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.
“Nelson consistently wins more awards than other wine region in New Zealand, per hectare of vines planted,” the region’s wine association announces on the first page of its glossy wine tasting journal.
The journal arrived on my doorstep with 15 aromatic whites from the region, and I was hoping these wines would impress. I have been to Nelson just once despite living in New Zealand for nearly three years, and on that occasion, I left feeling disappointed with the overall quality of the region’s wines with the exception of Neudorf’s top wines and Seifried’s sweet Riesling. So, when this case arrived, branded as the “First XV” in a nod to the country’s passion for rugby, it was the perfect opportunity to give Nelson a second try.
Nelson sits in the northwest corner of New Zealand’s South Island. It’s just 90 minutes’ drive west of Marlborough, the country’s major wine-exporting region, which is now synonymous with zingy Sauvignon Blanc. Most Nelson wineries sit fewer than 6 kilometres from the coast, creating a temperate climate and the area also boasts the country’s most sunshine hours.
Unfortunately, the Nelson First XV were not nearly successful as the country’s rugby team, the All Blacks. Certainly, there were no world beating wines here – no Dan Carters kicking a goal or Richie McCaws leading the line-up. I couldn’t find any cause for excitement from the selection, which included a Gruner Veltliner, several Rieslings, Pinot Gris and Gewurztraminers.
In fairness, they are pure, fresh and have moderate alcohol levels but so do many other aromatic whites in New Zealand and the rest of the world. There’s no sense of the unique somewhereness that every wine lover searches for.
I enjoyed the 2011 Kahurangi Estate Dry Riesling, which had fine acidity, taut structure, and a raspberry coulis and white peach character while the 2009 Waimea Classic Riesling was similarly taut and linear with just 12% alcohol, and piercing lime, lemon and white peach characters, giving both a 17 out of 20 – so, a low silver in the medal stakes.
The selection of Pinot Gris were easygoing and balanced but had nothing to offer that I couldn’t find elsewhere while the Gewurztraminers were simple, lacking concentration, and on a number of occasions were unbalanced – managing phenolics and residual sugar are two elements that need attention. There were also pear drop and boiled sweet aromas in too many wines. This is a tell-tale sign of cool fermentation, and can be found in whites across the world. These characteristics say more about the winemaking than the region, and I’d like to see producers moving away from these low temperatures.
I shared the samples with my colleagues, which include a Geisenheim-trained, ex-Frescobaldi viticulturist, a French winemaker that has worked under the Lurtons and Michel Rolland in Bordeaux, and several sommeliers. Their verdict? Similarly underwhelmed.
“There’s nothing you can eat with these wines. There’s too much flavour, too much sugar,” said one.
“I’m not excited,” said another. Indeed the wow factor was lacking in the wines, in sharp contrast to the region’s scenery. Nelson is a beautiful region sitting at the top of New Zealand’s South Island and attracts plenty of tourists heading to the region to walk or kayak the Abel Tasman or kick back in this artsy community.
Most wineries in Nelson are small and sell all their production to a loyal local customer base and passing tourist trade. However, if they have ambitions to be as highly esteemed as the country’s rugby team on an international scale, there is still work to be done.
The 2011 vintage in Central Otago could be a whopper, which it needs like a hole in the head.
Near perfect weather at flowering, and recent rains boosting the berry size has created a bumper crop with up to 10 tonnes/70hl of Pinot Noir per ha and 14-15 tonnes/ha of Pinot Gris in some areas, including Bannockburn and the Pisa ranges. If all this fruit stayed on the vine, it would lead to an unwanted ocean of Central Otago wine.
Graeme Crosbie, owner of Domain Road in Bannockburn says “We need to be careful not to overcrop. 2008 was the year where we learned we shouldn’t do that.”
Every producer I have spoken to in the region is now in the process of cutting bunches off the vines to cut their Pinot Noir yields by as much as half to attain four to six tonne per hectare.
But what if they don’t give a damn about the oversupply? Could they leave the fruit on the vine and make loads of wine? Unlikely.
If they leave all this fruit on it simply won’t ripen, particularly with the season looking pretty cool. But it is inevitable grape growers looking to sell their grapes on the spot market will eke as much as they can out of the vines to make any money they can.
While the vast majority of producers are furiously crop thinning, biodynamic grower Nick Mills of Rippon Estate hasn’t had so much work to do. Why? “We don’t irrigate so the vines were stressed in spring time and that affected flowering was very good. We will do some crop thinning but simply to create better air flow rather than cutting yield.”
Remember, there’s still another eight weeks to go until harvest and anything could happen between now and then….
Winemakers generally dislike Pinot Gris: it’s not that aromatic, normally has low acidity and let’s face it, it doesn’t set anyone’s world on fire in the same way as Riesling or Pinot Noir.
But it sells. And that means it’s a money spinner which keeps the wine business in business. Last week I ended up in a bit of a debate with a Master of Wine and a few other journalists about Pinot Gris. It ain’t my grape of choice but if people like drinking it, who am I to argue?
My friends love it: they’re successful, smart women in their late ‘20s and early ‘30s and Pinot Gris or Grigio is an easy-drinking wine that doesn’t cause any major issues to their palates. It’s great with food, makes some fabulous late harvest wines and I’m happy to drink it. I admit I’m not the biggest fan and this trend may be a passing phase before we move on to the next grape du jour but getting snobby about it makes the wine industry seem very far-removed from reality.
What’s more, in Alsace Pinot Gris is considered one of the four noble varieties. When I was speaking to Paul Pujol, winemaker at Prophet’s Rock (see blog 15 March 2010), and former winemaker at Alsace producer Kuentz Bas, he said: “The big discovery in going to Alsace was tasting older Pinot Gris. I was surprised by how it tastes if it’s grown in the right sites.”
We may try to sell Riesling and Pinot Noir to wine drinkers but we’re fighting an uphill battle. Let’s educate the consumer, says the wine industry, but most people have more pressing things to do with their time than learn about grape varieties. If people are drinking Pinot Gris then at least they are drinking wine and not beer or bourbon. They can then move on to the delights of other varieties in time.
I haven’t met many Kiwis who can hold a decent conversation in French but Paul Pujol is one of them.
The winemaker at Prophet’s Rock has a French father and became the first non-family winemaker at Kuentz Bas in Alsace since it was established in the late eighteenth century. He’s now brought a little piece of Alsace to Central Otago, producing pure Riesling and Pinot Gris, as well as the signature grape of Central - Pinot Noir - from low cropped vines and wild ferments.
Allowing the ferments to occur naturally does not sit easy with many New (and Old) World winemakers. It takes about 10 days for the fermentation to start and is likely to take three months to complete. If I were a winemaker, I’d be too scared of it all going pear-shaped.
The winery’s distributor in New Zealand, Ryan Quinn of Merchant Wines, also thinks it’s brave winemaking. “Having a bunch of wild ferments on the go requires big balls,” he said.
He claims that New Zealand has been lacking enough winemakers with the balls to really do some crazy stuff. I’ve met a few along the way already: Andrew Hedley at Framingham and Mike Weersing at Pyramid Valley are just two of many. Perhaps there needs to be a few more of them but wineries need to make money and taking risks isn’t always a great commercial strategy.
Quinn added: “It has been imperative that the New Zealand wine industry throws out some wineries that push boundaries a bit further.
“Missing from the equation is a new generation of fanatics. What I recognise in Prophet’s Rock is some of that fanaticism.” Of course he would say that - he’s trying to promote these wines but I take his point.
The recent releases: the ‘09 Dry Riesling has a lovely purity and perfume with lime, lavender and minerality. It is light and nimble on the palate with lively acidity and a refreshingly low 11.2% alcohol. Clean as a whistle. 18.5/20
The ‘09 Pinot Gris was only bottled three weeks ago but no signs of bottle shock. Attractive pear and apple puree notes on the nose with some white rose in the mouth. This is really lean for a Pinot Gris – it’s not broad or fat at all – likely due to a lower pH than you’d normally see from a Gris (pH 3.25 for you MW geeks). While there’s 14g/l of residual sugar it only seems just off-dry thanks to that refreshing acidity. 18.5/20.