The Waitaki Valley aims to make its name as New Zealand’s 11th wine producing region.
Wine growers have been attracted here by its cool climate and outcrops of limestone.
At this early stage in its development, the region has already managed to impress with elegant, finely structured aromatic whites and pinot noir. And, it seems an ideal location to make traditional method sparkling wines in the future.
The Pasquale family was one of the first to take the plunge. Leaving northern Italy for New Zealand in 1997, academic Antonio Pasquale saw the potential of the Waitaki, and its offshoot – the almost unpronounceable Hakataramea Valley. “The cool climactic edge here, along with the limestone soils, is ideal for wines of crispness, concentration and lasting minerality,” predicted Pasquale. “Great wines can be made here.”
But it hasn’t been plain sailing. The climate is marginal, making grape growing a risky pursuit. Spring frosts are common; cool weather and winds can ruin flowering, slashing potential yields. In 2007, some producers didn’t set a berry while Central Otago, just 180km away had a small but high quality crop. In addition, Waitaki’s harvest period is the latest in the country: most regions have finished picking by the end of April but it can be as late as mid-May here. While that’s a big risk for growers, it also means that the wines can have incredible aromatics, firm acidity and moderate alcohol levels.
American-owned Craggy Range released some impressive crisp whites in 2008 and 2009 but soon called it a day in the Valley. It simply didn’t make economic sense to produce wine in the region.
And that’s one of the major reasons why one of the region’s pioneers, Antonio Pasquale, has also decided to throw in the towel after 14 years.
Pasquale has planted over 100,000 vines in the Valley and, in 2009, built and equipped the area’s first and only winery.
The winery’s aromatic whites were particularly exciting and its Marcel Deiss-esque blend of Riesling, Pinot Gris and Gewurztraminer – Alma Mater – stood out as interesting and unique.
However, it’s not just the challenging climatic conditions that make life difficult for local wine producers to make money.
Kurow Winery’s general manager Renzo Miño says its location (in the village of Kurow a.k.a. Nowheresville) was also a factor. “Small wineries rely on having a good proportion of direct sales, and our location really is the middle of nowhere with limited passing traffic, despite the development of an attractive cellar door and café. The cost of growing and hand-harvesting our low-yielding vines is reflected in the high quality and cost of the wine in bottle. Our pinot noir vines, for example, have only 20 percent of the yield found in Marlborough, and hand-harvesting is dramatically more expensive than using machines. The third factor is the risk, mostly from weather, that can wipe out a harvest every four or five years.”
What happens to the region’s only winery is undecided. It may see the region revert from wine production back to a purely grape-growing area with its wines made elsewhere, admits Pasquale. Alternatively, local growers may take ownership of the winery themselves.
It’s a sad reality that this potentially exciting region may not get to fully realize its potential. Let’s hope those remaining – Ostler, Valli, Forrest and friends stick it out.
This week the producers of the Waitaki Valley have been on the road, touting their wares.
Despite two of its producers receiving the accolade of New Zealand’s best Pinot Noir at the International Wine Challenge and best Pinot Noir at the Shanghai International Wine Challenge in the past month, most people look perplexed when you mention its name.
It’s in North Otago, in case you were wondering, 160km northeast of Central Otago’s Cromwell. Consultant Jeff Sinnott, winemaker for Shanghai trophy winner Ostler has spent the past 11 years in Central Otago and now having a foot in both camps made a useful comparison.
“Waitaki is slightly warmer than the Gibbston Valley [the coolest part of Central Otago’s subregions] but Waitaki has warmer temperatures in the late autumn which equals longer hang time allowing the tannins to ripen.”
In the warmer regions of Central Otago, such as Bannockburn and Alexandra, the long hang time isn’t usually possible as autumn frosts often dictate harvest decisions. “In Central Otago I don’t think I have ever made a completely tannin ripe wine and I have been making Central wines for 10 years. You are getting two brix a week from veraison to picking the fruit and so it is picked within five weeks [although that is about normal for Burgundy].”
“Then you are tempted to add water to get the alcohol down.” I think this temptation might become too much to bear for some!
Central Otago’s reds are generally sweetly fruited and fuller-bodied than the rest of the country’s Pinots. Final alcohols of 14 or 14.5 percent are quite normal. I mention that I’ve seen a growing tendency for a powerful, log-fire like oak-derived char to become an element of Central Otago’s wines – almost becoming a hallmark of the region.
“One of the most successful Pinot producers in Central Otago is also a barrel importer,” he answered.
“Central Otago is in danger of becoming a parody. It’s turning wines into cartoons and we are trying to make oil paintings here.”.
In the Waitaki, ripening is much slower – almost dangerously slow. The time between veraison and picking can be as much as 10 weeks! I imagine that the local producers must have very short fingernails.
“This is right on the edge of possibility,” adds Sinnott. “A lot of people will follow the line of least resistance but that isn’t available for Waitaki winemakers. I’d say in terms of difficulty, Central would be an 8 and the Waitaki would be a 9.5.”
You’re likely to see more vintage variation as a result. The 2010s are much warmer in profile, with sweeter fruit, lacking the tautness, elegance and minerality of the cooler years, like 2011.
Yields are low – in part due to hostile weather: rain, frost, wind and hungry birds make ripening rapes a risky business. Having experimented with yields as low as 2 tons to the hectare (around 14hl/ha), they’ve found that low yields doesn’t necessarily mean better fruit, as the abundant 1982 vintage in Bordeaux also demonstrated. “We are finding the sweet spot is 4t/ha and any lower you get strong tomato leaf-like character,” says Sinnott.
Black Stilt Pinot Noir 2011
Pure and elegant nose with fine pepper and black cherry fruit aromatics. Light bodied, fine grained, chalky-textured tannin – likely derived from limestone. Racy acidity leaves a clean palate. Not particularly complex but shows the Waitaki’s characteristics and cool climate Pinot Noir typicity. 17/20
Not so cheap but bloody delicious:
John Forrest Pinot Noir 2009
Pure, focused, with a plummy core of fruit overlaid with clove and cinnamon spice. It has fine grained tannins, a chalky texture on the finish with fine acidity and great linearity Complex and elegant. 18.5/20.
Otiake Gewurztraminer 2011
I don’t like Gewurz – it’s just that it’s usually over the top and a bit fat. But this is pure and tight without overt florals. Instead it shows fruit salad, lime, lemon and incredible freshness for a low acid variety. It’s dry and finishes clean. 18/20
Ostler Lakeside Vines Pinot Gris 2011
This is almost Alsatian in style with restrained savoury notes, spice and pear on the nose. It is medium in body, is richly fruited yet retains a tautness of structure. On the long finish there’s white flowers, bruised apple and lavender. Worthy of a 17.5/20 at the very least but shows potential to be as good as premium Alsatian Pinot Gris in the future with vine age.
Pasquale Riesling Shrivel 2011
I have partly fallen in love with this wine because of Pasquale’s owner Antonio, who told me that this was a good wine to have for a lovemaking session before breakfast Clean and pure with intense lemon, mandarin aromas. It is piquant, zesty and perfectly balanced despite 160g/l residual sugar – that’s probably thanks to a T/A of 9! Hearing that I was newly married, Antonio gave me a bottle to take home – I haven’t yet opened it.
The Waitaki Valley in New Zealand’s North Otago region has come of age this week: a Pinot Noir from this marginal region has been named the International Wine Challenge’s best Kiwi Pinot.
The region’s first vineyard, Doctor’s Creek, was planted in 2001 on limestone soils not dissimilar to Burgundy, and the first wines showed a mineral streak that attracted international praise. Since the initial rave reviews, many vineyards have sprouted up on lesser sites funded by absentee landlords, which don’t show that lovingly-nurtured mineral streak, but all the wines have a leanness and restraint that make this region stand out.
Yet it is still a small area and is often overshadowed by Pinot-producing Martinborough and Central Otago. But this week, it is having its time in the sun: John Forrest’s 2009 Waitaki Valley Pinot Noir took the title of best New Zealand Pinot Noir.
It’s affirmation that the region’s pioneers needed. Most New Zealand wine producers wouldn’t plant in the Waitaki Valley if you paid them. The region is nail-bitingly marginal and many of the country’s most successful companies have decided the risks are too high. But others who are braver, or possibly slightly unhinged, have put their money and love into this remote area of the south island.
As I wrote in the New Zealand Herald last year, the region excels at both aromatic whites, which include Riesling, Pinot Gris and Gewurztraminer, as well as reds from Pinot Noir. Production is small scale – at the last count there were just 110ha of vines in the whole region compared to Marlborough’s – which means these wines don’t come cheap. What’s more, Waitaki producers have to contend with hostile weather: rain, frost, wind and hungry birds make ripening rapes a risky business. If the handful of producers in the Waitaki Valley make it to harvest unscathed, the resulting wines show a restrained perfume, elegance and palate-cleansing acidity.
I am an unashamed fan of the handful of producers that are battling adversity to make some interesting wines. It’s also a part of New Zealand that remains unspoilt. Off the beaten track, the former post office in the small town of Kurow has been transformed into a tasting centre for the region’s producers and is worth a detour off State Highway 1 next time you’re in North Otago.
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The New Zealand wine industry has got its knickers in a twist over Jancis Robinson’s remarks about the country’s beloved Pinot Noir in a recent blind tasting.
She didn’t like them too much and was ‘disappointed’.
‘Bright and breezy, the wines were rarely subtle,’ she said, ‘even though there were representatives from the Kiwi Pinot aristocracy such as Ata Rangi, Dog Point, Fromm and Felton Road,’ she said in her column in the Financial Times.
The Kiwis aren’t too happy since they are trying to carve a niche for themselves as the New World’s best Pinot specialist. Oregon whipped New Zealand’s butt and it’s major news in New Zealand wine circles.
So, the timing of a blind tasting of New Zealand Pinot Noirs yesterday couldn’t have been better. Media, MW students, winemakers and sommeliers trooped down to a wet and windy Wellington to taste and rate Kiwi Pinots.
While there were a handful of crackers including (unsuprisingly) Ata Rangi, the Kiwi wines were all beaten by two Burgundies that they’d slipped in sneakily. In general, we were all rather underwhelmed by the standard despite some of the respected names like Seresin’s Sun & Moon, Bell Hill, Pyramid Valley, Neudorf Moutere Home Block and Felton Road’s Block 5 taking part. When you can’t see the bottles and there are no preconceptions, they were suddenly getting low marks.
Did we find much ‘terroir’? Well, the Central Otago flight (we didn’t know it was a Central flight at the time) was dark in colour but that was about all the sense of place I got. John Saker, Cuisine magazine’s wine writer claimed the ‘deep, dark fruit’ was ‘a true expression of what Central does effortlessly’ whereas others saw them as ego wines. The expression of winemaker seemed to be more obvious in the wines than any sense of ‘this is Marlborough, this is Martinborough’ and so on.
However, Larry McKenna, dubbed the ‘Prince of Pinot’ argued: ‘When we see what district is what then perhaps we can find a thread through each of the flights and I think there is enough comment to find that the last flight was Central Otago.’
He added: ‘There’s one more point to make that at the moment all New Zealand districts do varietal character in abundance but in 20, 30, 50 years’ time, you will see more presence of place than expression of varietal.’
But are we trying to find terroir too soon in New Zealand? It’s still relatively young and these things take time. In addition, when you think about Marlborough or Central Otago, these regions are enormous compared to say the Cote D’Or in Burgundy. There are different climates in different valleys, different soils, vine ages, different clones and no appellation laws to help make the wines seem more ‘Pommard’ like.
Personally, I’d like to see a lot of winemakers lay off the new French oak. Many wines don’t have the fruit content to handle all these new barrels. I don’t want a Pinot to taste of lime toast or coffee and I certainly don’t want it to look like a Merlot.
I’ll put some of my tasting notes up and marks up in the next blog with the wine revealed afterwards.
New Zealand has become renowned for its Pinot Noir. There are some great examples out there â€“ Felton Road and Ata Rangi are the true greats while Waitaki Pinot from Ostler and Valli, and Pyramid Valley are up there in my opinion. But there is a lot of expensive dross.
I was invited to judge for tizwine.com yesterday and while I can’t reveal the outcome, after almost 60 Pinot Noirs, I felt depressed. Admittedly we were tasting the 2008 vintage, which wasn’t great by any means but my God they were boring.
Too many ‘blah’ wines as one of my fellow judges aptly put it: â€œlacklustreâ€, â€œsoftâ€, â€œfalls away on the finishâ€, note after note read. And a rather strange metallic note ran through one of the flights. If you’re a winemaker and can tell me why, we judges would be interested to know. Of course, there were a few good wines but nothing that would suggest New Zealand is renowned globally for its Pinot Noir.
Perhaps it was the selection that was sent in but there are clearly major improvements needed to bring the general standard up. And the prices that are being asked for them? The phrase ‘daylight robbery’ springs to mind.
Many doctors give up their career to concentrate on improving their golf swing and playing with the grandchildren but Jim Jerram is not your average medicine man.
After 29 years as a GP in New Zealand and as far afield as Kunde hospital, on the trail to Everest Base Camp, Jerram moved to grape growing in 2001 in a venture with his brother-in-law, Jeff Sinnott (Amisfield’s winemaker).
You wouldn’t get me setting up a vineyard in a million years â€“ it’s way too much like hard work and drains your coffers before you can even get a grape off the vines. To make things even more difficult, they planted in an area where no-one had planted vines before.
In a previous blog, I have written about Waitaki â€“ a new and upcoming region on the edge of viticultural possibility. Jerram set up shop here with eight hectares of Pinot Gris and Pinot Noir on limestone soils.
â€œOur mission was to do Pinot Noir on limestone,â€ said Jerram, who sells his wine under the label Ostler. â€œWe saw the site and thought it was a mini Cote d’Or. It’s on an escarpment too above the main valley floor so we get away from frost pockets.â€
Some of the big companies have checked the area out and decided it is too marginal, Jerram revealed, and in 2007 there was barely a berry harvested in the valley thanks to rain ruining flowering.
Jerram clearly has exacting standards and this is an area that really needs attention to detail with cool weather, frosts, powerful winds and bronze beetles ready to pounce every day. Touring the region’s vineyards, it’s evident that absentee owners are not going to succeed: vines are looking very sorry for themselves and growth is slow.
The proof is in the glass with those who care most reaping the rewards. Ostler’s ‘06 Caroline Pinot Noir and ‘08 Audrey Pinot Gris getting a 18-18.5 out of 20 while; the 08 Valli Pinot Noir also getting an 18+. Pasquale also scored highly with its whites, particularly the 08 Alma Mater â€“ a blend of Riesling, Gewurz and Pinot Gris – but its reds were a bit heavy on the oak (great fruit but 40% new French is too toasty for me). Craggy Range also makes some good wines here.
Hot on the heels of its first winery and cellar door opening in November, Jerram has set up a Regional Tasting centre in Kurow. The Vintners Drop opened at the end of December and you can taste wines from every producer in one place for the first time. I hope all the producers support it, as the region needs to improve its profile.