New Zealand, Pinot Noir, Wine
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Central Otago 4.0 Insights from the 14th annual Central Otago Pinot Noir Celebration

The three-day 2019 Pinot Noir Celebration held in Queenstown, Central Otago delivered on Chairman Paul Pujol’s welcome promise of examining the region, its producers and their wines with a perspective as fresh as a stiff breeze off Queenstown Bay. 

The evolution of the Central Otago wine region over the last decade – dubbed 4.0 in the region’s timeline – has been both inspiring and, in many ways, climatic. Evidenced by the fact that at least one sub region – Bannockburn with 325 hectares under vine – is now considered fully planted.

In 2016, Bannockburn vineyard owners collaborated to produce a vineyard map of the entire sub region detailing vineyard ownership, varieties planted, topography, row orientation and individual vineyard blocks. The three-year project was spearheaded by Felton Road’s Blair Walter whose tenure as winemaker there began in 1997.

According to Walter, this level of technical vineyard mapping is vital to the evolution of Central Otago as a fine wine region. With the emphasis that’s being placed on bottling single vineyard Pinot Noir which accounts of 78 percent of plantings in Bannockburn, it’s a giant step towards dialing in the terroir of this young, aspirational sub region.

The boundaries of Bannockburn as defined by the map encompass land south of the Kawarau River and east of Walkers Creek (Kawarau Gorge), across to the Clutha Arm of Lake Dunstan. In addition to Pinot Noir, the region is planted to Pinot Gris (8%), Riesling (6%) and Chardonnay (5%) with another seven varieties making up the balance.

The Bannockburn sub region of Central Otago will become a formal GI in the New Zealand Geographical Indications (Wines and Spirits) Registrations Act.

With a recent update to the map completed, vineyard owners are on track to register Bannockburn as a formal GI in the New Zealand Geographical Indications (Wines and Spirits) Registrations Act. “We’ve been progressing the application and now that the 2019 harvest is over, a few of us will be putting the final touches to it,” said Walter. “Hopefully we’ll be ready for filing sometime in June.”

Felton Road winemaker Blair Walter (l) with Melanie Eldridge and Neil Punshon of Trialto .

As New Zealand’s southern-most winegrowing region, the evolution of Central Otago can be defined in four waves: Plantings that took place prior to 1990 establish the timeline at 1.0 (these include Rippon and Gibbston Valley), 2.0, a second wave of vineyards planted between 1991 and 1997 (Felton Road was first planted in 1992 by Stewart Elms), 3.0 includes sites planted between 1998 and 2007 defines the most dynamic period of growth and development for the region, and 4.0 which began when plantings picked up again in 2010.

Central Otago 3.0

The decade spanning 1998 to 2007 was the focus of the Discovery Tasting presented on the first day of the Celebration by a panel composed of winemaker Jen Parr of Valli Wine, Emma Jenkins MW, Mike Winter, viticulturist at Te Kano Estate, Felton Road winemaker Blair Walter and moderator Sarah-Kate Dineen of Maude Wines. Tasked with illustrating the dynamic 3.0 era, they selected six wines that set the stage for the success that has since followed. 

Providing proof of concept with regard to the longevity of Bannockburn, Walter’s Felton Road 2010 Cornish Point Pinot Noir was striking in its youthful intensity showing flickers of smoke and umami on a medium-weight body and lifted finish.

The Felton Road 2017 Bannockburn current release.

It was an auspicious start down the road to a trio of 2015s: Mondillo Bendigo showed bright, ripe red and black cherries from that warmer site for a wine that was balanced and elegant with obvious restraint applied in the cellar. Notes on the Aurum Lowburn Mathilde describe a red and black “fruit explosion” on the mid palate, graphite and a moderate level of extraction. Judge Rock Alexandra was quiet on the nose with char, cranberry and raspberry on a medium body.

The 2016s expressed more primary fruit: Two Degrees Queensberry had earthier black fruit and purity with a flicker of complexing bitterness while the Valli Gibbston Vineyard revealed classic spiciness, pomegranate and pleasingly gritty tannins.

Of the key factors that influenced these wines, gains in quality were attributed to the more vigorous, drought-tolerant rootstocks namely 3309, 1068, 4453 that were introduced during 3.0 and found to be good for organic sites with permanent in-row groundcovers. The introduction of new clonal material including 943, 828 and MV6 which form more open bunches was also noted.  

Central Otago 4.0

There was an abundance of star power during the walk-around tasting hosted at Amisfield winery on Friday morning including actor and vintner Sam Neill whose Two Paddocks wines are produced from organically-certified estate vineyards in three of the region’s main valleys – Gibbston, Cromwell and Alexandra.  

Forty producers were on hand to present two wines, a current release Pinot Noir and a second wine of their choosing. Time didn’t allow for a visit to every station but of the 38 wines tasted, older vintages many of which were Abel clone monovarietal or dominant distinguished themselves that crisp morning.

The Abel clone prior to veraison at Felton Road.

Older vintages by vintage:

  • Mount Michael 2005, fully developed with dried flowers, dusty fruit and forest floor.
  • Mt. Edward Bannockburn 2011, Abel clone with a smoky note that harkened back to the Felton Road 2010 from the Discovery tasting the day before.
  • Ceres 2011, on the weightier end of the style spectrum, a meaty, spicy, smoky example from Bannockburn clay.
  • Peregrin 2012, darkly fruited with generous, gritty tannins.
  • Akitu 2013 which is 70% Abel clone showed dried fennel and sublime balance.
  • Prophet’s Rock Retrospect 2014, chalky, clay soils, restrained with a very silky texture.

Standouts among the current releases from 2016 and 2017 spanned a range of styles from those that showed little use of new oak up to as much as 50% but nothing that warranted descriptors like “woody” or “oak dominant,” a sure fire sign of restraint. 

Ceres Pinot Noir 2017

Current releases alphabetically:

  • Akarua 2017, subject to the “morning bake” on the north-facing crescent overlooking the Cromwell Valley shows black cherries and raspberries, vanilla and resolved tannins. 2016 (tasted a few days earlier with winemaker Andrew Keenleyside) was leaner, focused and refined reflecting the vintage.
  •  Akarua Kolo 2016, earthier with a mineral backbone, generous intensity, umami and complex spice.
  • Aurum Madeleine 2016, with refined cherry, cola and umami notes.
  • Carrick Bannockburn 2016, floral with good red fruit intensity and 10% new oak.
  • Ceres 2017, more extraction, meaty, spicy and smoky.
  • Domaine-Thomson “Surveyor Thompson” 2017, Lowburn, biodynamic estate fruit showing transparency of terroir and silky, resolved tannins.
  • Mount Michael 2017, darker fruit and 50% new oak still integrating.
  • Prophet’s Rock Cuveé Aux Antipodes 2017, distinct red plum, wet earth and spice, transparent and silky.
  • Rockburn 2017, leaner red fruit, umami, tannins with a granular crunchiness.
  • Tarras The Canyon 2016, rich, spicy and elegant with fine, silky tannins.
An assortment of wines made by Andrew Keenleyside at Akarua.

On the final day of the Celebration, Jasper Morris MW led a guided Discovery Tasting of five wines titled “12 Years of the Central Otago Burgundy Exchange – What have we learned?”  Read about the experience here – Kindred Spirits.

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