A decade of collaboration and the evolution of Central Otago Pinot Noir.
When winegrowers in Burgundy found kindred spirits among the winegrowers of Central Otago the resulting collaboration now in its twelfth year has everyone who loves Pinot Noir cheering.
The idea behind the Central Otago Burgundy Exchange was born in 2006 when Sophie Confuron of Domaine Jean-Jacques Confuron attended the Central Otago Pinot Noir Celebration. Confuron, who had been invited to present a talk about how the beliefs and practices of the Cistercians advanced the notion of terroir, suggested to Rippon Estate’s Nick Mills that they start a student exchange between the two regions and the idea was born.
80 stagiaires later, the success of the Exchange can be defined in several ways but according to Mills, it’s most evident in the approach the returning interns, from both sides, now bring to their craft. The Exchange has been as much about cultural awareness as it is about the practical experiences of making Pinot Noir having fostered reciprocal philanthropic and diplomatic support, art exhibits and a documentary video.
In 2017 a delegation of ten Central Otago producers – Aurum, Domaine Rewa, Domaine -Thomson, Felton Road, Gibbston Valley, Mt. Difficulty, Prophet’s Rock, Rippon, Quartz Reef and Wooing Tree – traveled to Burgundy to mark the 10th anniversary of the program. In doing so they brought a singular and defining celebration of turangawaewae (their place in the world) to the Chambre du Roi at the Hospices de Beaune.
The program which was administered through a winegrower association and agricultural college for each region: the Mosaïque Bourgogne International (MBI) and the CFPPA de Beaune in Burgundy and the Central Otago Winegrowers’ Association (COWA) and the Otago Polytechnic Central Campus is now in its twelfth year. Although it’s no longer being formally administered, it’s well established and stagiaires continue to work in either region every harvest. One of the most compelling and celebrated examples of sympatico that has developed between the two regions can be found in Cuveé Aux Antipodes, a wine sourced from the Bendigo ‘Home Block’ at Prophet’s Rock.
Easily the region’s newest cult wine, the Prophet’s Rock Cuveé Aux Antipodes 2017 is a collaboration between winemaker Paul Pujol and Francois Millet, winemaker for 30 years at Domaine Comtes Georges de Vogüé and a master of the Chambolle grands crus Bonne Mars and Chambolle-Musigny.
On the final day of the 2019 Central Otago Pinot Noir Celebration, Jasper Morris MW led a guided discovery tasting of five Central Otago wines titled “12 Years of the Central Otago Burgundy Exchange – What have we learned?”
During the course of the tasting, Morris made several observations about the evolution of both winegrowing and winemaking in Central Otago. He noted that producers were now more inclined to “letting the Pinot Noir come to [them].”
“There used to be too much winemaking [in Central Otago] and what it produced were wines capable of aging that may want cellaring for a few years. We now see wines with a saturation of fruit and seductive herbs that will evolve versus simply aging well.”
Over the last decade, formal tastings at the Celebration have covered many aspects of Burgundian terroir. In addition to Morris, this year’s panelists included Lucie Lawrence from Aurum, Nick Mills and Louis Meunier, a winemaker from Domaine Jean-Jacques Confuron, who first came to Central Otago in his early 20s.
“Through my time in Central Otago, I’ve come to know another side of Pinot Noir and its transparency of this terroir. Over the last ten years I’ve also seem climate change first hand with early bud beak and increased sugar levels at harvest. It raises many questions: ‘How adaptable is Pinot Noir? Will vines be able to reach old age?’”
The flight of six wines were produced by stagiaires who had participated in the exchange program. A charming Quartz Reef 2016 with lovely focus made by Alex Millot was followed by five wines produced from hallowed Burgundian terroirs including Premier Cru and Grand Cru sites by French winemakers who had participated in the Exchange in Central Otago. They were selected to demonstrate both the technical and philosophical evolution that has closed the gap between the two regions.
The last time I conducted field research in Central Otago was 2011 at the very beginning of the 3.0 era. Since that time, there’s been an evolution in the overall quality and style of the Pinot Noir wines being produced here. There’s far less extraction and domineering new oak apparent in the wines and significantly more emphasis on transparency of terroir.
That evolution doesn’t smack of emulation, it transmits tūrangawaewae or respect for place. Over the last decade the vines have matured right along with the winemaking allowing Pinot Noir to take center stage.