, the best are still better than Otago  I think.

I wonder how these wines will age.  I don’t expect them to fall over quickly, but I wonder if they develop complexity.  I’m impressed and intrigued enough to want to add some to my cellar for the first time.

Click here to read my reviews of Otago wines.

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